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Word Hacking — How to Spice Up Your Speech

June 5, 2023
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6 min read
Photo by Artem Labunsky on Unsplash
Words are the wild horses of thought; once you catch them, you must ride them.
Annie Dillard

Choose zesty words, not sterile ones.

This is the rhetorical sleight of hand that buries earworms in your head. The attention-grabbing word-play that packages your point of view. The linguistic trickery that plants a thought in your mind.

You hear word hacks all the time as they slip into your consciousness.

You sit, sipping an oat-milk, pumpkin-spice latte. Doomscrolling through headlines of “Prompt engineering could be the hottest job in tech, with a paycheck to match.” “Kim Kardashian, Sponcon, and the Rules of Being an Influencer” and “A polarized US hurtles toward a fiscal cliff.” Your phone pings. A friend texts, lamenting the shoepidity of their latest purchase. You sip again and wonder if you should trade that smartphone in for a dumbphone.

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Note: For fun, I’ve used a lot of word hacks. They are in italics. Definitions here.

Novelty equals attention.

These made-up words work because we’re not used to them. They trip off the tongue and sound interesting to the listener. They work on the brain, telling it to “sit up, switch off autopilot, and translate this.”

We’re wired for novelty. A hit of dopamine seeps into the mind as the pattern is disrupted, and we seek to successfully understand each new word. More gray matter lights up.

The prefrontal cortex, involved in attention and working memory, kicks in. It helps us keep the new word in mind long enough to understand it in context and to learn its meaning.

The hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory and learning, gets involved in processing the new word, working to integrate it with our existing knowledge and store it in our long-term memory.

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All that brain activity sifts signal from noise. It helps the story stick.

Time to do some word-hacking.

Making up new words (that’s neologisms for the wordanistas out there) isn’t a cyberspace invention. Although the Internet does seem to spawn more than its fair share. Literature has given us Scrooges, Polyannas, and Snarks. Science and technology have given us lidar, Google, and Photoshop.

Why do we do it? So people can grok what you’re talking about.

To wordhack.

Neologism. A new word.

They come, often, in two forms.  The portmanteau—think of two words slammed together to form a new one, with the edges shorn off. Metaverse or Affluenza. Then we have compound nouns. These are wordhacks made from two words standing side by side. Think digital dexterity or zoom ceiling.

Used sparingly by clever speakers, writers, and educators, the wordhack screams, “Look at me, listen, pay attention.” The best ones are not only unusual but have enough familiar parts to make them understandable and memorable.

How can you play along?

Let’s start with a few simple portmanteaus.

There are some near-universal endings to add. Adding a “-y” turns a name into an adjective. So, for example, we might want to transition the business to be more SaaSy, meaning we need to take on the attributes of a successful Software as a Service business.

Or we can “-ify” things. If we Amazonify something, it takes on aspects of Amazon. Depending on context, that means a relentless focus on operational excellence or innovation or getting a product ready for e-commerce.

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Let’s turn it up a notch.

An “-athon” implies a long, intense process. “We’re going to figure out how to build AI into our work processes in a hackathon.” Or “Boy, Julie’s offsite was a real meetathon.”

Add an “-ology” or “-omics” if you want to give something or someone some extra IQ points. “We need to understand the buyology of our customers.” “Jim’s leading our RTO effort; he has a master's in deskology.” “We’ve hired a consultant to help with our internal communications; she will help clean up our jargonomics.”

The tech industry, and by extension, consulting, and by extension, every company using technology, loves its “-ications;” the conversion from one state to a future, better state. Think gamification, tokenization, digitization, and virtualization.

The list goes on. Add an “-Ops” to a word and hint at an operationalized, automated, streamlined, better version of that word. DevOps, GitOps, and TeamOps.

Want to turn a noun into a tasty adjective? Try “-alicious.”

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Runs some type of code, use “-ware.” Software, malware, and wetware.

Noodle with “-preneur” (solopreneur, intrapreneur), “-cast”(podcast, webcast, narrowcast), and “tech” (Fintech, Edtech, Agtech)

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Compound nouns are fun too.

First, pick a modifier. Digital, Data, Social, or AI will do. Stand a base word next to it. The thing that Digital or AI modifies. Think dexterity, debt, snacking, and washing.

Mix them together, and what have you got?

Digital dexterity—the ability for organizations and employees to pivot quickly using digital tools.

Data debt—the build-up of data-related problems over time, including quality, categorization, and security issues.

Social snacking—brief, informal, positive interactions which contribute to a sense of happiness, belonging, and identity.

AI washing—the marketing claim of artificial intelligence (AI) technology when they really don't or the connection to AI is minimal.

Or just stick the word digital in front of a bunch of other modifiers: Nomad, footprint, divide, first, or hub.

Digital nomads—people who travel freely while working remotely using technology and the internet.

Digital footprint—some or all of the actions left as you use and interact with various technical systems.

Digital divide—the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the internet and those who do not.

The list goes on, but I won’t.

A warning on clichés.

Once you have your wordhack, it’s time to use it. But shed it as soon as it becomes cliché.

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Coinage: This is the stage where a new word, phrase, or idiom is created and introduced into the language. This could be due to cultural trends, specific contexts, or an individual's invention.

Fad: The hot stage, where the word, phrase, or idiom gains temporary popularity and becomes a trend. It captures the interest and enthusiasm of a specific group or community.

Common use: Here, the word, phrase, or idiom is widely accepted. It’s consulting-speak, used in various contexts and beyond a fad.

Stale: The word, phrase, or idiom is overused, predictable, and lacking freshness.

cliché: At this final stage, the word, phrase, or idiom becomes worn out. It lacks punch. It’s trite due to its pervasive and unoriginal usage.

Always use with context...

Great storytellers do this. They will drop in a new word or a term of art as a nod to the in-crowd. Subtly signaling, “I am one of you; I know my stuff.” But they aren’t exclusive. They surround the new word with simple language, enough to welcome new members to the club.

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Beware—a blizzard of brand-new (as you will appreciate if you have made it here) is too much. It will overwhelm your story. But just enough novelty cracks the code for attention.

The trick is to remove the clichés, sprinkle in one or two wordhacks (for novelty and attention) and aim for simple.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

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