Editor's note: Nancy Cox is the founder of Research Story Consulting. She can be reached at email@example.com.
While researchers are often described as “numbers people,” in truth they wrangle both numbers and words. Just like writers. Writers wield the power of numbers almost invisibly – like magic creating a spell over readers: the undeniable impact of a one-syllable word, the story element of dualities or the rhythm of three-part phrases. Imagine if you had X-ray glasses that let you see these magic numbers at work underneath engaging and memorable writing. While there is no coupon for X-ray glasses at the end of this article, there are explanations and examples throughout it that will let you see how writers write by the numbers.
The writing number of power
Words. Sentences. Paragraphs. Each can be more powerful using the number one. Starting with words, one-syllable words are more powerful than multisyllabic words. This power goes beyond using simpler words. One-syllable words are survivors. In English, many one-syllable words are derived from Old and Middle English. As in before-the-Battle-of-Hastings-in-1066 old. They sound powerful as most have a consonant-vowel-consonant construction that crisps pronunciation.
Read aloud the word swaps below; breath and volume naturally drop at the end of the longer words. That drop weakens impact.
link vs. connection
start vs. activate
end vs. conclusion
rose vs. increased
fell vs. decreased
How can you quickly find the long words that could be weakening your writing? Use the proofreader hack of reading backwards. Without context, longer words stand out. Want to know if you’re a habitual polysyllabic writer? Most writing software has a readability score function (also labeled Flesch-Kincaid) that reports a count of syllables-per-word.
To find a short word to replace the long word, look up the long word. Dictionaries use short words in definitions – those defining words can be strong substitutes. Online dictionaries also provide synonyms. Plus, dictionaries have the advantage over a thesaurus as dictionaries detail a word’s language of origin. Look for the short synonym with Old English (OE) or Middle English (ME) roots. In the example word swaps above, all of the one-syllable words have Old English roots.
Playing games like Wordle is not only fun but it also builds your one-syllable word knowledge and counts as time spent on honing your professional writing skills! In a recent 30-day period, all but two Wordle words were derived from Old English or Middle English. Emphatic-sounding words like: grand, wrong, crumb, tract, frost, guard.
The power of one also applies to the last word in a sentence. A sentence’s last word functions like the peak-end rule of consumer experiences. It lingers. The last word in survey or discussion guide questions is the springboard for respondents’ answers. In an RFP, last words underscore decision-making and differentiating points. In a report, a bullet point’s last word makes the point. Any word you would underscore or highlight is an ideal candidate for a last word.
The last-word rule can guide you on where to end a quote or verbatim in reports. Let your respondent have a strong last word rather than trailing off. While it may sound more conversational to present a quote this way: “When packaging changes color, that’s confusing to me,” editing it to “When packaging changes color, that’s confusing” nails the point. Also, remember to format quotes so that the attribution is on a separate line in a smaller font, so visually the quote ends with a strong word from the speaker such as “confusing” vs. the attribution “Gen X shopper.”
Don’t be afraid to start a sentence and end a sentence with the same word. Example: “Price is the No. 1 consideration – shoppers trade convenience for price.” Starting and ending with the same word creates an envelope sentence or epanalepsis. This repetition taps into primacy (first word) and recency (last word) in recall.
Using a strong last word also works for paragraphs. Try starting and ending a paragraph with that same word. Use the shortest word, preferably a one-syllable one. And don’t sweat final-paragraph words when writing first drafts. Scanning paragraphs for strong last words is a quick but effective revision technique.
The writing number of story
Researchers often employ the magic number of two – methodologies that use paired choice or presentations with side-by-side insight comparisons, etc. Lurking within these familiar dualities are story elements:
- Opposing forces/choices where only one can win? In story, this is conflict.
- Cause and effect? In story, this is plot.
- Differences and similarities (i.e., compare and contrast) between target markets, brands, etc.? In story, this is character.
These story elements can be buried by showing every comparison in one chart. Certainly, there is a need and demand for the data in a detailed chart. Yet consider how an organization famous for detailed grid comparison charts, Consumer Reports, isolates a single conflict story to lure readers and to advance their recommendations. For example, in the Consumer Reports brief-recommendation article on best cars for teen drivers, the story is the conflict between safety and cost. Consumer Reports further ladders this POV to the most primal opposing forces – life or death. The reader gets the recommendation of how safety can triumph in almost every cost range and, if more detail is desired, a link to the robust chart.
How do you isolate these stories in research? Project deliverables often contain twosomes – launch or not; target market appeal or not; product/service used as expected or not; campaign A or B. You may need to boil down the jargon-filled wording of RFPs to find the dualities. Try this writer’s craft secret: rewrite esoteric or bureaucratic language into an opposite voice. Adopt the voice of a terse, plain-spoken character. Think about the actor Clint Eastwood. How would one of his characters put an RFP or client brief into plain talk?
After identifying the inherent dualities in deliverables, sort by duality type. Opposing force? Cause and effect? Compare and contrast? If the answer is that “all of the above” are stuffed in this project, lead with the opposing force conflict story. Humans attune to conflict stories as these stories teach us how to survive. How to win. This is why the Scripps National Spelling Bee changed its rules in 2021 to reduce the odds of co-champions. Thus, the triumph story of a single champion overcoming an opponent in a 90-second spell-off in 2022 vs. explaining how the rules allowed eight co-champions in 2019. Story is more engaging than explanation.
Some methodologies naturally yield results that march into a report two-by-two like Noah’s animals: A/B testing; the family of conjoint research including MaxDiff; implicit association; forced-choice questions in surveys. Open-end question answers, however, may be more subtle in revealing dualities. Respondents’ language yields some verbal cues when analyzing those answers.
Opposing forces/conflict verbal signals: winner/loser; torn between/forced to decide; trade-off/choice; had to pick/came down to; on one hand/on the other hand; versus and the simple word: or. Sports metaphors and battle metaphors, of course, also flag opposing-force dualities.
Cause and effect verbal signals: If someone shares an example story, often there is cause and effect. Read for temporal words or phrases: when, then, now, “I used to…” Also look for words projecting the future: hope, ideally, always, never, again, “in a perfect world,” anticipate, “see it coming.” Finally, humans link place with time, substituting where for when. For example, respondents may not mention a time word but instead describe cause and effect with a reference to a place – “I was at the store…” – before going on to describe a cause and effect.
To elicit more reflective cause-and-effect details during the research, include several flashback questions beyond “describe how you normally…” For example, in a holiday decorating ethnography study, the additional flashback question “What did you do to prepare for our visit?” helped to reveal if the décor was typical or altered due to the study visit. More importantly, that flashback question transitioned smoothly into probes about the cause-and-effect of holiday guests and decorating, prompting cause-and-effect stories of changes over time more specific than “Normally, I would...”
Contrasting people: Detailing differences in target consumers is the bread and butter of many reports. The writer’s craft secret is to acknowledge the contrast between research respondents and stakeholders. Writers know that a reader is evaluating every character, even subconsciously: “Is this character like me or not like me? Is this how I would behave or not?” Stakeholders do the same. Consider using a writing technique of charting research respondent (character) in one column, then the stakeholder (reader) in a second column. What is shared? What is different? Use the tremendous advantage that researchers have over writers in that researchers know much, much more about stakeholders than writers know about their readers.
Differences make respondents intriguing. Without differences there is the risk of stakeholders feeling “I could have told you that without doing all this research!” Similarities make respondents relatable. Without similarities, there is the risk of stakeholders thinking “Who are these oddballs?” Beware if respondents come off as a better person than stakeholders. Share the character flaw or vulnerability that makes them human. (This is why the most compelling superheroes have Achilles’ heels, express doubts or dread contact with kryptonite. Despite their abilities, they’re still a bit like us!) Does the research participant come off as someone the stakeholder would rather not associate with? Find something the stakeholder sees as a redeeming quality. A popular series of books on writing describes this redeeming quality as the moment when an unlikable or unrelatable character “saves the cat.” For example, there may a judgment among stakeholders about Walmart shoppers. Show them how a Walmart customer is shopping there because it’s the only store selling baby formula that is open when she finishes her work shift at 11 p.m.
The writing number of rhythm
The rule of three is to writers what the Fibonacci sequence is to nature. Threes are embedded in writing. Three bears. Three wishes. Three acts in a play. Three beats in humor. Writers spend so much time with threes that guidelines have emerged that help them juggle them – again, almost invisibly like the juggler, so that attention is on the three items not the juggler’s (or writer’s) hands.
A classic (so old-school it has a Greek name – hendiatris), it is the writing technique that emphasizes the same point three times. Such as the answer to the three most important things in real estate: “Location. Location. Location.” And 2023 will be summed up: “AI. AI. AI.” Perhaps you can express the decision-making process of your B2B research as: “Budget. Budget. Budget.”
A variation is using three very closely related words or synonyms. Examples:
Snap! Crackle! Pop!
“Friends, Romans, countrymen…”
Every Tom, Dick and Harry.
In no way, shape or form.
Dollars. Cents. Budget.
Hendiatris is not limited to headlines or slogans. This repetition of three can be used in a twist on forced-choice questions. In this imaginary example, a researcher for the snack, Snacklepuffs, pipes the consumer’s top five answers from a lengthy attribute list of Snacklepuffs. The question then reads:
On a billboard for Snacklepuffs, what should be the headline? (select one only)
□ Cheese. Cheese. Cheese.
□ Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
□ Salty. Salty. Salty.
□ Red Bag. Red Bag. Red Bag.
□ Happy Times. Happy Times. Happy Times.
More often, research yields more than a single, repeatable idea. Perhaps the Snacklepuffs research revealed three equally important differentiating attributes for Snacklepuffs:
- Grilled cheese sandwich flavor
- Reminds fans of happy memories with a bag design that has not changed
- Crunchiness lasts over several days after the bag is opened
How would a writer juggle those three items for maximum reader retention? First, write all three items in parallel structure. Parallel structure makes it easier for the reader to take in the key points – it reduces the cognitive load. In the example below, the structure is noun-verb-modifying phrase.
- Flavor tastes like a grilled cheese sandwich
- Bag brings happy memories
- Crunch lasts days after bag is opened
Reviewing the open-ends again, the imaginary writer/researcher notices consumers using the word “same” repeatedly and writes a new threesome incorporating the word “same.”
- Flavor is the same as a grilled cheese sandwich
- Bag is the same bag from childhood
- Crunch is the same days after bag opened
Looking at the second choice, there’s an overarching theme emerging. Aha! A theme that Snacklepuffs stays the same. Suggesting this headline:
“Snacklepuffs are differentiated by what stays the same: flavor, bag design, crunch”
Further revising, layer another writing-craft secret on that headline to order the three items to be more memorable. Three options to try: order by length, difference and sound.
Option 1: Order by syllable length. In this example, there is a natural build from one syllable to two syllables to three. Or the reverse makes a pattern of three to two to one.
- “Snacklepuffs are differentiated by what stays the same: crunch, flavor, bag design”
- “Snacklepuffs are differentiated by what stays the same: bag design, flavor and crunch”
Option 2: Which item is different? Order with the “odd man out” as the last item.
- Healthy, wealthy and wise (the only one-syllable word is last)
- Faith, hope and charity (the only polysyllabic word is last)
- The Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria (the only two-word name is last)
- Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (the only phrase is last)
The Snacklepuffs headline could order the only phrase last or the one-syllable word last.
- “ Snacklepuffs are differentiated by what stays the same: crunch, flavor, bag design”
- “Snacklepuffs are differentiated by what stays the same: flavor, bag design and crunch”
Option 3: Which order sounds best when read aloud? In this case, it’s crunch. The onomatopoeia of crunch works like an exclamation point. After reading aloud, the winning headline has a rhythm of three, two to one syllable, with the bonus of a last word satisfying as a Snacklepuff.
- “Snacklepuffs are differentiated by what stays the same: bag design, flavor and crunch”
Now that the Snacklepuff threesome is in a strong order, one final writing-craft option is the conjunction. Try adding “and” between each of the three items.
- “Snacklepuffs are differentiated by what stays the same: bag design and flavor and crunch”
Feels a bit pompous for Snacklepuffs but for another topic, this repetition may add lyricism and gravity.
It’s your turn
While not quite as easy as having X-ray reading glasses, these techniques and examples demonstrate how writers use numbers. Now it’s your turn. Scan your writing for the power of one-syllable words and last words. See how dualities add the story elements of plot, conflict and character. Track how the rule of three adds rhythm to the words. You’ll be on your way to crafting communication that enlightens, engages and informs.