How Imagism Can Help Create Precise Messages

Erik Wirsing - Chief Content Officer, Sappington

Thanks to the Internet, some would say that there has never been an easier time to market our products and services. However, a good friend of mine (who also happens to be what I consider a brilliant marketer) reminded me that there is another side to this argument. He told me that today is actually the hardest time in human history to market products and services. Why? Well, because there are so many products and services.

The million-dollar question remains: how do you stand out in this roiling sea?

We spend a lot of time talking about finding differentiated value propositions for products and services. Achieving message clarity. Creating benefit statements that help customers understand what’s in it for them. To me, good messages are like poetry. I am moved by the message. I’m not coerced or persuaded. I don’t need it explained to me. It’s something I can feel and envision. The precise imagery of the message moves me to share and to take action.

So, if messages are poetry, why aren’t we learning how to write messages that really move people?

I wanted to look back in time to find a movement in poetry that focused on clarity and precision of the subject matter. This led me to Imagism. Wikipedia defines it as “a movement in early 20th-century Anglo-American poetry that favored precision of imagery and clear, sharp language.” It draws from the precision of ancient Asian and Jewish poetry, like the haiku, for instance.

In March of 1913, and essay entitled “Imagisme” was written to provide guidelines on the subject, and I believe we can benefit from it as marketers.

Firstly, we do better when we lend direct treatment to the "thing," whether subjective or objective. What is the “thing” in this context? It’s your product or service. With this in mind, you won’t waste time talking about anything but the product or service. You will simply skip the setup or the attempt to explain the background. You will be beautifully limited to using only words that contribute to the presentation of the thing or its intrinsic value.

It’s a lot like the book Not What I was Planning, which is a compilation of six-word memoirs by writers and notable personas. Forcing yourself to come up with six words to describe your life story doesn’t need to be frustrating or limiting. It can be liberating, and also shows focus and intelligence. It’s like our friend Polonius said in Hamlet: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

So jettison the jargon and fluffy marketing speak. Be brief. Can you describe your offering in six words or less? 10 words are better than 50. Hard? Maybe. But better.

Next, as regarding rhythm, the poet must compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome.

We often forget that we need a sense of rhythm to our messages. When this statement was written, the proponents of Imagism were suggesting that poets move away from rhyme and meter because it was so constraining. In terms of our products and services, we have to be bold and try a different structure that creates a rhythm that matches our offering.

Take Williams Carlos Williams, for example. He was an American poet who helped shape this movement, and his simple poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” is a great example of Imagism in action.

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

In 16 common words and four rhythmic verses, Williams was able to paint an extremely vivid image for us. We immediately see vibrant colors, lively animals, and perhaps a picturesque farm surrounded by crops and fields. Williams directs us to the things—a wheelbarrow and chickens—and our minds take care of the details, filling in the rest of the picture based on our own experiences.

Next time you’re working through refining your product or service message, use these Imagism guidelines as inspiration to a clearer, moving image.

For more information on Imagism, check out Wikipedia and Poets.org.

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Erik Wirsing
Chief Content Officer
Storytelling Master

I have one of the best jobs a guy could ask for. I get to use my passion for writing and storytelling to help clients communicate their sometimes complex value propositions to their customers in human ways. Every day I get the opportunity to collaborate with our very talented internal creative team to deliver materials with soul and staying power, whether decks, sales tools, thought leadership or other collateral.

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