Think back to your high school or even college literature and writing classes. You likely heard the term “diction” at one point or another. As for a definition, your understanding maybe boiled down to “diction means word choice,” and that was that.
Now, when you think about how to write engaging content, that choice belongs to brand guidelines. These signposts may give general specifications, such as dictating an authoritative voice. They may be more prescriptive, detailing words to exclude. Explicitly or implicitly, diction is part of how your organization creates its voice.
From one content piece to the next, you adhere to these guidelines. You also make word-to-word decisions. You hope your brand voice rules came into existence with the same scrutiny.
For instance, when the original chief marketing officer built the guide, “cost-effective solutions” beat “affordable solutions” because it resonated with your prospects and customers better. However, the choice may have come down to which phrase sounded “smarter.”
Diction goes deeper than whether you’re not fond of “acceptable” because that’s how a date once ranked your home-cooked meals. This aspect of writing craft considers factors like etymology, sound and connotations to create an authentic, consistent voice that aligns with your brand and the goal of each piece of content.
What is diction?
To be clear, “word choice” isn’t an inaccurate definition for diction. It’s just barebones.
The comprehensive description includes the word that underscores the craft behind all successful writing and marketing: intent. Diction is the strategic decision-making attached to every word that appears in copy. If a word sounds smart, why? Will the target audience have the same reaction, and why?
Questions like these underpin diction and tie into two ways it impacts brand identity:
Intent comes into play when you use data or other methods to determine which words and phrases you want to associate with your organization. For instance, Salesforce cited the difference between how readers perceive “benefits” and “specifications” as an example of how diction can improve engagement. The former may work better if you’re in the B2C space selling pet supplies, while the latter can appeal to a B2B audience.
In terms of overall brand strategy, this aspect of diction applies to building voice, which tends to be more consistent from one piece of content to the next. The types of words used in all content should have enough similarities so that any reader can recognize the voice. Content structure, syntax, point of view and other factors work with diction to establish voice.
Voice can be more thematic. Word complexity and formality, for example, take broader strokes than connotations.
Unlike voice, tone is more likely to vary. This term refers to an attitude toward a specific subject. If your organization has a stance on an issue like hydraulic fracturing, content you write about the topic should reflect that sentiment.
However, you’ll want to remain consistent with voice. More targeted decision-making in conjunction with thematic choices brings you to the middle ground.
How can you think about diction?
Whether you’re creating new brand guidelines, updating old ones or determining how existing frameworks can influence your diction in a piece of content, you can consider word choice in a few ways. Here are some tips to direct your thinking:
If you’re a fan of watching the National Spelling Bee or have ever been confused about what the study of insects is called, you’ve probably heard of etymology. This term refers to a word’s origins and how its meaning has evolved throughout time.
Print dictionaries and web searches for definitions can tell you the root languages from which a word derives in addition to the meanings. For instance, “marketing” has a Latin origin.
So why does etymology matter?
Historical and cultural significance is part of what makes certain speech sound more formal. One notable example comes from the time of William the Conqueror in England, who reigned from 1066 to 1087. Because the Norman nobility spoke only French and made no attempt to learn English, French became the high speech, while Anglo-Saxon dialects fell out of favor among the ruling class. Over time, many French-derived words carried that air of sophistication as a result.
Latinate and Greek origins have similar context. In fact, many complex-sounding words, like “saturate,” have Latin roots. Meanwhile, its synonym, the shorter “soak,” comes from Old English.
Pro tip: If your brand wants a formal, authoritative voice, your content may include more words with French, Latin and Greek origins. Think of The Economist as an example. Meanwhile, for more conversational, informal pieces, you might take a page from publications like Parents magazine with diction that stems from Norse, Old English and other Germanic roots.
While marketing copy isn’t poetry, all writing can benefit from a rhythm. In addition to controlling syntax to regulate pace and create music, you can pay attention to sound to aid flow.
Assonance, consonance and alliteration are three common ways to smooth the reading experience with sound. With proper diction, you can better leverage these craft tools.
Just as etymology can reveal cultural and historical contexts, it can help you make intentional decisions for sound. Certain sonic elements aren’t present in every root language or may be more common in one dialect than another. For instance, harsher sounds don’t appear in words with Latinate roots as often.
Syllable count is another factor. Words readers perceive as more intellectual may have more syllables. For instance, “see” has Germanic origins, while “perceive” stems from Latin. Also, Germanic language spawned “food,” but “sustenance” draws from Old French.
Pro tip: Think about how the etymological considerations for your brand voice impact sonic techniques. Consistent diction in this regard can lend built-in sound similarity. However, always remember moderation and variation. As with syntax, too much consistency can make your copy sound monotone.
A quick glance at a thesaurus will make clear that every suggested alternative you find won’t feel right. Sure, two words have similar meaning, but their typical contexts could have stark differences.
Consider “cleave,” “dissect” and “split,” for example. All three imply separation. Yet cleave is a word you’re likely more used to hearing in relation to meat preparation. Dissect might give you memories of high school biology classes, and split could prompt more mundane images, like splitting sunflower seed shells.
Connotation is the manner in which most of us immediately think of diction. In many cases, it can supercede other considerations.
Pro tip: Use connotation to control tone. You can select a synonym that better aligns with your brand’s attitude toward a subject without harming accuracy. Just be careful not to take this method of intent too far and editorialize.
Why focus on diction?
Your brand’s voice is all about lessening distance between you and the audience. When you consider your word choice beyond more than preference, you take a step toward giving your future and current prospects and customers a uniform experience from start to finish.
With talking points like etymology, sound and connotation, you ensure every content creator for your brand speaks the same language.