Monday, August 26, 2013

What Katy Perry can teach technology PR writers

Punchy writing includes a seldom-taught ingredient called assonance. Technology PR writers who make themselves aware of this subtlety are more likely to get compliments such as “She makes copy sparkle” and “His copy really sings.”
The usual reasons for compliments like these are shorter and more five-senses-oriented words, sentence lengths that average 16 words, and audience-centric content that surprises or helps with decision-making.
But assonance -- which includes “vowel rhyme” and is greatly helped by parallel structure -- is another reason, though it’s rarely taught.
Katy Perry uses assonance in “Roar,” as do many artists on your favorite pop channel. For example, notice that the highlighted words don’t rhyme but do share the same vowel sound. (This placement of assonance at the end of the sentence is called “vowel rhyme.”)
I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
Scared to rock the boat and make a mess
So I sat quietly, agreed politely
I guess that I forgot I had a choice
I let you push me past the breaking point

Here’s a similar example you might find on a website:
“…makes our job more enjoyable and your company more profitable.”
First, notice that both sides of the “and” are parallel in structure:
pronoun + noun + adverb + adjective

our/your + jobs/companies + more/more + enjoyable/profitable

Then, notice the vowel sounds. In addition to the “uhl” sound that ends each phrase, notice the many “O” sounds. This is assonance.
The following sentence is not as easy on the ear because the two phrases aren’t parallel or assonant.
“… makes tasks fun and our clients look great.”
noun + adjective (tasks fun – two syllables)
pronoun + noun + verb + adjective (our clients look great – five syllables)

The vowels are mixed: A, Uh and Ow, “I,” Eh, oo-uh, Eh.
Even the following sentence might be better (depending on the tone required for the situation) because each phrase at least begins with the same two parts of speech.
“… makes us smile and brings you success.”
verb pronoun verb
verb pronoun noun

Still more parallel: “… puts smiles on our faces and dollars in your pocket.” Both sides have these parts of speech in this order: noun, preposition, pronoun, noun.
Notice that “smiles” and “dollars” are both stressed on the first syllable, share an “uhl” sound, and are the first words on each side. (Notice that spelling doesn’t help you; it’s all in the ear.)
Katy Perry also uses parallel structure in “Roar.”
I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything – parallel contrast

Similarly, count the syllables in the second halves of the first two lines of her song, and notice they each start with the same structure: [and] [verb] …
“… and hold my breath.”
“… and make a mess.”

I’ve got more examples of assonance and parallel structure to share with you, if you like. But if you’ve got the gist, this would be a good place to stop reading. My bottom-line advice is: Listen to vowels and aim for parallel structure.
Caveat: Don't get carried away. It's nice if people say your copy really sings, but not if they say it's sing-song-y. ;-)
Here’s an example of sounds that are at odds, albeit in a subtle way that an attuned ear can pick up but is otherwise denotatively fine.
“… mistakes activities for results.”
The writer’s goal was to contrast “activities” with “results,” but the vowels in the contrasting words are a bit too dissimilar to go down perfectly smoothly – different number of syllables, different sounds, different stress.
Activity versus results
 [xxx]-ih-ih-ee versus [xx]-uhl-[tz]
They fight each other. The sounds “ih” and “ee” don’t go well with “uh.”
Notice the following sentence is a bit better, even though it’s not perfectly parallel and doesn’t have really fabulous assonance.
“… change your business outcomes, not just raise your profile”
In poetry (not our goal in tech PR), vowels help create the mood, and the “ee” and “ih” sounds often help create a harsh mood.
"If I bleat when I speak it's because I just got . . . fleeced"
                    "Deadwood" by Al Swearengen

"Strips of tinfoil winking like people"
"The Bee Meeting" by Sylvia Plath

“Without me, without me, without me-ee-ee-ee-ee”
 “I Knew You Were Trouble” by Taylor Swift

You don’t necessarily need assonance. I don’t recommend that you aim for it every time you write a sentence. But raising your awareness may help you begin adding secret sauce to your writing.
Personally, I don’t strive for it, either. But I noticed recently that it serendipitously appears and sounds pretty good. Clients of mine seem to notice that something nice is going on, but they can’t put their finger on exactly what.
Even if you choose not to pursue assonance, I recommend you aim for parallel structure, especially in lists at the ends of sentences. For example:
“… tames chaos, speeds results and builds relationships.” 3x (verb + noun)
is better than
“… gives you faster results, tames chaos and fosters better relationships.” (verb, pronoun, adjective, noun; verb, noun; and verb, adjective, noun)
Or, at a minimum, consider moving the most non-parallel item to the end:

“… gives you faster results, fosters better relationships, and catches mistakes.”