What Are The Magic Words?


There are countless anecdotes of words being used to enable a magical transformation.  A magician dealing out “Abracadabra” to turn a four of spades into the Ace of hearts.  Harry Potter’s bewitching use of “Riddikulus!” to turn fear into laughter.  A toddler’s longing “pleeaaassse” to turn dad’s anger into a cookie.  The right words at the right time can conjure a spellbinding result… if chosen deliberately, wisely, and concisely.

One of my favorite examples is found in a legendary challenge authored by Ernest Hemingway. In one telling of this tale, Hemingway lunched with several other writers and bet each table member ten dollars that he could craft an entire story in just six words.  After the stack of bills was piled before him, Hemingway grabbed a napkin and scribed, “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”  The somber sheet was passed around the table, each writer read it and wept, and Hemingway collected his winnings. Six words. One profoundly deep tale.

In the realm of product design and innovation, some of the best examples of magical storytelling can be found in advertising slogans.

  • “It Takes a Licking and Keeps on Ticking” – Timex, 1950s
  • “Melts in your Mouth, Not in your Hands” – M&Ms, 1950s
  • “Tastes Great.  Less Filling” – Miller Lite, 1974

In each of these examples is found a concise, inspiring, and intuitive expression of 1) a consumer tension (fragile watches, melting chocolate, and tasteless light beer), 2) a surprising transformation of that tension, and 3) an amazing result.  With just a handful of words, the story of these products’ benefits, the new breakthroughs they represent, and the experiential “Wow’s” are all expertly expressed.

Each of these examples, stories, and slogans provide an engrossing story of transformation.  And as with any good magic trick, each contains:

  1. The Pledge: The current, ordinary state of the situation
  2. The Turn: The transformation of that ordinary something into something extraordinary
  3. The Prestige: The final reveal or amazing result that the transformation enables

When executed correctly, the readers of these stories only experience the magic and enjoy the clear and compelling “Wow”.  They remain blissfully unaware of all of the research, the rewriting, and the refinement done behind the scenes to take some deep and complex concept and to transform it into the intuitive and inspiring story that captured their hearts and minds.

Another of my favorite quotes is first attributed to French mathematician Blaise Pascal and was transformational enough to be later re-quoted by brilliant minds such as Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln… “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.” Finding the clear and concise magical words takes time, creativity, and often some very cool research techniques, but the profound and memorable impact of the resulting story is well worth the investment! 

Note: I originally published this blog at http://www.upstream360.com.