[Please note: I am on vacation this week and sharing one of my favorite posts from a few years ago. If it’s new to you, I hope you enjoy it. If you’re reading it for the second time, I hope you enjoy it again.]
Do you know how to read musical notation? If you do you know that when you’re reading music you’re actually reading at least two things simultaneously. Written music tells you what note to play and when to play it.

Written language, on the other hand, only tells you one thing – what letter to pronounce. Of course, punctuation helps indicate pacing – pause at a comma, stop at a period (I’m not really sure what to do at a semicolon) but it’s still up to the reader to interpret how the author wanted the piece paced.

For example, read the following sentences aloud and place the emphasis on the bold faced underlined word. You’ll see how the pacing, and the meaning, can change based on where you choose to place the emphasis.

I didn’t say you should leave now.

I didn’t say you should leave now.

I didn’t say you should leave now.

I didn’t say you should leave now.

I didn’t say you should leave now.

I didn’t say you should leave now.

I didn’t say you should leave now.

Music notation is not like that. The composer provides the note to play, the time signature to play it in, the exact time each note should be played, the way the note should be attacked and the volume with which the note should be played. That’s why an entire orchestra can play a piece of music simultaneously and get it mostly right on their first reading. Of course the conductor can add flavorings and nuance, as can each player, but the basic structure still provides instructions for every part of the composition.

Sheet-Music-FinalAt the same time, musical notation has a way to allow the musician to add his or her own ideas, or improvisation, to the piece. Here the composer might suggest what the musician should play but also provides for the instrumentalists to create their own music and explore their own musical ideas by playing what they feel, and hopefully, what fits into the structure of what the rest of the ensemble is playing.

Ironically, written language, which doesn’t put nearly the same restraints on interpretation of prose, has no such flexibility. Sure, a rabbi or minister might halt their liturgical reading to allow parishioners to riff on a theme (they call it private mediation) but when was the last time you were reading a novel and the author inserted a few blank pages for you to add your own thoughts? There’s no room for readers to add their own words to a written piece.

That’s why sarcasm and irony seldom works well in print or static online advertising. It’s one thing for the copywriter to add their own inflection to a headline when they present it to a client but it’s quite another to expect a reader to add that same emphasis. Instead, the language of ads must be clear, simple, and to the point. Hopefully this will cause an emotional response without depending on a specific interpretive performance from the reader.

Imagine if Gershwin had e-mailed the lyrics of his famous song to his manager:

“You like potato and I like potato,

You like tomato and I like tomato,

Potato, potato, tomato, tomato,

Let’s call the whole thing off.”

Say what? Call the whole thing off just because we both like the same vegetables? Clearly something was lost in the transmission.

Remember Gershwin when you’re writing to be understood and when you’re writing to be influential.
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Your reader most certainly won’t read your text the way you want them to read it; instead they’ll bring their own pacing, emphasis, and meaning to your words. To build your brand value it’s important that your intention be so clear that your audience will internalize it no matter how they pace their reading.

And by writing simply and clearly, the results of their interpretation will be music to your ears.

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