Zut Alors! Don’t Fall into this 1,000-Year Old Trap

By Pete Janhunen, Principal, The Fratelli Group

For those of us who speak English, 1066 was one big year.

When William the Conqueror defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, it marked the final stages of the Norman takeover of the Anglo-Saxon realm. In short, a group of Frenchmen took over England — an old-school hostile takeover. The results for the history of both countries, the rest of Europe and eventually the globe are incredibly significant.

The linguistic result was also, as someone might say, HUGE. The ensuing hundreds of years of French-speaking rulers living side by side with their English-speaking subjects led to a slow, but staggeringly significant transformation of the language of England.

The result is what we now call Modern English, which includes a sturdy base of Germanic words (“father,” “milk,” “day”) covered with a rich layer of French vocabulary (“philosophy,” “religion,” “ballet”). While the language has changed markedly over the centuries, the merger created a remarkably stable linguistic tradition.

The French-inspired lexicon has added nuance, depth and options that we use to express ourselves routinely. Great for poets (Shakespeare is not Shakespeare without Modern English), but when it comes to public communications, this transformation set up one giant trap.

The truth is that, even after all these centuries, the most powerful form of English remains rooted in that Anglo-Saxon soil. In our experience, the best slogans and persuasive messages arc back to the simplest, shortest, clearest forms… “Just Do It,” “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” “I Like Ike,” to name a few.

Most persuasive writing can be instantly improved by scrubbing it of its Romantic flourishes (I write this, by the way, as an Italian and French speaker who embraces the Latin legacy). Politics aside, this was one of the keys to Donald Trump’s winning campaign in 2016 (“Make America Great Again”) — his steady use of the shortest words and phrases possible.

It’s a style that is tailor-made for the Twitter Age. In a sense, this approach will never go out of style.

So, if you want to boost the power of your outreach messages, take a pass through them, circle the French sprinkled throughout and replace or rewrite it using the simple, workmanlike vocabulary of 11th Century England.

In other words, short and sweet wins the day. Strike back for old King Harold!