Strong Language, Vol. 1: "Do You Realize??"

"I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse."  "Call me Ishmael."  "I have a dream today."

Great writing is everywhere.  It's in the movies that entertain us, the books that captivate us, the speeches that inspire us -- the language that changes us.

In this edition of Strong Language, we look at a lyric from the song "Do You Realize??" by The Flaming Lips -- a band with a silly name, perhaps, but with words that are anything but:

"Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face?/Do you realize we're floating in space?/Do you realize that happiness makes you cry?/Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?"

We aren't alone in finding this piece of writing, and this song, compelling: the band's home state of Oklahoma voted it the state's official rock song in 2009.  We're going to focus on two communications techniques used to great effect in this song: the first is structural and relatively simple to employ -- the second is more conceptual, and considerably more challenging.

  • Repetition: repeating a short phrase is a fast, easy, and highly effective way to hook your audience.  It's a device the band uses in their lyric, it's one that Martin Luther King uses in his "Dream" speech...we even used it ourselves at the beginning of this post.  Think of repetitions as the heartbeat, the driving pulse, of the message you want to convey.  Let their rhythm carry your audience along.

Is there a magic number for repetitions?  The honest answer is no: King, for instance, repeats the phrase "let freedom ring" 9 times in fairly quick succession, but it is thanks to his incredible skill as a public speaker that he is able to sound mesmerizing and not meandering.  For the majority of speakers and writers, repetitions will have their greatest impact when kept in the range of 3-4.

  • Speak simply, and carry a big idea: the men and women of your audience -- shareholders, customers, peers, whoever -- are not stupid.  It would be a grave mistake to treat them as such, or to ever make them think they're being patronized: the audience that feels it's being talked down to is the audience that you've lost.  On the flip side of the coin, the audience that feels like it's been trapped in a college lecture hall to be the victims of a professorial harangue will waste no time in tuning you out.  You have a big idea -- it's intriguing, it's compelling, and you want it understood.  What you must do is find that narrow path between the two perils we've just discussed.

How does the band do it?  By phrasing their idea in simple language, as their final repetition, and in the form of a question.  The audience, borne along by repeated phrases, is now gently asked to consider a reality that we all understand but very few of us are willing to face: every one of us is mortal, and every person that each one of us knows and loves and cares for will, someday, be gone.  To state the truth baldly would be jarring and off-putting -- but by asking the question, "do you realize?", the band invites their audience to fully face the inevitability of dying, and by so doing, fully embrace the immediacy of living.

That's all for this edition of Strong Language.  In our next installment, we look at the words of a man whose 8th grade education and 7 years in prison proved no impediment to his skills as a communicator: he came to prominence during a time of enormous social upheaval in America, and when he spoke, a nation listened.