The Changing Language of Marketing

I’m a history buff and an armchair linguistic anthropologist. I don’t have any formal education in it, but I love learning about languages, where they came from, how they evolved, and how they shaped culture and civilization.

The reason is, when I learn where words come from, I can also understand how they morphed over time and how that evolution showed how society has evolved, or how society’s evolution forced the language to change.

To me, learning how languages change is a great way to learn how society changes. One reflects the other. Things like politics, wars, religion, social norms, fashion, and immigration play major roles in shaping words.

Understanding People Through Language

Some of my favorite videos on YouTube are from polyglots. I don’t know why, but it fascinates me to see how other people can speak so many languages. and some even share how they learned them.

Take this Netherlander polyglot who speaks 23 languages interviewing a young 13-year old American girl in 20 languages. Wow. Not only does she speak every language perfectly, she can also read and write in them — including Korean, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Arabic, and more.

Another type of video I follow are polyglots who travel the world and go “undercover,” where hidden cameras catch them shocking the locals by speaking their own tongue, including some hard-to-learn regional dialects. As this one native Chinese person said to American YouTuber Xiaoma:

“Your Fuzhounese is better than mine!”

But these days, another YouTube channel I love watching is Luke Ranieri‘s Polymathy. A polymath is a person who knows much about many things. A jack of all trades if you will, but better. An expert on many topics.

Luke teaches Old Latin and Old Greek, among others. One of his segments is when he explains the etymology of certain words. I love etymology for reasons I already expressed. But in Luke’s case, his videos explain them as stories.

For example, in one video he talks about where the word “Ciao!” comes from. It’s the typical greeting in Italian and in some other Romance languages. But did you know that the root of the word came from the Slavic peoples? And from slaves? Yes, there is a relationship between “slave” and “Slavic.”

Now, what does this have to do with marketing?

The Psychology of Language

Marketing is about understanding, connecting with, and helping people. As an SEO consultant, I love learning what makes people tick. Language and history give me a deeper understanding of why people act the way they do, think the way they think, or say the things they say.

There’s even a science around it called psycholinguistics.

Studies show that learning new languages enhances creativity and analytical skills. I believe that creative problem-solving, the hallmark of a resourceful person, is the most important marketing skill. As one study put it:

“Skills like problem solving, dealing with abstract concepts, are increased when you study a foreign language.”

Learning new languages also enhances listening skills and memory. You not only need to memorize an entirely new vocabulary, but you also have to listen carefully to the other person to understand what they are saying exactly.

John McWhorter, a linguistics professor, is one of my favorite scholars in language. I’ve bought many if not all of his courses and University lectures. My favorite is, by far: “Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage.” Something Professor McWhorter said resonates with me (and I’m paraphrasing):

“By expanding your understanding of the human language, you can learn ways to argue and persuade others.”

Ergo, by learning other languages, you also learn about marketing.

The Power of Telling Stories

Finally, while solving problems is the greatest marketing skill, the greatest marketing tool we have at our disposal is the ability to tell stories. Stories are at the heart of all great communications and great communicators.

Stories are also at the heart of culture, civilization, and language. And yes, history, too. I also believe they are at the heart of marketing and sales.

Stories predate history. In fact, “story” comes from the word “history,” which comes from ancient Greek to mean “to know something” or “to inquire about something.” Another way to look at it is that history is a true or known “story.”

If you want to learn how to sell more effectively, to argue more convincingly, to communicate more persuasively, then you need to learn how to tell a good story. Because by doing so, you learn how to capture people’s attention, how to connect with your audience, and how to make your case.

In the early 90s, I was studying marketing and sales. I bought every book, listened to every tape, and took every course I could: anything from Tom Hopkins, Brian Tracy, Tony Alessandra, Zig Ziglar, Dan Kennedy, you name it.

But what has taught me more about marketing has actually nothing to do with marketing. They are books about storytelling. From Stephen King’s “On Writing” to Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” (and everything in between).

So if you want to get good at marketing, become a problem-solver. But if you want to become good at selling the solution, become a storyteller. In fact, the two have more in common than you think.

Storytelling as a Teaching Tool

The 2020 pandemic has been a crazy but also fruitful experience for many people. In my case, it allowed me to rethink things, reposition my business, and land new opportunities with clients and referral sources.

One of them is Ed Rush. Ed is a successful business advisor and an in-demand consultant. But of everything he does, Ed does something exceptionally well.

He’s a master storyteller.

Ed is a former F-18 fighter pilot. A bonafide “Top Gun.” He often talks about his harrowing, high-speed, and often on-the-razor’s-edge-of-death experiences as a fighter pilot. It’s pretty riveting stuff. But the best part, at least for me, is that he relates them to life, business, and success.

A perfect example is one story he tells about where he had to execute a maneuver while flying above the Japanese island of Okinawa during a dogfight. He misjudged his altitude and airspeed and was hurtling uncontrollably at Mach-level speeds towards the water and seemingly imminent death.

With only moments to spare, he made a split-second decision. His instinct told him to refer to a systematized yet basic training he had during flight school. It was a simple, step-by-step, mental checklist. It saved his life.

The point he was trying to make was twofold.

  1. Success often depends on taking decisive action.
  2. Good decisions rely heavily on the fundamentals.

Both the lesson and the story teach something important.

We often balk at the basics as being too boring or beneath us. But mastering the fundamentals increases the effectiveness in making decisions when under pressure or working on the less-than-fundamental stuff.

Resourcefulness is The Fuel

You may be an expert in your field. You may also be an entrepreneurial plastic surgeon who wants to grow her practice. But most successful entrepreneurs I know are also expert communicators.

I’ve seen engineers, doctors, even scientists use storytelling with great results. It’s a skill you can learn, too. It’s not a talent (although, it does come naturally for some). And you certainly don’t need to write an edge-of-your-seat epic, too.

Start small and simple. Start with metaphors and analogies, or better yet, start by telling personal stories. We all love talking about ourselves. It’s the easiest thing to do. And people can relate to them.

But an important caveat: you’re not the hero of the story — your audience is. Even if it’s about you, the goal is to make your personal story mean something to the audience, or else it will just make you look boastful and self-centered.

Here are two ways you can practice:

1. Story First

It can be something simple, short, and straightforward, perhaps something that might have happened to you recently. Then, after you’re done, relate it to your audience. Turn it into a lesson, point, moral, or message you want to impart.

It doesn’t have to be something complex. Even if it’s as simple as finding inspiration in your life experiences, your story in turn will inspire your audience.

2. Purpose First

It’s the same approach but flipped around. Determine the lesson or message you want to convey first, and then dig into your own unique set of experiences and memories. Pull something out that resonates with your audience, exemplifies your lesson, or illustrates your message.

Here’s what I do.

I have a Google Doc with a list of stories I come across, or a list of ideas and personal experiences that make effective points. It’s my personal swipefile. When I have a need, I start from those and flesh them out in my writing.

Other times, I start with something that happened to me recently. It may even start out as a rant or a rave. But then I try to turn it into a message that illustrates a point I want to make, or how it’s meaningful to my readers.

Stories can impact your thinking. You may or may not remember the details, or the story may not come to mind immediately. But chances are, you do remember the lesson it gave or the point it made. That’s because the best stories don’t feel like stories.

As Seth Godin so eloquently said:

“Marketing is no longer about the stuff you make but about the stories you tell.”

Seth Godin

About The Author

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Michel Fortin is a certified SEO consultant, content strategist, and marketing advisor helping plastic surgeons, cosmetic surgeons, and medical aesthetic clinics attract more patients. Since 1991, he helps cosmetic and aesthetic professionals increase their visibility and grow their practices. He is the author of the More Traffic Memo™ SEO email newsletter.

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