What’s Your Dictionary?

We’re all lexicographers now. Everyone needs to write their own dictionary of the ideas that are most important to their business – and their marketing

business dictionary

((Raymond Rubicam was one of the only ad agency entrepreneurs to run ads for his own business. He ran ads in Fortune magazine for 30 years. In the ad pictured, he proactively defines a term, rather than letting his reader or Webster decide what it means.

And BTW, he makes a VERY strong case for the value of advertising per se, and for his agency’s ability to exploit it.

One more thing – Rubicam wrote his own ad copy until he was in his 80’s, long after he’d become scandalously wealthy. So never let a consultant tell you that writing copy is “hands work” ))

I have no data to back this up but my gut is that Google is now our most used dictionary.

Or at least our most used dictionary search tool, since Google doesn’t create its own dictionary – instead, it just indexes content from other dictionaries and publishes it at the top of its search results.

One of the dictionaries Google partners to be our de facto dictionary is the Oxford University Press (which now calls itself a “language provider”). ((Google uses Lexico, which uses “language” created by lexicographers at the Oxford University Press. Or at least it uses their definitions, via an API; the “Oxford dictionaries” don’t really exist anymore, or so they say. Except for the OED))

(Sidebar: This is becoming Google’s monopolistic approach to the entire profitable Internet – buy or partner with a successful company, then put that at the top of its search results, defrauding the competition).

The Oxford University Press publishes the mother of all English-language dictionaries, The Oxford English Dictionary (The OED).

The OED is distinct in that it contains not only the etymology of every word in the English language but its first recorded usage. If you think of every etymology as a story, then no book has as many stories as the OED. And understanding these stories, you get a deeper sense of a word’s many shades of meaning.

So Google’s dictionary search results must be amazing, right? 

Nah. The search results that the Oxford University Press gives Google are just the minimum viable product, trimmed down to its leanest, most-consumable size in the aggravating style of Dictionary.com or Miriam-Webster online. 

Look at the definition of “strategy”, for example, google.com/search?q=strategy:

“a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.”

Pretty stingy, Google and Oxford University Press.

Especially compared that with Harry Mintzberg’s definition of strategy in his book, Strategy Safari:

  • Strategy as plan – a directed course of action to achieve an intended set of goals; similar to the strategic planning concept;
  • Strategy as pattern – a consistent pattern of past behavior, with a strategy realized over time rather than planned or intended. Where the realized pattern was different from the intent, he referred to the strategy as emergent;
  • Strategy as position – locating brands, products, or companies within the market, based on the conceptual framework of consumers or other stakeholders; a strategy determined primarily by factors outside the firm;
  • Strategy as ploy – a specific maneuver intended to outwit a competitor; and
  • Strategy as perspective – executing strategy based on a “theory of the business” or natural extension of the mindset or ideological perspective of the organization

Now that’s a definition you can sink your teeth into. Learn from.

Can you really do justice to a complex concept like strategy with the short definition Google offers?

No. But dumbing it down is profitable.

((Interestingly, the Mintzberg’s definition of strategy is culled from Wikipedia, which is now a *distant* second place for the search word “strategy”. When there is a profit motive, Google is sneakily finding ways to displace Wikipedia as the #1 search result, a palce Wikipedia has occupied for about 15 years))

What does this have to do with marketing and ideation?

We all use words every day in business, whether we think of ourselves as marketers or not. And those words contain our ideas. That’s why Harry Mintzberg created his own definition of strategy (as I have myself, for digital strategy). In “A Technique for Getting Ideas”, James Webb Young puts it best:

Thus, words being symbols of ideas, we can collect ideas by collecting words. ((James Webb Young also said, “The fellow who said he tried reading the dictionary but couldn’t get the hang of the story, simply missed the point that it is a collection of short stories.” This is in fact the concluding sentence to his book, A Technique for Getting Ideas))

That’s why marketing copy loves statements like, “There’s a lot of confusion about what the term ______ means. People think it means ____, but actually think it means ____”.

Sometimes this is done to try to “own” definitions of business terminology. The way that Joe Pulizzi tries to own the definition of content marketing.

That’s a good marketing strategy in and of itself. But you really can’t do that because there’s never just one definition of any given term. Consult the OED: If a word doesn’t have more than one shade of meaning, no one actually uses it.

You can only own your definition and use it to better communicate your ideas.

And if you have strong ideas about your business, then there are words that will come up over and over. Words like strategy, implementation, analytics, migration, framework, analysis, discovery, etc. And these words are key to your marketing, especially your content marketing.

Have you ever had a conversation go like this?

“Well, wait – what do you mean by strategy in this context?”. Or, “Ok, but how do you define agile?”.

You’d think the answer would be, “Look it up in the dictionary!”

And it may be. But that answer ignores several key points:

  • There is no one dictionary-to-rule-them-all and never has been ((And as Abe Lincoln advised, you should always look up a given word in at least two dictionaries anyway))
  • You may be using the word in your own way, to describe your own business idea. And your idea might be a little different from someone else’s.
  • Many of the complexities of our highly technical businesses just don’t exist in dictionaries.

So instead of saying, “look it up in the dictionary” ((Counterpoint, people should consult dictionaries more – at least as a starting point)) your answer to, “What do you mean by that?” is often you winging a definition. But “winging it” has a negative connotation for a reason.

Just because you know what your idea is doesn’t mean you can describe it in words for me.

So write it down. When you’ve written down your definition of a term beforehand, you go from ad-libbing to sharing your own little piece of intellectual property.

A conversation about complex products and services and how they are used often involves multiple, “let’s define that means” moments. And subsequent negotiations between the parties involved: “Ahh, I see what you mean by dynamic integration now; I have a slightly different definition but let’s use your definition for the purposes of this conversation”.

And it’s not just an advantage in sales; you should also create solid definitions of your business ideas in your marketing copy and content. Each idea a building block for future ones.

That’s one of the reasons I created my own dictionary of terms. ((But the best example of creating your own dictionary is captured in the image that comes with this post. That ad was written by Raymond Rubicam, founder of Young & Rubicam, now a part of the WPP conglomerate, which also owns Ogilvy, along with 600 other agencies.))

Take action. The next time someone asks you, “what do you mean by X?”, make a note of it, go back to it later, and write your own definition. Or definitions. You may answer the question not just for your audience but for yourself.

My best,