Why You Should Add “Building a Lexicon” to Your Copywriting Toolkit

A couple of months ago, Kane Jamison asked me to present at Content Harmony’s first ever content meet up. I was excited, but wondered what I had to say that would actually help other copywriters. And then I realized that my MFA in creative writing means I bring a different set of tools to the keyboard than someone with a marketing background.

Being a novelist obviously makes it easy to incorporate narrative into writing for clients. Less obvious, though, are the ways a creative writing background can help a writer nail down a brand voice. Let’s look at one of those techniques, building a lexicon, and how it can help you learn to speak a customer’s language, no matter how foreign it seems.

What is a Lexicon?

“Lexicon” is just a fancy name for a list of words. I first built a lexicon for my first novel (set in Poland) so I could separate out the different dialects that groups of characters were speaking. There’s a group of skaters who say things like “zajebisty” (no, I’m not translating that, this is a family-friendly blog) and (because they lived in a certain city) insert “yo” into their everyday speech in a similar way to how an American valley girl uses “like.” This simple cluster of words distinguishes those skaters from a group of gangster wannabes whose chosen swear word is “pierdolić.”

How Can a Lexicon Help with Brand Voice?

A lexicon helps you sort out the vocabulary that’s pertinent to a customer base. Every customer has a way of speaking that’s unique to them, what us word nerds refer to as “an idiolect.” When you gather a bunch of idiolects together, the place they overlap is a dialect. The classic example of this is the regional variations between whether “soda,” “pop,” or “coke” is the correct word to refer to a fizzy drink. Use the wrong word, and those people you and your client are trying to sell to will know you’re not from around here. But if you use the right word, they might stay on your page a little longer.

How to Make a Lexicon

Because dialect is shaped by experiences, you want to build a customer profile (yes, this can be a persona if you insist) to see what language he or she will relate to. I’m going to break out some demographic factors I’d consider and the answers I’d expect for a group of customers shopping for prom dresses:

  • Age: 17
  • Gender: Female
  • Region: Nationwide
  • Education level: Almost done with high school
  • Profession: Student
  • Ethnicity: Various
  • Religion: Various
  • Favorite TV shows: Vampire Diaries (today), Pretty Little Liars (today), Hannah Montana (as a tween)
  • Favorite magazines: Seventeen, Teen Vogue
  • Where she hangs out online: Tumblr

There are a myriad of ways to get this information. Ask your clients what they already know about the customer. Do research. Listen in on conversations. Use your noodle.

Now that you have a picture of who the customer is, where she hangs out, and what media she consumes, you can start researching words that are used in those places and by people who are like her. Keep a list (I use a Google doc) and you have yourself a lexicon. Here’s part of mine for prom:

See that part about Hannah Montana? To connect with this audience on a subliminal level, I want to know not just what their current cultural referents are, but what they were at an even more formative age. We retain language from throughout our lives even when we don’t use it anymore.

You can do the same thing with an enterprise client who sells cloud computing; just reconsider all the questions in terms of a customer who is an IT Director.

Now What Do I Do with It?

The obvious use for a lexicon is to incorporate these words in your copy. The less obvious use is as an immersion point into the customer’s culture. If you’re a language person like I am, reading the words in the lexicon will transport you to the world of the customer. You’ll start to think like her and understand what she wants from life and the product. Every girl wants to “turn heads” at prom and for her date to think she looks “super cute.” Once you’re inside the customer’s head, you can write excellent blog posts that speak to her needs and build trust. You’re becoming her bestie who can help her find the right dress.

Are There Other Applications?

Lexicons are great for blog posts, but they work for any kind of copywriting. Use these customer-specific words in an email subject line or in onsite copy. Try them out on Twitter and see if you get more bang for your 140 characters. Remember that a lexicon is a living document that should continuously be honed and updated. If you do any multivariate testing, share the results so we can all learn from them.

How do you learn the language of your clients and customers?

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  1. As a creative writer myself (science fiction and fantasy, mostly), I find this a terrific idea. Online thesaurus have often been my best friends to avoid repetition and just to find the word that best fits a certain sentence and context.
    Having lists of contextually-appropriate words really helps the daily transition that many bloggers face dealing with many different markets and domains of expertise, each with each own vernacular.

    1. Thanks, Mark! I love my thesaurus too, although I still prefer thumbing through a beat-up paper copy because of the potential for serendipity. I imagine a lexicon would be a great help to you in world building for sci fi and fantasy. Happy writing!

  2. I’ve recently read a good article from this site and checked if you guys have a new one, and I wasn’t disappointed. 🙂
    Nice take on the topic, Isla. I mean it’s hard to convince people, especially copywriters(!) that is. But you made a very interesting point. I’m sure copywriters would love your content. Keep it up!
    Your content by the way, has been shared and “Kingged” on the IM social networking site, Kingged.com.

  3. This is a great idea, for creative writing, marketing, and just for creating a personal relationship with someone. It’s almost like mirroring body language that happens between people who are connecting.
    Another good way to do research like this is to do keyword density analysis of sites that are popular with the targeted demographic.
    And I find my actual paper book Thesaurus a lot more useful than the online ones, for some reason. So I completely agree with you there, Isla.

    1. Nick, I love the connection you’ve made to mirroring. It is exactly that. And the keyword density analysis is another great tool. I’m so glad you agree about the paper thesaurus.

  4. As a linguistics & English major for my undergrad, I’m officially in word-nerd heaven reading this. Where else do I have the chance to read about one’s idiolect?! (I still remember the paper I wrote about sorority-girl jokes and their underlying assumptions to discuss this topic.)
    Highly relevant for any line of work. I run a bike advocacy organization and the world of people who ride bikes (some of whom are “cyclists” and many of whom are not) the language distinctions and inside lingo abound.
    If we are to write in a way that invites new riders we have to get beyond that, yet for current riders to know we “get” them we need some of the lingo. It would be great to see a post on copywriting that addresses the distinctions between inviting in the new folks without patronizing them while meeting the needs of the existing audience.
    I’ve built the list of words, phrases, and images we prefer for what we want to project but we haven’t been as systematic as you have in identifying sources and rationale. Thanks!

    1. Word nerds unite! I really want to read that paper now, Barb. And I love the idea you’ve suggested, I’ll mull it over for next month to see if I can come up with something useful on the topic. Would you be willing to share your lexicon?

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