(A.) “It was hot outside.”
(B.) “The angry sun glared down at me.”
Which of those sentences do you feel was more interesting?
Personification is a technique used by writers and speakers to excite the imaginations of their readers and listeners. Personification gives human attributes to non-human things.
Twenty-five years ago I wrote, “As Edmund Hillary surveyed the horizon from the peak of Mount Everest, he monitored the time on a wristwatch that had been specifically designed to withstand the fury of the world’s most angry mountain….”
Later in that same ad, the jeweler says, “You’ll find your Rolex waiting patiently for you to come and pick it up… at Justice Jewelers.”
Here are some other examples of personification:
“The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in
and thought of doing something to the shore
that water never did to land before.”
– Robert Frost, opening lines of Once By the Pacific
“Have you got a brook in your little heart
Where bashful flowers blow,
And blushing birds go down to drink,
And shadows tremble so?”
– Emily Dickinson, Have You Got A Brook In Your Little Heart?
You may have noticed that both of those examples were by famous poets. This was neither an accident nor a coincidence. I have long believed that good poets are the best teachers of powerful ad writing. A poet can change what we think and feel, and do so in a brief, tight economy of words.
Did I hear you say “songwriter”? What is a songwriter but a poet who also writes music?
I consider personification to be part of a larger category called Magical Thinking, a type of writing characterized by elements of the fantastic – woven with a deadpan sense of presentation – into an otherwise true story.
Magical thinking is best evidenced in a writing style known as Magical Realism, and it is best exemplified by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
“As soon as José Arcadio closed the bedroom door the sound of a pistol shot echoed through the house. A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta’s chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread.”
“’Holy Mother of God!’ Úrsula shouted.”
– Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, ch. 7
But not everyone has the gene that allows for magical thinking.
Consider this famous song by England Dan and John Ford Coley. Do you remember these lines?
“I’m not talking ’bout movin’ in
and I don’t want to change your life
but there’s a warm wind blowin’ the stars around
And I’d really love to see you tonight.”
People who lack the magical thinking gene hear:
“…but there’s a warm wind blowing, the stars are out,
and I’d really love to see you tonight.”
The value of magical thinking is that it stimulates the imagination and puts listeners in a frame of mind to consider new and different things. Magical thinking does not appeal to the linear, sequential, deductive-reasoning left hemispheres of our brains. It appeals to our right hemisphere, which does not separate fantasy from reality; that’s the left brain’s job. The realm of the right brain is a land of infinite possibilities, where anything and everything can happen.
Film franchises such as The Hunger Games, Star Wars, Star Trek, Die Hard, Twilight, Indiana Jones, James Bond, Jason Bourne, John Wick, The Matrix, Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Pirates of the Caribbean, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Lord of the Rings exist entirely in the realm of magical thinking.
Marvel Studios built an empire on it, as did Disney and Pixar.
Magical thinking is not to be confused with mere exaggeration. Liars and conmen exaggerate. But persuasive storytellers enchant us with magical thinking, stating the obviously impossible as though it is perfectly reasonable.
The next time you need to persuade someone, might it be useful to put them in a frame of mind to consider new and different things? Do you think it might be helpful to entice them into the realm of infinite possibilities, where anything and everything is possible?
If so, I have only two words for you to consider:
Roy H. Williams
NOTE FROM Indy Beagle – The wizard has been writing a column for Radio Ink magazine every 2 weeks for the past 21 years. After making a couple of minor alterations, he sent today’s Monday Morning Memo as an email attachment to Ed Ryan, the managing editor of that magazine. The cover email he sent with it said, “Ed, I put together 837 of the friendliest words I could find. They’re currently having a party in the attached document.” Heh, heh, heh. That boy just can’t help himself when the Magical Thinking gets on him. – Indy
As Chief Content Officer at Time Inc., Alan Murray oversaw all 21 publications, including Time, Fortune, People, and Sports Illustrated. Alan now serves as President and CEO of Fortune, and he’s on a tear to expand Fortune to become the world’s preeminent brand for business media. This week Alan shares his experiences as an editor and CEO with roving reporter Rotbart, with a special focus on helping you better understand the rapidly evolving business landscape. MondayMorningRadio.com