How Will Your Words Be Remembered?

astronaut boot and footprint on the moon
“That’s one small step for man …”
Photo: CC NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Certain phrases are so memorable they have become embedded in human consciousness. Some are sacred; others are sacrilegious. Some are somber; others are silly. They all have something in common. If you want your words to be remembered, or at least to move people to action, it pays to analyze a few examples.

Who could forget Martin Luther King’s anaphora, “I have a dream.” Or Neil Armstrong beginning his lunar stroll with the words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Adolph Hitler ruled the Third Reich through military might, but to acquire that might he started with nothing more than words. They were misguided words to be sure, but potent nonetheless.

At the other end of the spectrum we have Jesus Christ. Some 2000 years after the fact, even those who don’t believe in Jesus remember his Golden Rule, “All things, therefore, that you want men to do to you, you also must likewise do to them.” And his simple but profound axiom, “There is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving.” They have likely referred to his parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.

Of course, words don’t have to be life-changing to be memorable.

Hold up your hand in a V and say, “Live long and prosper,” and you’ll be marked as a Trekkie (or a Trekker, depending on who you ask.)

Remember, “May the force be with you,” from Star Wars? Or “Here’s looking at you kid,” and “Play it again, Sam,” from Casablanca? Ironically, that last well-known and oft-quoted line isn’t even in the movie. Bogart’s actual line was, “You played it for her, you can play it for me. Play it.” But “Play it again, Sam,” is pithier.

Some of our most easily remembered phrases from yesteryear come from the least memorable sources.

Remember the elderly lady in the Wendy’s commercial asking, “Where’s the beef?” Or Mr. Whipple telling his customers, “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin!” And how many people have just done it because Nike told them, “Just do it?”

What made all of these words memorable? They touched people, addressing their needs and desires. Jesus’ listeners needed wisdom and salvation. King’s listeners wanted freedom and equality. Armstrong’s viewers wanted to share the excitement of exploration. Movie audiences want to be entertained and consumers want some assurance the product they’re buying will do what it’s supposed to.

In business, your words may not be life-changing, but they should get your message across. They must address your audience’s needs and desires. And who knows, people may even quote you thousands of years from now … if you make your words memorable.