Zipf’s law

In some older posts on this blog, I have written about Moore’s law, Metcalfe’s law, Fubini’s law, Occam’s law and Murphy’s law. Maybe you still remember what they are all about.

Today, I want to introduce you to yet another law, which is called Zipf’s law, a.k.a. the Brevity law.

The American linguist, George Kingsley Zipf, formulated this law in 1945. It states that the more frequently a word is used, the shorter that word tends to be, and vice versa. Such negative correlation between the frequency of words and their size can be found in almost any natural languages. Zipf also called it a ‘principle of least effort.’ As humans tend to be inherently lazy (or more positively said, they try to be energy efficient) they prefer to take the path of least effort or resistance. Whatever (English) text you analyse, you will always get the same top-5 of short words and their associated frequencies: the (about 6.5%), of (2.8%), to (2.6%), a (2.4%) and and (2.3%).

Some of the shortest words that public speakers often use, however, won’t show up in these statistics: the innumerable uh’s, um’s and er’s. I recently had a video recorded of one of my presentations, and when I replayed it afterwards, I was embarrassed to hear myself saying these nasty filler words. I really thought I had eliminated them from my professional vocabulary…

In another blog post, I wrote about hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, or fear of long words. Well, this time I felt more like a micrologophobia patient. But there’s some good news: like most phobias there are some cures for the latter one too…

  • Listen to yourself: this is something I hate doing, but it’s an important first step in acknowledging your bad habits and ridding yourself of those ugly words;
  • Slow down: if your mouth moves faster than your brain, you’re going to stumble a lot;
  • Punctuate: imagine periods and commas in your speech while you’re talking;
  • Pause: some speakers use fillers to avoid silent gaps, though silence may be much more powerful (read also my “P+R” post)
  • Transition: try using transition statements like “let’s now talk about…”, “on the next slide you’ll see…” or even “and now for something completely different…”;
  • Make eye contact: when you’re making eye contact with one or more persons in your audience, it will become much more awkward to say um or uh to them;
  • Be self-confident: when you spend too much time worrying about your words, you’re going to lose the focus of your presentation and… become even more muddled;
  • Practice: practice your presentation as often as possible before you give it. The better you know your narrative, the more confident you’ll be and the less you’ll stumble.

And if you still let an um or an er slip out from time to time, just think of them as a natural part of speaking. Most of the time, your audience won’t even notice. Maybe these short words should have been included in Zipf’s law after all.

Think global, talk local

Close to the place where I work at in Antwerp is an American hamburger chain restaurant. The place is ornamented with big newspaper quotes like “Heaven on a Bun” by the Tampa Tribune and “Willy Wonkas of Burgercraft” by the Washington Post. Very impressive.

But remember, this is all about a local franchise in Antwerp … Belgium … Europe. Almost 13 flight hours away from Tampa … Florida … United States and 6200 kilometers from Washington DC. Many of the Antwerp passers-by may never have heard about a US city called Tampa or a local newspaper named The Tampa Tribune. (In the reverse case I would even have written most of them.) And the posters don’t teach me anything about the origin of the quality of the food served in this local affiliate.

What’s the use of spending lots of communications money on quoting big titles from sources that don’t resonate with a large part of your audience? Or of including exotic case studies from overly remote customers in a business presentation? Local markets may be different. Customers may speak a different language. And audiences may have a different frame of reference. In an old post, “If the world were a village,” I gave the example of a financial presenter who talked about “blood red stock markets”… in front of a Japanese audience. While on the Tokyo stock exchange, upward trends are marked in red and downward trends in green.

I have repeatedly written on this blog about exploiting the power of storytelling to connect with people on an emotional level. To connect emotionally with your audience, however, the least you should do is adopt your stories, your words and the examples (or case studies) you use to the (local) audience. Capitalize on local successes, local heroes and local values. Your business presentations will be more impactful and better serve your local and, consequently, your global business. Even when you’re representing a global brand or an internationally renowned company.

Ten hundred words

A picture tells more than a thousand words. But what if you would reduce your vocabulary to not more than 1000 words? This is the starting point of Randall Munroe’s new book “Thing Explainer“.


I already mentioned the creator of xkcd before in an earlier post when I referred to his previous work “What if?” in which the author gives serious answers to absurd hypothetical questions.

In his latest publication, Munroe explains complicated things in simple words – from ballpoint pens, over data centers, to the solar system. The picture below (courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) shows an example of how the former NASA employee describes an iPhone using only the 1000 most common English words.


(click to enlarge)

While writing this post and trying to simplify my prose, I realized that for many topics the stripped-down vocabulary may be too restrictive. That the languages I know are too rich and too beautiful to prune their lexicon so dramatically. And that Munroe’s ten hundred words list may be just a gimmick. But, on the other hand, a real expert doesn’t need difficult language to make his point. Albert Einstein rightfully remarked: “if you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

As a technology or business presenter you’d better invest in your story than in your vocabulary. Use simple words, striking examples and compelling metaphors to explain complicated concepts and hi-tech products. Create an emotional liaison with your audience, rather than blow them off their feet with complex expositions, specialized language and sophisticated jargon.

More reading:

Change the conversation

Yesterday, a sales colleague of mine was complaining about price (and consequently margin) pressure from competition on a product maintenance deal. Although our company is an industry leader with a best in class products and services portfolio, some industry players tend to systematically undermine business by lowering their prices to an unrealistic level, resulting in customers expecting us to “drop our pants” as well.

But from the same chat I also learned that this sales team was almost exclusively talking to our customers’ purchasing and procurement departments. No wonder that most of their meetings were only dealing with terms & conditions, volume and pricing issues. So I gave my co-worker one single piece of advice: CHANGE THE CONVERSATION!

I told him the story of Harvey’s, a small commodity hardware store that manages to obtain a revenue per square meter almost four times higher than its large-scale competitors. An inspiring example that I already made reference to in a earlier blog post about “the perceived value of value”.


And though high-tech hardware, software and services are certainly a different sell than nuts and bolts, these are the 3 tips I gave him to change the conversation with his customers:

  • Change the audience: different parts of an organization may have different business objectives. As such it’s obvious that your customer’s purchasing and procurement departments will try to negotiate the lowest price for the products or services you are offering them. So, if you want to change the context from cost to value, then you’d better start talking with some other stakeholders, who might better appreciate your business proposal (in the case of the maintenance proposition: the operations and customer service people.)
  • Change the vocabulary: in everyday language, “cost”, “price”, “worth” and “value” are often interchangeable, but emotionally (as well as economically) they have completely different connotations. So carefully consider the words you use when presenting to and discussing with customers and business partners.
    Mind that not only words like cost and price may have a specific undertone, but also many business and technology terms have a specialized (and predetermined) meaning. Therefore, we decided to start a dialogue with our customers about providing an “Extended Life” for their infrastructure, and not simply discuss the delivery of “maintenance” services – emphasizing the fact that we are helping them to optimize their assets and save money, rather than being a burden on their budget.
  • Change the perimeter: price-wars are seldom good battles to fight, and you can better engage into a value than into a cost discussion. For the opportunity mentioned above, this meant turning a debate about the cost of outsourcing maintenance activities into an enumeration of the benefits of getting  the right services, people and practices on board.
    And, very often, one business opportunity may also hide another one. As such, product life-cycle (including maintenance) discussions are often linked to a strategic exercise about infrastructure evolution or business transformation. So don’t limit the conversation topic to this one single product or service you absolutely want to sell, and start addressing the big picture – you never know what pleasant surprises may come out…

Other articles about this topic that are worth reading:

If the world were a village

If the world were a village” is a children’s book that maps the world’s population onto a village of just 100 people, and explores the lives of the villagers… to discover that life in other countries is often very different from our own.

I have traveled this global village and presented to groups of many nationalities. And I have learned by experience that –although people are people wherever you go– audiences may have divergent habits and react differently to what you say and what you do.

  • Don’t assume everyone can understand you. Although English is the official business language in many companies and countries, don’t assume everyone is a native speaker. Check frequently with the audience if they still follow. Encourage them to interrupt you if they don’t. Identify the people in the room that understand you and may help you better connect with the rest.
  • But also don’t assume they can’t. Particularly when talking about expert matters, the people in the room may very well understand your ‘technical’ language. Even better than you assume. Read my blog post “Lost in translation” about what happened to me once.
  • Always speak slowly and articulate well. To enhance the audience’s ability to understand you, speak slowly and clearly, and articulate carefully. The faster you talk, the more difficult you are to understand. If you are being simultaneously translated, speaking too rapidly also makes it more difficult for the translator.
  • Be cautious with metaphors, humor and cultural references. Figures of speech are often very difficult to translate, and when they translate they may not resonate with the audience. Humor from your culture can even be offensive in other cultures. Also avoid references to local TV shows, celebrities or ‘institutions’, such as the IRS, Galeries Lafayette or The Fat Duck, as they may have no meaning to your audience.
  • Adapt your wording and visuals. Words, images and colors may have different meanings in different countries. My favorite anecdote is about the financial presenter who talked about “blood red stock markets”… to a Japanese audience (he did not know that on the Tokyo stock exchange, upward trends are marked in red and downward trends in green.)


  • Watch your body language. Gestures (e.g. pointing) or unconscious habits (e.g. maintaining direct eye contact) could be offensive in certain cultures. Do your research to determine what’s appropriate and what’s not where you’re speaking. For example, take the “OK” sign – making a circle with the thumb and forefinger. To an American this can only mean that everything is good. But in Japan it is a gesture for money, in France it means worthless, and in Greece it’s an insult!
  • KISS your language. In a multi-cultural context, one really needs to Keep It Short and Simple. No slang, no idioms, no jargon, no acronyms, no complex vocabulary. And when dealing with simultaneous translation, make sure you divide the length of your phrases as well as the anticipated duration of your talk by two.
  • Learn how to interpret audience attitudes, behaviors and feedback. The more you understand the links between your listeners’ attitudes and behaviors, the more confidence you can have in your delivery. Western audiences tend to pay attention to focus points, while Eastern people consider the background. Also non-verbal feedback may differ from culture to culture, as e.g. Koreans and Japanese are not comfortable with showing emotion in public.

If you keep these few simple (and most of them, obvious) rules in mind, speaking in another country and meeting people from another culture is an enriching experience. Do your homework, tune your presentation and adapt your style. Show respect, celebrate diversity, and embrace any opportunity that comes your way.