Burying the Lead: English is from Mars, German is from Venus

8th November 2014

For all of its supposed proximity to English, German sometimes feels like it’s from another planet. Beyond a fascination with grammar and an obsession with the dative case (the linguistic equivalent of sexy lingerie, for its sensual ability to fascinate), German holds a further revealing tick.

Das Tick is this: Deutsch holds the verb to the end (Or, as they say on the banks of the Rhine, German, the verb to the end holds).

This means that one cannot so easily anticipate the intended meaning as someone chats to you (a favourite pursuit of mine in English). Will the verb yield positive or negative meaning? Might the intent be bitchy or godly? In German, alas, one must give attention and actually listen.

How tiresome.

Indeed, there is something counter-intuitive to how German speakers are when they converse. In communication, we humans tend to want to get a grasp on the meaning of what’s being said, as soon as possible.

This is expressed, in journalistic circles, with the old admonition: ‘don’t bury the lead’. That is to say – announce the news up front. Forget the foreplay. Stand and deliver.

The pesky Teutons don’t tire of keeping us holding on. And, their methods are legion. They insist on expressing their numbers lower order first, for instance.

This wrecks my head.

Instead of saying eighty two, they rather say ‘two and eighty’. (English moved on from this approach in the 12th Century, by the way).

The French, in a misguided moment of appeasement, opt to describe 82 as ‘four twenty two’, thereby complicating life even further.

English, of course, spits out the big news up front. Eighty two, we say. 82. Lest you lose interest after the first word, Anglos serve up the gist right away. Eighty-ness to the fore.

The language we inherited from Shakespeare is now adept at leading with the lead. We tend not to bury.

Which brings me to story-making.

What is the best approach to constructing communication? I’m thinking of ads here, but also movies, or websites, or packaging. Anything.

Jean Luc Godard, a famous director whose movies I only vaguely know, famously quipped that ‘every story should have a beginning, middle and and end – but not necessarily in the order’.

Do you agree?

Take notice of how communication is constructed around us. To what extent is the lead buried? To what extent is that burial welcome? How motivated are you to wait until the end, to fully uncover what’s being said?

These decisions are at the heart of the creative output of marketing. Every brand lives in its own context; decisions are specific rather than formulaic.

As a general rule, though, the situation appears to be as follows: if your goal is to inform – communicate English-style; if your goal is emotional engagement – Go German.

Now there’s a turn for the books. Take note, all ye cliché-ridden cynics.

Of course, life is rarely so binary, seldom so simple.

Sometimes, in storytelling, the lead needs to be buried in a shallow grave, with one wilting hand sticking out.

I have not yet uncovered whose language this approximates to best, but I’m liking it already.
© Brian McIntyre 2014

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