October 04, 2013 - Comments Off on Deixis: I see where you’re coming from

Deixis: I see where you’re coming from

Marketing. It’s dead easy, right? You’ve got a target audience in mind. You know what they want, you know what they like, and you know your product or service could be right up their street. But BAM! Just when it appears to be going so well, a tricky bit comes along – how on earth do you position your brand or product amongst them?

I’ve got a secret that I’m going to let you in on. It’s subtle, it’s simple – and it’s a really effective way of establishing a positive relationship with your audience. Once you’ve built a rapport, they’re more likely to engage with your brand.

So what’s this secret? It’s called deixis.

Deixis has Greek origins, and it literally means ‘reference’. It helps us contextualise the world around us. So, let’s go straight into an example. I’m sat in a chair, but it’s got a wobbly leg. I don’t want it, so I call out to the office: “Does anyone want this chair?”

“We don’t want that chair,” comes the reply, in complete unison.

This and that are classic examples of place (or space) deixis. How we referred to the chair using this and that indicates our relative positions to it. It’s a simple concept – almost obvious, in fact – but if done correctly it can leave your audience feeling like you’re seeing things from their perspective (which is massively important in gaining their confidence and trust).

And we’ve only just touched the deictic surface. If I said: “I’m here but you’re over there,” the reader will know the author and his audience are not together. Someone waiting for me at Doncaster station once phoned me to ask: “Are you here?” I replied: “No, I’m not there yet”. We were referring to Donny differently because of our relative positions to it.

There’s also person deixis, so that involves the pronouns like I, we, me, you, him, her, them and so on. A few years ago I decided to analyse the way a football match was written by a fan for some deictic insight. And what I found was fascinating.

I’ll give you the short version – when the team scored, it was reported as “we scored”. ‘We’ included the reporter, who was in the stands. So when the team scored, the fans scored. Everyone scored. It was a good moment; a positive moment, and there was a great sense of inclusion and unison. The players, the fans, the club… everyone played their part.

But when the team started playing badly and ended up conceding two goals to lose the match, suddenly it was “they lost their way” and “they couldn’t defend”. Put simply, when things went bad the reporter chose they and them to describe the players, which created a sense of distance and detachment. The fans were part of the good times but wanted no involvement or responsibility during the bad times.

And then there’s time deixis. If I’m going home now, what does that mean when you read this next week? Examples of time deixis are mostly adverbs like then, soon and later. So if you’re writing content for a static web page, you need to be really careful how you use time deixis.

For example, you wouldn’t want to be promising anything next month or even next year because the reader would need to know when you said it (something known as ‘encoding time’). As the publisher, you need to be aware of when people will read your work (known as ‘decoding time’), and then write accordingly.

Deixis is a powerful way of positioning yourself, subtly, amongst the people you want to interact with, in a way that shows you can see things from their perspective. In effect, you become one of them. Deixis demonstrates empathy, understanding and an appreciation of where they’re coming from. As we know, people are more likely to trust a person, company or brand if they show those qualities.

Deixis is a simple concept. But if it’s used without some thought, it could easily keep your customers disconnected and at arm’s length. As we have seen from the football analogy, when the team played badly, it can create a ‘them and us’ mentality. They’ll find it difficult to warm to you.

But, if it’s used carefully and correctly, deixis can really help you to create a sense of unity – even camaraderie – to become a brand that speaks with its customers and not necessarily at them.