11 Alive. Need small boat.

November 2, 2016


This isn’t so much a blog as a plea; in the digital age, please don’t forget the power of the written word.


Writing has always been my passion, but not always my career. I have had a life-long love affair with advertising and marketing. Those of you who know me will know that I have, for a long time, been a cheerleader for all things digital, search and social. But I worry that in the rush to the latest ‘big thing’ the power of the written word is being forgotten.


In this digital age words matter more than ever. We are captivated by moving and static imagery, but we are persuaded by what we read. Well written copy can stimulate emotions, it prompts response, promotes discussion and travels far beyond its origin.

We all know the statistics about the effectiveness of video and imagery in stimulating engagement, but don’t forget the effect of the copy in any of your content.  Search engines love words. In the age of the semantic web, beautifully written, relevant copy will transform your search rankings. Where art meets science.


Here’s a story I’ve just heard which I think is relevant and, even if it isn’t, it deserves re-telling. It’s about one of the world’s giants and the power of a few short words.


John F. Kennedy kept a coconut on his desk. The coconut was old and dried. Etched across its husk was a simple message: “11 Alive. Need Small Boat.”


“11” was a designation for Kennedy’s patrol boat, which he commanded in the Pacific during World War II. One night, after the patrol boat was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer, killing two of his crewmembers, Kennedy showed bravery and leadership to get his crew to safety on a nearby island, where, lacking pen and paper, he improvised a distress signal on a coconut. He etched on its surface “11 Alive. Need Small Boat.”


He eventually flagged down a local fishing boat and gave them the coconut, which they took to a nearby Allied naval base. For his cunning and valour, Kennedy received the Navy Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart, two distinguished war decorations. But what Kennedy displayed for the rest of his life was the coconut and the words on it.


Kennedy went on to become the world’s most powerful man and a master communicator. Even then, in a chaotic and information-saturated age, Kennedy offers a model for how to make one’s thoughts heard and understood. Kennedy communicated clearly and with power.


So, there’s my plea. When you’re creating your ‘content’, searching for the big idea, brainstorming some mind-blowing video concept or stunning imagery, don’t forget that coconut and the power of the humble word.


*reference and credit for the Kennedy story to John Evans, lecturer at Stanford University.

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