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Towanda! Science Figures Out What Makes Our Words Memorable

You talkin' to me? Go ahead, make my day, because frankly my dear, I don't give a damn. And nobody puts Baby in a corner.

You're in good company if you know which movies these lines come from without having to Google it. In fact, most of us instantly know where these lines come from even if we haven't seen the movie. But why do we remember them, exactly?

Scientists at Cornell University may have deciphered the science behind memorable wording. They analyzed more than 1,000 memorable movie lines on popular movie database for attributes including length, wording and timing in the movie (e.g., the point in the movie when the line is uttered). For better or worse, the scientists define "memorable" as being listed on, because if it's there it must be worth remembering, right? Right. Moving on. Then the researchers asked people who haven't seen these movies to choose the most memorable line.

Click here to take the test.

So what did the scientists learn? Well, they found a few commonalities in how our brains remember rehearsed ruminations that have nothing to do with overly-paid directors, actors, agents, craft services or period hair styles. No, the reason we humans are able to recite a specific handful of movie lines is related to something much more boring: syntax and sentence structure.

First, the best movie lines tend to be phrased very simply -- no big words or obtuse phrasing, please. Second, they tend to include pronouns other than "you." Third, the verbs tend to be phrased in the past tense. Fourth, the best movie lines tend to bypass the definite article "the" for the indefinite article "a," which has the effect of making the phrase more general and something everyone can relate to.

As a workplace blogger, I'm ready to strum a very loud "may I help you?" riff for the average employee. Who hasn't had to sit through a boring presentation or a co-worker's multi-syllabic, jargon-filled soliloquy only to remember absolutely nothing about it afterward? Pretty much all of us, even if we don't want to admit it publicly. Don't get me started on PowerPoint presentations, quarterly reports or God forbid, legalese or conversing with accountants about accounting. Zzzz.

We'll never get these hours back, but we can learn to keep it simple, stupid. As I learned in Journalism graduate school, stop using up all my office hours and go buy a copy of Strunk and White's The Elements Of Style, a brief book on brevity first published in 1919, and then lose half the writing per written page because it simply isn't necessary. Good writing starts with editing, unless you're blogging and then who cares. Also, choose any other adjective besides "interesting" -- the most non-descriptive word of all time and a sure-fire way to annoy the average Journalism professor. Interesting, no?

Here's looking at you, kid, who has to give a client presentation later today. Keep it simple, lose the jargon as much as possible, and stay away from "the," as in "this is THE best solution on the market." For that matter, stay away from the phrase "best solution," since it's about as vapid and interesting these days as the word "interesting."

As for me, I once thought I had mono for an entire year; it turned out I was just bored. This movie line should be etched into the headstone of the Great Recession's unemployment rate. But let's all look ahead instead, shall we? After all, tomorrow is another day.


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