Chapter II. Interest And Clearness
§ 6. The word interest is Latin, and means that which makes a difference. More about it, if yon are "interested" already in the history of words, may be found in Chapter XI (The History Of Business Words) (page 90), If yon give a salesman a share in the business, it makes a difference to his family, his grocer, his grocer's family, and so on and so on. So the word share is sometimes the equivalent of interest. Money paid for the use of money is called interest, and that makes a difference too.
Salesmen constantly use the word as a verb. "Can I interest you?" - that is the salesman's question. And he knows that he cannot interest a customer unless what he offers makes a difference to the prospective buyer.
Securing interest is the most practical thing in the world to the salesman, the capitalist, and the writer. It is also the most difficult thing, because there are so many competing goods, terms, rates - and writings - that it requires more and more skill to make any difference to the buyer.
What makes a difference to one man may make none to another. And so the first business of the salesman or the writer is to know the buyer and his needs. Fortunately this no longer means studying the foibles or vices of some one particular man. Ten years ago there was a certain purchasing agent (for a great railroad) whose personal liking for whiskey had to be studied by every salesman. This secret had to be found out indirectly by every new man. It is said that no one ever sold this agent a bill of goods unless he had bought the agent a drink of good whiskey. It is quite obvious that to write to such a man was useless. You cannot say, "Enclosed kindly find a glass of particularly fine rye." But such men are getting rarer daily. Goods are more and more sold on merit, and while in some lines the salesman is still indispensable, the work of the writer is rapidly displacing him in others.
Nine tenths of all the pieces of business English written are written for a particular man and a particular situation. The other tenth (we are not pretending to be exact) is written to human nature as such, Advertisements have to be sent out more or less hit or miss. It ought not to be so, and advertisers are daily striving to render advertising less random, more individual. Every ad that goes into a car or a magazine meets more eyes than those of the person who is going to buy. Yet if the communication is human, has general interest, it will be handed along by one person to another until it reaches the fated purchaser. We are advertised by our loving friends, says Mellin's Food. Yes, but we are advertised quite as much by gossips and enemies and human nature. And if we aren't, our competitor is - through our efforts.
§ 7. What interests human nature? Food that tastes good; clothes that look well; beauty of face and form; other people's success; other people's sorrows - a little; other people's failures - a very little; the building of homes; personal ownership; the hunting instinct; the fighting instinct; the parental instinct; love and hate and jealousy. These matters interest everybody, from the savage to the saint. The higher up we go in the scale of civilization, the more refined these interests become, though at bottom they are not changed. The love of family broadens out into love of the community and finally into love of the State. But for every person who loves the nation intelligently, there are a hundred who love their families. And for every one who loves a concert by the Thomas Orchestra there are ten who love baseball.
These primitive human interests - most of which center about nutrition and reproduction - are not bad in themselves. They are neither bad nor good. An instinct becomes bad only when it is over-developed and usurps more attention than it deserves. The love of dress, for example, is strong in us all. It may be so strong in an individual that he or she gives up too much for it. But it may be refined and made intelligent, and it is one of the functions of business to accomplish that very end, by producing better lines of dress-goods and making them popular.
So these primitive human instincts must be kept in mind by any writer who wishes to be interesting. They are the only real interests that will ever get into his pages. They are the only thing that he can appeal to. A good business man or a good writer will see to it that his business assists in the elevating of some primitive instinct.
Perhaps you shake your head doubtfully at that last sentence. It sounds a little like preaching. Why would it not be just as true to say that there is the biggest money in appealing to human nature's baser instincts? It is done, we know. There is business which deliberately appeals to man the brute, man the drunkard, man the gambler, man the glutton, man the thief.
But is business which appeals to man-the-thief likely to remain business? On the contrary, theft and business are diametrically opposed to each other.
And how much soap can you sell to a savage? If you want to sell soap, you must increase the demand for soap. You must enlarge man's very moderate instinct for cleanliness. Only civilized peoples have many wants or many interests. Business grows as wants increase - everybody knows that. And wants increase only as primitive instincts become elevated. The exceptions (whiskey, for instance) only serve to prove the rule. If you get it into your head that civilization is a nervous disease, and that the world is all going crazy from increase of wants, you will never be a business man.
You never need regret trying to elevate a human instinct or increase refined needs. It is always good business to do that, and in doing it a self-respecting person ought to find a great deal of solid pleasure.
§ 8. Consider this matter as affecting the choice of words. Some words are more interesting than others. Hungry is more interesting to the public than refraction, or integration, or parallelopipedon. Food is more interesting than nutriment The doctors have an interminable list of names for the parts and diseases of the body, but these terms are not particularly interesting to the public. Healthy people take an interest in their hands, but hardly in their metacarpuses and phalanges. Sick or well, people take a fearful interest in the word cancer, but they do not worry about carcinomas and sarcomas and epitheliomas until those scientific distinctions strike home - until it makes a difference which you've got.