Greeks defined kairos as saying or doing the right thing at the right time. Clues to understanding this lie in its dual etymological roots: Weaving and archery. In weaving, this occurs in the instant at which the shuttle passes through an opening in the loom’s threads; this is the moment when all the threads come together to create the fabric. Similarly, on the web, the threads of technology, design, content, culture, and user science intertwine to form the fabric— or context — that swathes the opportune moment.
But what seizes the moment? That’s where the other etymological root of kairos, archery, sheds light. Something has to act like an arrow and — ZING! — hit the mark, with enough force to stick. For Greeks that something was spoken language. On the web, that something is the written language.
On a website, we craft a context for the opportune moment. But we then need to aim at that context with words that zing like the proverbial arrow.
Writing that matters
Dubbed “captology,” or the study of computers as persuasive technology, it studies the intersection of influence and technology. Research shows how people are influenced by their relationship with technology. It is the value of getting information to people at the right time.
Similarly, another research explores writing, technology, and literacy. A recent work analyzed student writing in a range of contexts — from chat sessions to academic papers. It was found that students’ use of technology does not damage their writing abilities but, in fact, improves their awareness of the right word at the right time.
As this study suggests, social media, such as blogging and tweeting, turns users into writers who can respond to the opportune moment with the right words quickly. For example, social media allows companies to respond to an angry or confused customer. Importantly, what social media users write is published publicly for anyone to see, a situation that requires writing quickly yet carefully. Users of social media, therefore, need to know the basics of writing for the opportune moment. Influential words for planned opportune moments, such as a landing page, are more critical than ever.
To select the right words, take cues from rhetoric and psychology. I do not mean use unctuous sales language or manipulative mind control, nor do I necessarily mean use catchy words. I simply mean add influential weight to web writing based on centuries of rhetorical wisdom and a growing body of scientific knowledge.
More than an opportunity
People make innumerable decisions using websites. Our websites, then, offer countless possibilities to influence. We can turn these possibilities into realities by understanding and writing for the right word at the right time — but we often do not.
To push for quick word choices by playing down their consequences, I’ve watched more than one web professional shrug and say “We’re not saving lives here.” Sometimes, I even nodded in agreement. Our websites could help people help themselves — and the people around them — by guiding them into good decisions.
When I think about that potential, I’m convinced that we have more than an opportunity to say the right words at the right time. We have a responsibility to do so. Let’s embrace the responsibility, not shirk it, by investing in words that matter.