Writing is writing is writing. Whether you’re composing a tweet, a text message, or a poem, we all write, all the time, every day.
When we write, we communicate. Effective writing can evoke emotions and communicate ideas, but what happens when writing is ineffective? Messages get lost, intentions are questioned, hints are missed, and sometimes, arguments can occur. Anyone who’s ever made a sarcastic comment over text can likely understand.
The first thing that must be done when attempting to write effectively is considering your audience. When I taught college freshman, I had my students do an exercise:
In your class journal, write down what you did this weekend as if you were telling your best friend. Give all the details you can—no one’s reading this except you.
Once they’d written their weekend adventures down, I’d ask them to complete the second part of the prompt:
Now, write the same story—everything you did this weekend—except this time, you’re writing to your parents, not your friend.
When I’d read this part of the prompt to my classes, eyes would widen. Giggles would fill the room. Some students would whisper to each other. After they finished, I’d ask them how it went. What was different about the way they talked about their weekends from one audience to the next?
Usually, students would say that in the second part, they’d leave out the wild parties and focus on how they finished a paper on Saturday afternoon, went to a ballgame with friends, or church on Sunday. From the first prompt to the second, they’d often water down, leave out, or lie entirely.
Content varies from audience to audience. Messaging depends on who you’re talking to. You have to speak their language—through syntax, word choice, and tone.
It’s also a good thing to consider positionality.
Positionality (n): the social and political context that creates your identity in terms of race, class, gender sexuality, and ability status (I’d also add education status to this list). Also describes how your identity influences, and potentially biases, your understanding of and outlook on the world.
Students often enter the classroom believing that bias is a bad thing. The truth is that we all have biases, and that they’re only dangerous if we don’t know what they are or how they affect the way we think and communicate with others.
Because you are an expert in a field doesn’t mean your audience is. If our clients knew how to write code or draw up a logo, they probably wouldn’t hire us to remodel their websites or revamp their brand design. And our clients who can do those things, but can’t spend the time doing what we do? We wouldn’t want to explain things they already know.
All your clients need to know up front is that you can get the job done and done well. If they reach out, that’s when you can spill the nuts and bolts of your process, because they’re likely interested, and we think it’s always good to keep clients in the know. When it comes to capturing a potential client’s attention, though, there’s something to be said for intrigue.
Let’s face it: We all live for the drama to some degree. It keeps us reading books and watching movies and television. It makes jokes funny and personal anecdotes exciting. While writing copy for a social media post or website page might not seem to be as complicated or dramatic as a movie, the same writing techniques can be used for grabbing your audience’s attention.
Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, said that Drama is life with the dull bits cut out. When a character in a movie goes to the mall, you don’t stick around to watch them put on their jacket, get their keys, exit their house, lock the door, and drive all the way to the mall. The only action you see onscreen is the action that matters.
Consider what action matters for your company or product, and cut the unnecessary stuff. Only include the most vital information—the stuff your client can’t live without.
Think of that old business motto: Never reveal everything you know. This might be bad advice as it pertains to teaching or mentorship [link to Fostering Talent?], but when it comes to a first impression, it’s a nice rule of thumb in the same way it’s better to use bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation rather than cramming your slides with paragraphs of small print. You might have a lot to say, but it’s better to cut to the chase, present your main ideas first, then expand on them later.
Put yourself in your client’s shoes. What information—both written and visual—might they be looking for on your website? Is that information front and center, or crowded in with less necessary content?
Keeping your audience’s attention can be tricky, but the key is momentum. Break up your information—visual and textual—into digestible chunks. Give your audience a reason to keep scrolling, remembering that room to breathe can be just as important as any content.
Once they reach the end of the page, they’ll know who you are, what you do, and how to get in touch. We want them intrigued—to buy your product, hire you out, or tell their friends about what you do.