Some say we’re rapidly approaching—or we’re already in—a post-literate world; everyone communicating by text message abbreviations (r u 1 of them?) and emoticons. But effective writing still matters. It remains one of the most important ways to communicate with people.
It’s likely that lots of the content you’ll create to help promote your brand will rely on the written word: website content, email pitches, sales brochures, even social media posts. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in or who your customers are, poorly written communications can hurt your business. And on the flipside, effective writing and storytelling techniques can help you get customers, make sales and grow your business.
Let’s look at some of the things you should keep in mind so the words you use to tell your story are helping you and not hurting you.
A note about your brand’s “voice”
We’ll assume that you’ve already determined what your brand voice is, because that will have a large impact on how you talk to your customers and what you say. It’s crucial to develop a voice that represents your brand. Is your brand hip and friendly? Is it high-end and exclusive?
Your brand voice should be reflected in all written communication and visuals that you set before your audience. And that leads us to our first point.
Know who your audience is
The #1 rule of writing—or just about any form of communication, for that matter—is to know your audience. When you know who you’re talking to, then you should know how to talk to them.
But wait. Talking to different people in different ways—isn’t that being two-faced or something? Not at all. Do you talk to your 89-year-old grandmother the same way you talk to your 5-year-old son? Probably not. Each “audience,” demographic or group comes with its own understood vocabulary and frames of reference, not to mention general world views, mindsets, preferences, humour sensibilities and needs.
There’s a reason we talk so much about millennials, gen X-ers, baby boomers and other demographics—including gender. Smart marketers know that different demographics respond to marketing messages and strategies differently. And of course that hugely impacts how you should talk to them in your content.
For a perfect example, look no further than the first paragraph of this section. I wrote “When you know who you’re talking to…” when I probably should have said “When you know whom you’re talking to…” or even “to whom you are talking.” Maybe that would make sense if this was being presented to an audience of stern-faced grammarians. But you’re not a snooty, old-school grammarian, are you? Good, neither are we.
Use the active voice
This is one of the most fundamental pieces of advice for good writing, whether it’s journalism or fiction or marketing. By the “active voice,” we mean using a sentence structure that features an active verb in the SVO sequence: Subject–Verb–Object. For example: Karen crashed the party.
In contrast, using the passive voice (OVS: Object–Verb–Subject) gives you this: The party was crashed by Karen. Imagine the kids at school on Monday morning whispering that in the hallways. Yawn.
But using the active voice, it’s “Karen crashed the party!” That’s incredible! Tell me more!
Simply put, writing in the active voice just gives you better sentences. More vivid, more alive, more attractive (hey, we all like action). Using the passive voice just sounds dull and listless.
Imagine if they’d said, “Wings will be given to you by Redbull.” Just…no.
Use plain, informal language
We’ve all seen the police spokesperson at the press conference. For some reason they feel the need to use words that sound officious: “We have no additional information at the present time.” Translation: “We don’t know anything else right now.”
Or the airline pilot who says, “We are presently experiencing abundant precipitation.” Why not simply say “It’s raining hard.”
Use simple and clear words that your audience understands. Here are some common examples where a simple, short word can communicate much more plainly and directly than a word that seems to have inflated self-importance:
|At the present time||Now|
|Employ or utilize||Use|
|Obtain or procure||Get|
Generally, just write the way people naturally speak. Correct spelling and grammar are important, of course; you don’t want to look sloppy. But you also don’t want to sound stiff and overly formal, especially if that’s not your brand and not who your audience is.
In fact, feel free to throw out some of the rules you were taught in school. You’re not trying to be proper, you’re trying to connect.
End sentences with prepositions? Hell yes!
Which of these sounds more appealing and natural to you?
“Here’s a gizmo you’ll really flip for!”
“Here’s a gizmo for which you’ll really flip!”
Start sentences with conjunctions? And why not?
“Here’s a gizmo you’ll really flip for. And it’s safe for pre-schoolers!”
Perfectly fine and effective.
Use sentence fragments? One-word sentences? One-sentence paragraphs? Sure!
I just did. Above.
For those of us “inside” an industry, whether it’s pharmaceutical or automobiles or marketing, it’s easy to fall into using technical jargon, the insider terminology of that industry.
Of course, here again, you need to know your audience to know what would qualify as jargon to them. And to that point, it also matters whether your communication is B2B or B2C (marketing jargon meaning “business to business” and “business to consumer”).
If you’re writing an email to an audience of dental practitioners, you can assume a certain level of understanding exists of dentistry jargon, seeing as you’re both “inside” the same industry. But if you’re writing to a general audience of consumers, remove that jargon or you might as well be speaking a foreign language.
Don’t use fluff words and redundancies
Clarity is crucial to effective and persuasive writing. Just as your writing will be much clearer when you avoid jargon, it will also be clearer by getting rid of fluff words. Usually these are little qualifying words such as very, little, rather and somewhat.
It’s easy to feel like you need these words to add something to what you’re saying, but they actually have the opposite effect. These tend to be vague and empty words; they don’t add anything that helps the reader. If a word doesn’t help in any way, get rid of it.
In one of the classic guides to good writing, William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well,” the author advises to “prune out” these little qualifying words:
“Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident. Don’t say you weren’t too happy because the hotel was pretty expensive. Say you weren’t happy because the hotel was expensive.”
Use storytelling techniques to connect with your customers
Telling stories is big right now. It’s all about storytelling. And for good reason. Stories, told well, are an effective and relatable way to get your message across. So think about how you can use storytelling techniques to talk about your brand.
A good story—in fiction, journalism, marketing or even in a song—starts by grabbing your attention, whether it’s the first line of a novel, the lede sentence in a news story or the intro to a piece of music.
Just as in a newspaper headline, you need to communicate the most important aspects of your story right at the start. In journalism, it’s the 5 Ws—the who, what, where, when and why. In marketing it’s often WIIFM—“what’s in it for me.” In other words, what is the main benefit to your potential customer?
So your email subject line needs to get their attention, and inside the email, and on your landing page, your headlines and subheads need to keep their attention and shepherd them through the content, like a “page-turner” novel. Why should they keep reading? What’s in it for them?
Telling personal stories can also be very effective. I know of someone who fundraises for charities. He was trying to raise funds and awareness for a mental health initiative, but he was getting a tepid response to his emails. Then he decided to share his story about his own past struggles with depression and how he got through it. People responded and eventually he started to achieve his fundraising goals. That’s the power of a compelling personal story, and how it connects with people.
Lots of brands use personal stories to communicate what they’re all about, such as Ben and Jerry’s, Airbnb, Burt’s Bees and Doctors Without Borders. Politicians in their speeches will often use the example of one person’s story to illustrate their message and humanize a policy plank.
Maybe you have a personal story—or one from a customer—that can help bring your brand to life.
The information and tips we’re sharing in this article are meant to be a starting point for your year-end tax prep, so you can be informed and feel confident when working with your accountant. Be sure to check with a tax expert in your country or region for any specific advice you need, as each business (and tax district) is different. As our lawyers would say: “This article is for informational purposes only. It should not be considered legal or financial advice.”