The words we choose to use send signals about us – about how we are as people, leaders and as organisations. The way we express ourselves is how people will ultimately ‘see us’ and what we stand for, so it is important that we choose our words carefully and with clarity. Our words can have real impact but they can also sink us too.
Where to start?
Writing is a creative activity – or, at least, it should be – and it can be a very public one too. As a leader, what you write will be read, re-read, scrutinised and, if it’s good, it will be remembered and acted upon. Whether that is a letter or a report, a brochure or an email, when you’re faced with a blank screen and a deadline, it can be hard to know where to start.
Well, the good news is that there are a number of simple steps we can take to help make our writing more relevant, more engaging and more memorable, and it all starts will knowing who your audience is.
Who are you talking to?
It is always important to begin any writing assignment by considering your target audience. It could be that your audience is internal or external; they may be very familiar with your business, or they may completely new to the sector.
From the CEO to part-time employees, from customers to suppliers, from the press to recruitment, the myriad of potential ‘readers’ means that, as writers, we need to paint a vivid picture in our minds of whom we are writing to. In order for your message to really hit home and have an impact, you need your writing – your words – to be as relevant as possible to the people who will read them. You need to tailor your writing, so ask yourself the following questions about your readers:
- Who are they and what do they do? – It’s basic, but it is surprising how we often just see our audience as one large, homogenised ‘lump’. Try to see the individual person and understand their role and what they do. Write to them. Write for them.
- What do they know and don’t know? – Don’t assume everyone has the same knowledge of a subject as you do. You may need to do some explaining to set the context of your message.
- What are their challenges? – What is happening to them now, in their working lives, that present the biggest challenges, and why?
- What are their fears? – What worries them and why, and how will your words help to solve their worries and fears?
What are you going to write?
Of course, the reasons behind what you write and why you are writing will vary, and will depend on many factors. That said, every piece of communication needs effective content and we need a method or approach to help us identify what this effective content might be.
Copywriting is a balance between what you want to say, and how you want to say it, the tone of voice, if you like. What’s the tone of the voice that is appropriate for this piece of writing?
Before beginning any writing task, it is essential that you define your key message. The key message is the single piece of information your want our reader to retain after reading your communication.
A key message should:
- Be a single thought or idea
- Include a benefit or ‘call to action’ for the reader
- Be expressed in a few words as possible
It is all too easy to bury your key message under the weight of other thoughts, so how can you condense your proposition into a single sentence? Try the elevator test. Imagine you are in an elevator and that someone from your target audience joins you. You are both only travelling six floors, so you only have a few seconds to deliver your message. What would you say? How simply can you distil your key message down, so that you can clearly express it and it is understood? What is absolutely necessary and what is padding?
How are you going to write it?
1. Get to the point – When writing, get your point – your key message- across to your reader as clearly and as soon as possible. Don’t make them read more than is absolutely necessary.
Many of your readers are not likely to read the entire piece – especially if you’re composing a long newsletter or report – so make sure that your key message appears within the body of your heading, or sub-heading, or within the first paragraph. Always lead with the most important information, as this allows your reader to scan the opening and decide whether it is relevant and keep reading.
2. Break it up – When readers scan communications, they look for signposts to help them to find the information they need. Long, word-dense paragraphs are off putting and hard to read, so it helps if you do the following to help:
- Provide clear, explanatory & short headings
- Write meaningful sub-headings describing the content that follows
- Set out simple, short paragraphs, each one highlighting only one idea
- Give information as bulleted lists
3. Say what you mean – Always use short words and sentences. Simple clear language will help understanding, and prevent readers having to stop and ask, ‘What does that mean?’
- Don’t use a long word where a more-common, simpler and short word will do as well:
- Harder to read: We will commence the restructure when…
- Easier to read: We will start the restructure when…
- Don’t use six words, when you might use two:
- Hard to read: The guidance that we are now providing…
- Easier to read: Our guidance…
Jargon, technical language and acronyms should be avoided wherever possible. Even if the communication you are writing is aimed at a specialist audience rather than a general reader, you should not assume prior knowledge. Doing so might exclude readers and disengage them.
4. Be Human – The language we use plays a big part in forming peoples’ perceptions about us and it should reflect our values; in short, our language should be as human as possible. Three simple rules to keep in mind:
- Be personal and engaging
- Be compelling
- Be accurate
A personal and direct style will help to engage the reader. A good rule of thumb is to imagine you are talking directly to the reader whilst you write. Use the active, personal voice rather than a passive impersonal voice whenever you can.
Passive: Preventative measures that should have been taken were not actioned
Active: I didn’t ensure that the necessary preventative measures were actioned
Active sentences have a strong, direct, and honest tone, and give a clear sense of ownership.
5. Be imaginative
Never settle for the first thing that comes into your mind when you begin writing. Never just settle for the satisfactory. Use your imagination and play with your ideas, words and phrasing.
Does your writing surprise? If your communication reads like it is on autopilot when you wrote it, then who will want to read it? Think of ways to surprise… ask questions, use repetition (power of three), tell stories and use imagery to surprise and create engagement.
Trust your subconscious. Sometimes it can be beneficial to take time away from your writing and let things ‘digest’ in your subconscious. Looking at your ideas afresh a few hours later can sometimes open up new channels of thinking.
Embrace the new. Writing and design are often married together to increase attention and engagement. Just think of all the memorable posters you’ll have seen over the years that combined imagery and text to make their point. So, when you see a new format or image think about how you might marry them with your key message. Keep a scrapbook of things you have seen or read and find ways to use new ways of communicating.
Writing should be enjoyable and creative, but it must also affect and engage:
1. Know your reader – always write with your reader in mind; know their role, their challenges and fears
2. Keep your content relevant, simple and to the point – you should have a clear goal or ‘call to action’ in mind. What do you want your reader to think, feel or do after reading your piece?
3. Write in short sentences – no one likes to sit in front of a page of heavy text, especially if that text has come from their boss or a company they work with.
4. Be human – write to a person, not an audience.
5. Find ways to engage and surprise – Think about what types of writing affect you and why?