I taught a writing workshop recently and realized afterward how frequently I stressed the necessity of considering the reader when we choose our words.
In regard to fiction writing, I suggested writers give readers credit for discernment and intelligence. It isnt necessary to explain every detail. Indeed, readers who feel patronized by a writer who provides too much information or repeats information may become former readers.
The same consideration applies to all written and spoken words. We need to determine who the audience is and, as much as possible, their level of familiarity with the topic, and speak to the majority (or just below). Figure out what action, if any, you want your audience or reader to take. We want fiction readers to keep reading. Often we want the audience for our speeches or marketing materials to do much more: change behavior, buy our products, come to our places of business.
When choices must be made, its generally best to go for the simplest words, the shortest sentences and the most easily understood marketing copy. Better that some readers feel superior than many feel confused.
This advice is particularly relevant to websites and billboard advertising. Simplicity succeeds. The media are quite different. The audience for a billboard drives by and must very quickly assimilate its message. Website visitors have more time, but a confusing or unappealing website will lose visitors in less time than it takes a Miata to zoom past a billboard on the interstate.
I have recently been puzzled by several billboards Ive passed in my car (which is, alas, not a Miata). In the case of some public-service billboards, I dont know what the billboards are advertising or promoting. Sometimes, when I understand that part of a billboards message, I often have no clue to the location of the business being promoted or what I should do after reading the message.
Regarding websites, a friend told me she recently had to search for several minutes and through several levels before finding the donate button on a charitable organizations website. She persevered when many would not. Consider what actions you want site visitors to take and make those actions simple. For websites, that means content that is easily viewable and accessible on the home page. It means making the font large enough to read (again, knowing your audience helps). Colors should be readable on the majority of monitors and not so garish they hurt the eyes. You should have a smartphone-accessible site if you believe your audience will look at your site on their phones.
Print advertising and other marketing materials benefit from following similar guidelines. Know the audience, understand its members level of familiarity with your product or organization, and speak to them in their language, vocabulary and font size.
If your budget allows, testing your website and marketing materials with various audiences will improve the chances that your message is understood and acted on in the way you intend. If your budget is tiny, spouses, family members and friends can provide valuable feedback.
Ive focused on marketing materials in this article, but writing copy for product documentation is perhaps even more important. Have you ever been thrown for a loss by those universal drawings purported to help you connect and get your product operating? Perhaps it is because I am a word person, but a few simple words would have helped me get going faster. It is also true that clear, well-worded documentation can save you from returns, frustrated phone calls and emails, and in some cases, lawsuits.
Give your audience a little consideration and theyll be more likely to consider you.
Kathy McIntosh, Boise author, speaker and freelance editor. Owner of A Well-Placed Word. firstname.lastname@example.org