By Rachel Moore
Full disclosure: when I sat down for Beth Dunn, HubSpot’s Product Editor-in-Chief’s session at this year’s inbound conference, I was expecting to be wow-ed - or at least moderately enchanted. I’d seen her speak at INBOUND for the past two years, and each session was unexpectedly awesome. Beth has a way of making what are superficially “ho-hum” topics like 2013’s how to write good (hint: not like that), 2014’s “fixing” your writing (hint: it was a double entendre), well, kick-ass. So it goes without saying that I had high expectations for this year’s session, titled “Use Your Words.”
And boy, did Beth ever use her words – 128,043 of them, to be exact.
…Just kidding. I absolutely did not count Beth’s words. Why? Not because that would be an entirely crazy thing to do, no: because I was hanging on every piece of advice she offered to marketers, product folks, and humans alike on how to come up with perfect copy for every purpose, every time.
Beth’s talk operated around the central concept that how you choose and use your words determine how you’ll be seen by other people – your prospects, customers, competitors, friends, and parents included. Every word and phrase is another brush stroke in the portrait of yourself (or your brand) that you’re presenting to the world.
Beth highlighted that there’s often a gap between what we want to say and what actually comes out. From her perspective, this is because we devote a disproportionate amount to time to figuring out what we want to say instead of thinking about how it makes us sound when we say it. As a result, we often try and dress up our writing by using big words and snazzy phrasing instead of slowing down to think if those SAT words and shiny pearls of prose are actually the clearest way to communicate our ideas. From Beth’s perspective, most of this phrasing ultimately ends of falling flat, confusing readers, muddling ideas, and ultimately having the exact opposite of the desired effect.
In her talk, Beth explored the top ten things we all “want” for our writing but seldom achieve - and how to actually accomplish them. Of those ten, here are the seven that most resonated with me:
1. We want our writing to sound “human.”
“How do I make this sound more human?” is one of the most common questions editors receive, and also one of the strangest. Who, after all, created this blog post, email, or website copy?
Regardless of the questions about alien writers this request may raise, making copy sound “human” is incredibly important - people do business with people, not with other businesses. So how do you make sure your copy sounds like a person wrote it – not some faceless, nameless business?
Use contractions. Instead of using phrases like “can not” and “they are,” as Beth said, “start bashing words together like you’re in the freakin’ roller derby.” “Can’t” and “they’re” are not only grammatically acceptable alternatives, they’re human-friendly ones.
2. We want to sound honest and trustworthy.
Using unnecessarily fancy words or complex phrasing can be a convenient way to hide facts or fallacies in a pile of thesaurus clippings. Overusing terms like “utilize,” “employ,” “leverage,” or other business jargon alternatives to plain English words like “use” can have a cumulative effect on readers’ impressions of your trustworthiness. “Over time,” suggested Beth, “they suggest to the reader there’s some smoke and mirrors going on here.” How can you avoid this?
Use small language. Simple, concise words that get your meaning across as clearly as possible with as little unnecessary puffery as possible. Also, whenever you want to say “utilize,” just say no: it means exactly the same thing as “use” and doesn’t come with any of the baggage.
3. We want to sound exciting.
We want to get people excited about what we’re building, creating and writing about – and the easiest way of doing that is by putting an exclamation! Mark! After! Everything! Right?! Wrong.
We often use exclamation marks when we want to sound exciting, but in reality it can make writing stand out as overly promotional or poorly crafted. So what’s a writer to do when they want to convey excitement?
Don’t use exclamation marks – they’re the punctuation equivalent of a crutch for lame writing. If you take the exclamation marks out of your writing and it sounds flat, good: you’ve just identified the weaknesses in that piece and you can now fix it. “Punctuation can’t bear the weight of human emotion – but words can,” said Beth. Removing punctuation reveals these weaknesses; let words convey that emotion.
4. We want to sound helpful.
Whether or not you’re writing customer-facing help articles or awareness-focused blog content, your writing should come across as helpful and accessible for your audience. Often, though, including overly technical terms, abbreviations, or other jargon can be confusing to readers. Keeping content helpful is easy:
Avoid jargon – it excludes people who aren’t familiar or comfortable with it and makes content feel like it’s designed for an exclusive club…of which they’re not a member. Pull apart as many of these acronyms as possible.
5. We want to appear careful.
How many times have you read a resume from a candidate who lists “attention to detail” as a strength, but who can’t seem to spell “recIEve?” Don’t let your marketing copy convey the same carelessness.
Proofread everything and always use spell check. Small issues make it seem like you’re thoughtless and that you don’t pay attention – neither of which breed trust in your product or organization.
6. We want to be seen as caring about users.
On the surface, phrases like “I welcome your feedback” and “we care about our customers” may seem like nice sentiments. But what do they really say? They put the writer and their company (the “I” and “we”) first and the customer or user second. They’re more about what I think about feedback and how we feel about customers than the feedback or customers themselves.
The reader doesn’t care that you welcome their feedback – they just have opinions to share and questions to ask. How can writers shift from an internal to a user focus?
Check your pronouns. Put the spotlight on your reader – make sure sentences aren’t all about you and instead are focused on them. Avoid using “we,” “I,” and “us” and use “you” and “your” instead.
7. We want our content to resonate with readers.
What makes sense to us may not make sense to our readers – and that’s a problem. How can we bridge the communication gap and make sure what we write is actually what users read?
Role play. Put yourself in your users’ shoes and read through your writing in their voice and from their point of view. Ask yourself: How will this word, sentence, or paragraph actually sound in their brain? What if they’re reading this on their worst day of the year: will that joke still go over or that phrasing catch their eye? If the answer is no, re-think it.
Did you see Beth speak at INBOUND15? Did you agree with her advice?