Before my life as a copywriter began, I taught English in secondary schools. It was sometimes an eye-opening experience.
I’ve always loved stories, language, and the written word, but for the first time ever, I encountered people who didn’t. Twice a week, I started the day with a group of high-energy 13-year-old boys; they disliked my inability to entertain them and feared the challenges they found in lessons. And, as a brand-new teacher, I failed to find the right tone: I aimed my content too high.
This incredibly valuable experience has taught me a lot about the challenges business writers and readers can face. When approaching their content marketing, firms need to get their message across, but all too often, they fail to really understand their customers’ needs. This is why you need to consider the way you write for your audience — your style and ‘tone of voice’.
Read on for three ways to define a business writing style that will work for your audience. (Like me, you might be surprised!)
“Choose your words wisely. They may be your last.”
Unless you ask your potential customers, you may never find out what they think of your website. (Analytics will tell you if they read it at all.)
The biggest mistake many businesses make is not keeping things simple. They choose a style they think will impress because it uses industry jargon and advanced vocabulary.
Now you might say to me, “my clients are intelligent people. They need to feel I know what I’m talking about”. Here are three good reasons to rethink an overly complex writing style:
Alarmingly, an average of 1 in 6 adults in the UK is classed as having ‘very poor literacy’, limiting their ability to follow written arguments and even sentence structure. Most UK national newspapers and many websites assume a reading ability lower than that of a 10-year-old — no matter how sophisticated the publication.
Reading ability aside, your customers don’t have the time or patience to wade through wordy content. The 2018 average length of time spent on a webpage was just 2 minutes, 17 seconds (3 minutes or more for healthcare topics). Readers need you to get to the point. You can’t afford to let good insights get lost in an avalanche of words.
Complex language affects what readers think of you — for the worse. In a study done at Princeton University, author Daniel Oppenheimer looked at how readers rated the intelligence of writers when they used complex language. He found that readers actually rated them as less intelligent than those who used simple wording.
The paper’s title? ‘Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly’.
What does your reader really want?
Creating a defined tone of voice guide will help you navigate how you ‘talk’ to your audience across print, web, and other media.
This document needs to explain how you want your brand to sound. Perhaps you want to come across as approachable and helpful. Perhaps you want to sound fresh and fun.
What’s appropriate for your company’s tone of voice will depend entirely on its audience. There are times when a fun, quirky, and original approach could help you break through to readers who’ve seen every kind of marketing message before. On the other hand, seeming flippant can easily backfire.
The key is to always look at your writing from the perspective of someone who’d actually use your service or product. Does it still sound cool and casual? Or does it sound uncaring and unaware of your customer/potential client and their needs? And is your brand messaging consistent?
Finding out as much as possible about your customer and using personas — i.e. pen portraits of your firm’s typical clientele — is a great way to keep their tastes in mind. (For help with this, here’s a great guide on how to create and use personas.)
Writing to engage
If you’re a follower of inbound marketing strategy, you’ll be looking to ‘attract, engage, and delight’ your customers. How will you do that if your website and other materials are poorly written?
You may never know how much underperforming marketing and communications are costing you (and here, I’m really talking about the writing style, from the length of a piece to how interesting it is).
Consider the following when you assess your writing style:
Style — Is it fluent, easy-to-read and entertaining, without being overly showy? To put it bluntly, keep the puns to amuse yourself if you don’t actually think they’ll impress your reader.
Content — should be relevant to the reader (and that can depend on where they are in the buyer’s journey). A clearly defined content strategy will pay dividends.
Titles — worth taking time over, both as a powerful space for SEO and your chance to hook your readers’ interest. (Looking to take your SEO capabilities to the next level? Discover 12 of the quickest, easiest SEO tips and tricks to grow your organic presence.)
Call to action — it might sound like Marketing 101, but this often gets missed. If you want a piece of writing to convert, have you actually said so, with a button, link, or other invitation encouraging the reader to act?
Social — social media best practice is to tailor your posts to the platform. Your audience could be different — and have different expectations — across each one. (To find out more, check out this article on social media optimisation.)
Your final failsafe is the motto ‘P.A.L.’ (This one comes from my teaching days.) It stands for ‘purpose, audience, language’:
Is the piece you’re writing going to serve its purpose?
Does it keep a specific audience in mind?
Does it use language they’ll understand?
Finding the right writing style for your business
How did I finally get through to my class? I found the right tone of voice. I wish I could say I found it with my own class, who spent their time working out new ways to challenge their inexperienced teacher.
Instead, it happened one day when minding a ‘difficult’ class for a colleague. It was clear that these children lacked confidence; they wanted to be fussed over, encouraged, and reassured. I was just lucky to realise this on our first meeting, rather than months of challenging behaviour down the line.
These days, I take this knowledge and apply it to writing for consumers and business clients. The best way to create better content is to understand your audience’s needs. If you can tell them what they really want to know, in a way they can understand, you’ll greatly increase your chances of communicating what you really need to say, closing a deal, and keeping your customers happy.