“And I thought, look at Jenika’s website – she talks like a human.”
Two weekends ago I perched atop a desk in a Yale dorm room, swinging my legs and chatting with a former college roommate. An amazing part of being at the reunion, aside from the piles of well-catered food (endless platters of brie? I’m so there…) was getting to play undergrad and talk endlessly, just like we did back in the day.
Only this time, we weren’t gossiping about last night’s a cappella jam or whining about midterms.
We talked about writing.
This roommate now works for a fast-growing company with a substantial online presence. She helps train people to write for their websites and blogs. A job which, it turns out, is quite frustrating.
Here’s where it gets interesting:
Her biggest complaint was not that people don’t have anything to write about, or that they didn’t write frequently enough.
It’s that when they did write, they didn’t sound like human beings.
Put pens in the hands of a room full of cheerful, chattering, perfectly lovely people, and they morph into dull, corporate-verbiage-generating machines.
You’ve seen the this kind of writing. The words seem stiff. Vague. Fluffy. With the emotional range of Mr. Spell.
Have you ever been there, too? Where you type something up and think as you write, “What am I even saying?”
I go through this all the time. I discard a good 40% of what I write for this blog and try to edit the rest into submission. It’s a process, and I don’t always succeed. But there are three tools you can use to beat back the borings and sound more like a human and less like a talking spreadsheet:
#1: Get off the airplane.
Sometimes I feel like the internet is one giant airplane, and we’re all breathing the same re-circulated air, writing the same re-circulated words.
When we write, our minds tend to grasp onto what we’ve seen other people say. We create a “Product Guide” because we’ve seen other photographers do it, and assume that’s what clients expect to see, that it’s simply how things are done.
But maybe clients don’t expect that. Maybe they’d prefer “4 Unique Ways To Enjoy Your Images” instead of a “product guide.” Maybe they’d prefer a “Dream Home Guide.”
We think of our wares as ‘products,’ but that might not be the way your clients think of them – they think of them as vehicles to create a beautiful home, to sell more handmade blankets on Etsy, to get something done. So maybe there’s a way to label your “products” that would intrigue or serve your client better. Or maybe not.
But too often, we regurgitate what others have written and we don’t hit “pause” and think. We don’t ask the question, “Is this really the best way to say that?” We’re stuck on the airplane.
Of course, as you branch out and consider fresh perspectives, never sacrifice clarity for creativity. Your “Product Guide” should not be “The Land of Awesomeness.” It needs to be clear what you’re talking about. Internet users still prioritize usability over creativity in labeling.
But be mindful of your labels and titles. Don’t just call it something because you’ve seen it around. That’s how you get stuck in a puddle of bland. Sit in your client’s chair – what would they want to see?
#2: The best anti-boringspeak weapon: Say it like you’d say it out loud.
Before you try and shoehorn an idea into the written word, say it out loud. Does it sound like something you’d say in regular conversation?
Would you ever write to your best friend, for example, “To request more information about our wardrobe recommendations, contact me”?
Or would you say “Want help deciding what to wear? Call me!”?
The way you say it out loud might not translate perfectly into writing on the first try. That’s okay.
But you don’t have to start out by trying to sound ‘professional.’ Sometimes, trying to “sound professional” from the get-go will result in dry, boring, plain-oatmeal writing.
It’s often easier to start with something genuinely conversational, and then polish it up.
Note: Not everyone needs to have a conversational site. Your tone has to match your brand.
But one thing is for sure: If you’re billing yourself as a laid-back photographer who captures “real” and “spontaneous” living, then telling clients to “Enter your information to subscribe to our newsletter” doesn’t prove it. You might be better off with something like: “Drop your email here for a monthly surprise party in your inbox!” – something that demonstrates that you are what you say you are.
#3: Reward people for reaching the footnotes.
An email landed in my inbox recently. An advertising message on some list I’d signed up for. I was mildly irritated by it, and scrolled down to unsubscribe, and this is what I saw:
Computers are evil? Electronic missives? I giggled. And I’m not a giggler. My irritation dissipated.
Rewarding people for reaching the footnotes isn’t about being silly. It’s acknowledging that even though we use a lot of official, transactional language – we can still make each other laugh. Back when I used MailChimp, I loved sending out emails because the “send” button said something like “This is your moment of glory!” underneath. It made me laugh – and added a touch of good-humored grandiosity to an everyday task.
When people read through your work, make some of the fine print funny. Add a snicker-inducing graphic. Change “send” to “Bombs away!” on a submit button. Reward them for reading the details. If they expect unexpected, amusing things from you, they’ll be more likely to engage with what you say and read the fine print.
Ahh…you’ve just finished reading 3 tips for better, more human writing.
Do you ever get tired of just reading about writing?
I get tired of it, too. Because we can read all we want, but that doesn’t always help us when we sit down and stare at a blinking cursor. And it’s hard to edit your own work for mistakes, because our mistakes usually fall in our blind spots. That’s why we keep making them.
I have taken writing classes from published, respected authors. With heaps of assigned reading and thousands of graded words.
But do you know what helped more than a semester of good information?
Sitting in their office for twenty minutes, going over my work word by word, with them pointing out places that I could individually improve.
There were more forehead-slapping realizations per minute of one-on-one discussions than I got from reading alone.
So I’ve decided to try an experiment.
This July (yep, next month) I’ll be offering a real, interactive writing class. Specifically covering how to write persuasively online.
There will be a new chapter on persuasion delivered to you once a week for four weeks, with that week’s writing challenge attached.
The reading and the challenges will be short. (If you have time to read the equivalent of a couple magazine articles, and write the equivalent of a couple of emails per week, you have time to participate.)
You and I will also get two chances to sit down together for one-on-one “writer’s dates,” where we’ll edit your website or blog writing together. Gasps, clarity, and client-grabbing prose guaranteed.
It will be a small class – 14 spots max – and we’ll also hang out in a private Facebook group as we explore real-world persuasion and writing for your audience online.
If you find yourself stuck on a business writing treadmill with little to show for it, this class is for you.
If you re-read your blog or website and it doesn’t sound like “you,” this class is for you.
If you hate the idea of writing to sell, but need to sell nonetheless, this class is for you.
Interested? More details to come next week…