You and me (but mostly me)

January 9th, 2015

Posted by: Dan Brotzel, Sticky Content

It’s a cliche of every copywriting manual or workshop: write for your readers. Put your audience first. Walk in their shoes. Think about who you are writing for. We all pay lip service to this idea, but how often do we really do it?

Not very often, if the responses of users to digital content are anything to go by. (And in a sense they are really all we should be going by.) When people complain about a business’s FAQs or email newsletters or Facebook page, their complaints almost always centre on the fact that content doesn’t feel like it’s been created for them. Indeed, against them might be a better description: the text is hard to scan, the language is full of jargon, and it’s just too much effort to process it all.

Examples are legion, and often it’s the little things: the language school site that was trying to attract people looking to learn English… in a style of English that could only be understood by people who had already completed several of their courses. The management consultancy with thousands of pieces of thought leadership… but no links between any of them, and so no way for anyone to deepen their understanding of a topic. The debt charity that didn’t think to mention its helpline is free to callers.

One of the most common mistakes in all writing, writes my favourite content guru Gerry McGovern, is ‘writing for the ego, not the reader; writing from the organisation’s perspective, not the customer’s. […] It is incredibly hard to write for the reader and not for the ego. It means going against millions of years of human behaviour, where survival meant looking out for ourselves and the small group we were associated with. It is still more natural for us to think primarily about ourselves and the organisation to which we belong.’ Yet to have a chance of creating killer content (ie good stuff), we must accept, he writes, that ‘making your customers feel special means understanding what they really care about; [and] what they really care about can sometimes be the opposite of what you really care about.’

Instinctively we know this to be true, and so to feel like we are getting inside the user’s skin we gather customer insights and devise segments and personas. We produce slide decks about pain points and sales drivers and user motivations. But none of this matters, none of this actually means we are writing for our users, if we don’t take a step back and actually think about who we are writing for. Sometimes acting on all that insight means not appearing to do much for a while.

Data analysis and insight gathering are logical left-brain, fast-thinking activities; writing well also involves harnessing the creative, slow-thinking right brain. It means jotting down that thought you had on the train when you didn’t even know you were thinking about the brief. Sometimes it means just staring into space a while.

Like our users we are programmed to think only about ourselves, and only by a powerful effort of the imagination do we ever drop our guard of relentless self-interest and prioritise someone else’s concerns. Indeed, so strong is the selfish urge that this drama of self-denial – this writerly business of leaving the ego at the door – must be re-enacted with every new brief, every new piece of work. But then, and only then, do we have a chance of coming up with something our readers might actually care about.

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