If effective communication were easy, everyone would be doing it. Making oneself understood in print is hard – like finding the perfect holiday gift. It’s no surprise, then, that writing intended to be engaging and persuasive frequently misses the mark. When that happens, audiences can feel underwhelmed, like a gift recipient of plain black socks.
With a few tips and a bit of practice, however, anyone can learn to give the gift of clear and effective communication.
In that spirit, the Yes& Writer’s Group has put together a brief collection of guidelines for writing more effectively. Our scribblers and scrawlers are sharing hard-earned wisdom in the hope that doing so will help you to develop content that consistently charms and delights your audience.
These are broad guidelines. They apply to a wide range of communications forms.
- Be intentional. Before you write, get clear about the desired effect of your communications (blog post, marketing letter, op-ed, etc.) on the target audience. Stick to a single outcome. Do you want them to buy, vote, donate, or volunteer? Write it down. This is your communications north star. It will be a source of focus and message discipline.
- Choose a suitable structure. This framework will be a container for your content. It could be a top ten list, Q&A, case study, social post, or something else. Knowing your audience, your intention, and your material will inform the overall design.
- Develop friendly content. When a person meets someone for the first time, he or she will immediately form impressions about the new acquaintance—their attractiveness, likeability, competence, trustworthiness. Researchers say these judgments form and harden in one-tenth of a second! Your content gets the same snap judgment. Make it attractive, friendly, interesting, energetic, and trustworthy. Wink if you have to.
- Now that you have the attention of your audience, hit them with your main point. In the vernacular of journalists, don’t bury the lede. Your opening gambit should draw the reader in and answer a critical question: who cares? If you don’t give readers a reason to stick around, they will leave. Even if they do, leading with the most important point ensures that the top-line message will go with them when they flit away.
- When appropriate, use humor. Happy people will be more open and receptive to your message. Use references from popular culture that resonate with your audience and correspond to their interests. The zeitgeist spins out unending skeins of pop-culture threads that you can use to make connections.
- Avoid stodginess. Don’t overexplain. Avoid getting mired in too much detail. Even with today's attention to gender-neutral pronouns, sentences like "Everyone should check their phones" are awkward. Rewrite as "check your phone" or "all attendees should check their phones." Also, take a stand against title creep. No one cares about the department, division, and directorate of the person you’re quoting. Trim titles.
- Use plain language. Your audience is adept at filtering out blowhards, B.S., and other annoyances. Think about the communications that speak to you and write that way. Anticipate readers’ questions and answer them. Better to connect than impress.
- Matters of appearance. Large blocks of unbroken text are imposing and off-putting. Audiences will zone out or run for the hills. Employ strategic formatting and graphic elements—bold text to emphasize key points, bulleted lists, section headers, call out boxes, images—to add interest and keep readers engaged. Appearance matters.
- Less is more. Make every word count. Write with nouns and verbs, the workhorses of robust writing. Prune adjectives and adverbs. Cut redundancies. Lop off digressions. If it doesn’t advance the goal stated in step one, get rid of it. Shakespeare may have said it best: Brevity is the soul of wit.
- Avoid clichés like the plague. Trite, overused phrases rob writing of vitality. To surprise and charm your audience, find fresh ways to make meaning.
- When you’ve finished a draft, you’re not done. Someone said that the essence of rewriting is rewriting. Put your draft through the ringer, aka the editing process. Share it. Accept feedback. Cut anything that is not essential. Tighten the draft. Now tighten it some more. The final step is to read your draft out loud as fast as you can. Where you stumble, your reader will probably stumble. Smooth out those places that are likely to trip them up.
No piece of writing speaks to everyone. But by following these simple guidelines, the odds of engaging your audience will shift in your favor.