August 19, 2017

‘Is the juice worth the squeeze?’

Reach readers by thinking like readers

DO YOU READ ME? To reach readers, focus on your readers' interests.

When I presented a writing workshop at FedEx a couple of months ago, diversity program manager Janas Jackson told me this story:

“At my previous company, the CEO would give quarterly ‘state of the business’ speeches to employees. At the end of each message, a Vietnamese employee who didn’t speak fluent English would always ask, ‘Does what you say mean “no more paycheck”?'”

Does what you say mean no more paycheck? That’s what readers want to know about the state of the business.

Want to reach your reader? Think like your reader. Then use the bait your readers like, not the bait you like.

Here are three more observations and insights I’ve stumbled across in the past few months about thinking like your reader.

1. Is it worth the effort?

Have we met? If so, you’ve probably heard me talk about Wilbur Schramm’s Fraction Of Selection model. Schramm’s model says that people decide whether to process information by weighing two elements:

expectation of reward
effort required

What does that mean in layman’s terms? I often ask my writing workshop attendees. At a recent program for IABC North Carolina/Triangle, Allison Harmon Lane, External Communications, SAS Institute Inc., answered:

“Is the juice worth the squeeze?”

Ask yourself: Is the juice — the reward your readers get from your piece — worth the effort of reading it?

2. Avoid fake benefits.

But not all verbs are benefits. As you develop your message, avoid these two types of fake benefits:

‘Congratulations on choosing us.’ Instead of writing about how the readers’ life will be different, we’re really writing about how great we are:

  • Rely on our 75 years of experience.
  • Reap many rewards.
  • Get XYZ feature.
  • Value the attention we pay to detail.
  • Appreciate our dedication to accuracy.
  • Pat yourself on the back for choosing us.

‘Clean your face.’ These messages come off as benefits, because they’re verb-based. But instead of benefits, they’re actually tasks.

“Clean your face,” demands a hotel soap wrapper. No, YOU clean YOUR face! I want to respond.

BUT IS IT A BENEFIT? 'Clean your face' and 'Clean your body' are verb-based messages, but they're not benefits. Neither is 'Stop by our booth' or 'Register for our conference.'

You’re writing a “Clean your face” benefits every time you write a message like:

  • Stop by our booth.
  • Take our class.
  • Register for our conference.

These are tasks. Instead, write about what your reader will get if she stops by your booth, takes your class or registers for your conference.

3. Write about the reader.

One way to get the reader’s attention: Write about the reader. Focus on the reader’s needs, and write in the second person, directly to “you.”

“You” has been a power tool for writers since 1934. That was the year Ralph Tyler and Edgar Dale had adults read passages about personal health taken from newspapers, magazines, textbooks and children’s health books. Then they gave the readers multiple-choice tests about what they’d read.

The researchers found that the more second-person pronouns — you’s — existed in the text, the higher readability soared. First-person pronouns (I, me, we, us) and third-person pronouns (she, her, he, him, it, they, them), on the other hand, reduced readability.

So focus on the reader. Readers don’t care about us and our stuff. They care about themselves and their needs.

Repeat after me: Your organization isn’t the topic. Your products and services aren’t the topic. The topic isn’t the topic. The reader is the topic.

Think Like a Reader.

Bottom line: If you want to reach your reader, you need to put yourself in your readers’ shoes. Or as Rebecca Kratzer, coordinator, Annual Giving, Geisinger Health Systems Foundation, says:

“Put yourself on the other side of the paper.”
      Source: William H. DuBay, Unlocking Language (PDF), Impact Information, 2006

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