August 19, 2017

Stop We-We-ing on the reader

Talking about ourselves — better than sex?

It feels so good to talk about ourselves.

Stop We-We-ing on the reader

You above all Write to and about your readers, not about you and your stuff. Image by Jakob Owens

Talking about yourself activates the same pleasure centers in the brain as food, money or sex, according to Harvard neuroscientist Diana Tamir and her colleague Jason Mitchell, whose research on the topic was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

No wonder some 40% of everyday speech is devoted to telling others about our favorite subject.

For the study, Tamir and Mitchell used an MRI scanner to see which parts of the brain responded when people talked about themselves. When participants were sharing their own pizza preferences and personality traits, researchers saw heightened activity in regions of the brain associated with the rewards we get from food, money or sex.

Avoid institutional narcissism.

I don’t know whether institutions also have pleasure centers, but they certainly seem to suffer from the same self-centeredness that afflicts we mere mortals. Consider their messages:

  • XYZ Company today announces that …
  • Our ABC is the leading doohickey in the blah-blah market …
  • At LMNOP, we believe …

The problem with writing about us and our stuff is that, as Tamir and Mitchell’s research shows, your readers don’t want to talk about you. They want to talk about themselves.

So stop We-We-ing on your readers.

Readers don’t want your We-We.

We’ve known since 1934 that readers don’t respond to We-We. That’s the year Ralph Tyler and Edgar Dale conducted a study that proved that first-person pronouns (I, me, we, us) reduce readability.

Fast forward to 2015, when Return Path proved the same thing: People are less likely to open and click through emails with first-person pronouns (I, me, our, mine) in the subject lines.

(I love how we keep “discovering” the same readership habits the classic researchers learned back in the day. These reader traits remain the same — over the decades, across media, throughout channels — because whatever else changes, our readers remain human.)

Top companies 57% less likely to We-We on readers.

No wonder high-performing organizations avoid We-We-ing on their readers. According to IABC UK’s research into how top organizations communicate:

  • 71% of high-performing organizations focus on the audience’s point of view in their messaging. Just 45% of average organizations do.
  • Top organizations are 60% more likely to focus on the audience perspective in communications than average organizations.
  • Some 88% of average organizations say they like to talk about themselves; just 63% of top organizations do.

Want to model best communication practices from top organizations? Instead of writing about us and our stuff, write about the reader.

1. Use the magic word.

Instead of using the first-person pronoun — we — why not focus on the second, you?

Your communications will be more effective if you do. Because while first-person pronouns reduce communication success, the second-person pronoun:

So 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.

2. Change the we-you ratio.

One way to make the reader the topic is to change the we-you ratio.

When I worked with one of my favorite new clients this week on its messaging, the first thing I did was run the we-you ratio.

How to run the we-you ratio. To do this on your own piece in Microsoft Word, simply use the Find function to:

  1. Highlight all instances of the word you in your message, then all instances of the word we.
  2. Find the name of your company vs. the name of your client.
  3. Cover all the other terms you use to refer to your organization and to the reader.

In my analysis, I found 83 self-references in the client document:

  • 40 to we
  • 34 to the company name
  • 6 to supplier, referring to the company
  • 3 to leader, referring to the company

I found only 7 references to the reader:

  • 2 instances of you
  • 2 industry
  • 2 customer
  • 1 consumer

That’s an 83:7 we-to-you ratio. And that’s what we call We-We-ing on your readers.

I know: It feels so good.

Stop it.

3. Put the reader first.

Instead of putting your organization first, lead with the reader. Start your sentence with “you,” and watch readers line up to learn more about their favorite topic.

Instead of leading with your organization … … put the reader first
ITT Hartford announces a new disability insurance program.You’ll get back to work faster, thanks to ITT Hartford’s new Ability Assurance.
Trainingnet.com helps you improve productivity.You’ll get all your work done in half the time, be the office hero and go home early with TrainingNet.com’s new webinar.
XYZ company offers SuperPlantGro.You’ll grow bigger, lusher plants — and never have to water again — with XYZ’s SuperPlantGro.

Focus on the reader’s favorite subject.

Instead of writing about your favorite subject, write about the reader’s.

They’ll love it. They’ll read it. They’ll open it, click through it and retweet it.

And that feels so good.

  • Think Like a Reader

    The secret to writing to persuade is to position your messages in your audience’s best interests. (Most communicators position their messages in their organization’s best interests.)

    Catch Your Readers - Ann Wylie's persuasive-writing workshop in Kansas City on Nov. 16-17, 2017 imageAt Catch Your Readers — a two-day Master Class on Nov. 16-17 in Kansas City — you’ll learn a four-step process for making your message more relevant, valuable and rewarding to your audience.

    Specifically, you’ll learn to:

    • Take advantage of the formula readers use to determine which messages to pay attention to (and which to toss).
    • Tap two rewards of reading you can use to boost audience interest in your message.
    • Answer the No. 1 question your reader is asking, regardless of your topic, medium or channel.
    • Make a two-minute perspective shift to focus your message on the value to readers — not on “us and our stuff.”
    • Use a three-letter word that magically makes your message more relevant to your readers.

    Learn more about the Master Class.

    Register for Catch Your Readers - Ann Wylie's persuasive-writing workshop in Kansas City on Nov. 16-17, 2017


    Browse all upcoming Master Classes.

    Would you like to hold an in-house Catch Your Readers workshop? Contact Ann directly.

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Sources: Robert Lee Hotz, “Science Reveals Why We Brag So Much,” The Wall Street Journal, May 7, 2012

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