Your Reader, Your Self: Quick Tips For Effective Written Communication

It’s one of the very first questions that come up in any technical marketing copywriting project: “Who is your reader?”

The answer, of course, is never quite as simple as it seems. I try to explain to my clients that the goal of their written copy should be to strike a visceral identifying tone with the reader. This person should be able to quickly scan the headline, read a few sentences of your lead, and instantly and emotionally recognize themselves in the tone and message. So understanding the reader is really, really important.

With the start of the new year and the spring trade show season right around the corner, you’re probably going to hear a lot in the coming months within your own organization about new marketing messages, strategic priorities and company directions. But as you try to figure out the message that will best work for your company in 2016, take some time to make sure that you’re speaking to the right reader. And, just as important, in the right way.

As a technical marketing copywriter, I see seasoned professionals often make the same mistakes, simply due to the overwork and stress that comes with modern marketing responsibilities. By focusing on a few pointers, however, you can avoid the big messaging potholes that will surely trip up everyone else this year.

A business – type, size or mission – is not a reader. When I ask a client to identify their reader, almost always they answer with a vague categorization of a group of markets. Small businesses. Midsized enterprises. Mom and pops. Manufacturers. Telecoms. Medical practices.

These answers are starting points, but they are not readers. Your reader is a flesh-and-blood human being who came to work this morning, and very likely would rather have slept in instead. This person has to make decisions based on imperfect information, and on some level is at least mildly stressed that they won’t make the right call. They are mentally juggling many other preoccupations at work and home, in both their professional and personal lives. Something weighs on their mind.

Businesses don’t have emotions. Readers do.

Your reader is operating in a very self-interested state when they read your copy. They don’t really care how long you’ve been in business, how many combined years of engineering experience your team has, or that you bring your terrier to work every day (and yes, I’ve seen businesses include that). What they care about – at least, at the moment they read your copy – are themselves.

Your reader woke up this morning knowing they have a problem, and knowing that they have to deal with it today. They don’t want to. They want the problem to go away. If they can be the hero for making the problem disappear, wonderful. Again, we’re talking about emotions. The features of your product or service, while certainly important, don’t directly address the emotional needs of the reader. And that’s all your reader cares about today.

The harsh truth is this: an imperfect product marketed with an on target, self-interested appeal message will beat out a superior product pushed with a dry technical pitch, almost every single time.

Your reader has readers. This is an extremely important point, and one lost on a great many otherwise highly skilled marketers. While you may have your primary reader (the person I think of as the “front line reader”) locked down, rarely will they be the only one to read your message. A C-level executive, for example, will quickly scan your copy and then pass your marketing piece over to a CFO, trusted engineering team, business development director or someone else for a second opinion. That second – or third, or fourth – reader will have a significant influence on the final business decision.

Having been a technical writer now for most of two decades, I can state without question that this is the toughest part of the job: crafting tone and content that works for multiple audiences at once, that allows different people to see different things, while still reaching the conclusion that you want them to reach. Casual/technical, wholesale/retail, financial/marketing.. the problem with realizing that your readers are selfish (because they’re people), is that you also realize that they don’t all want the same thing. The job then becomes one of achieving the maximum diplomacy with the minimum word count.

And finally, your readers exist in time. No problem is eternal, and even the perception of a problem changes depending on season and circumstances.

Most bad marketing copy has at least one thing in common: it attempts to freeze a problem into a single moment of forever, rather than placing it within the context of time and change. There is a reason why your reader has come to you today, rather than last week. Something has pushed a critical issue to a level that can’t be ignored any longer. Your reader doesn’t exist in stasis. They live in a story.

Over the years, I’ve found a comprehensive study in dramaturgy to be highly useful in marketing. Understanding how culture and story intersect – how expectations shift and are realized in time, and how people react when they don’t – is important when trying to reach emotional people who live in a plot-driven world. Place your message within a time context, and communicate in terms of changes rather than status quos.

I could go on, but I’ve taken up enough of your time here. You’re busy. Maybe someday soon we’ll have the opportunity to chat more about this on the phone or via email, perhaps even within the context of your own marketing problem or challenge.

It all just comes down to this: reading requires mental and emotional energy, so you had better give back more than you take. If you can achieve that, the rest of marketing is a relative snap.

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