We use written words to communicate with one another all day long. Emails. Texts. Press releases. Social media posts. Comments. Memos. Blog posts. Putting thoughts and ideas into writing is one of the cornerstones for how we get work done in our society today.
And so often when we put things into writing, it’s because we want it to inspire action in someone else. We want them to attend our event, like our post, donate to our cause or vote for our candidate. It logically should go without saying, then, that we would put a lot of thought into the words that we craft before we put them out into the world. Often, that is the case, but too often it is not.
We get it. We’re all busy. There’s a lot going on and writing is so habitual that we concentrate more on getting it done and checked off our list than on thinking whether the words we’ve crafted are going to have the desired effect.
Here are three simple-to-remember golden rules that when followed will take your written words from zero to hero with little effort. You’re welcome.
Remember that everybody is busy
Your readers don’t owe you anything, not their time or their action. How many times has Facebook enticed you to click on an article that wasn’t worth your time, or what you thought it was going to be? Trudging through words that are unnecessary or unclear is super frustrating when you have a million things to do.
Keep this in mind when writing anything: make every word count. Being clear and succinct shows respect for your reader, their time and capacity to respond. A potential community or business partnership can hinge on a string of emails. When writing, think about what is going on in the day of your target audience, rather your own day.
Always consider who you are talking to. Ask: Is this person we’re emailing someone who hasn’t really been part of a project and needs context to make a decision for a next step?
At Javelina, we understand the Executive Director of a nonprofit is exhausted and barely skimming the top of emails at 4 pm when we need a response to something by the end of the day. We know that person needs the most concise possible explanation of what we need, when we need it and what their options are.
If we send one line:
Could you email the 2017 donor data before noon tomorrow? I won’t be able to finalize a projection report for you by Friday until I have that.We know the chances of getting a response instantly skyrocket. Otherwise? That email’s getting starred for later.
Give limited options to avoid overwhelming your reader
As demonstrated in Dan Ariely’s TED talk “Are we in control of our own decisions?”, when people have more than two choices in front of them, the brain panics. So, when it makes sense and is appropriate for your role and audience – make a recommendation. We can get decision paralysis when a server hands us a book-length menu. Give us two options, tell us why those are the best and leave the evening to conversations that relieve our stresses, instead of amplifying them. Please and thank you. Same goes for your readers. Help them make decisions by communicating clearly about what their options are.
The next time you find yourself trying to fit in time with a potential client, avoid saying things like, “Let me know when it’s best for you.”
Instead, try, “I’m available for an hour on the 18th at 10 or the 20th at noon.”
It’s much easier to look at two days than your whole calendar. What happens to you when you look at your whole calendar? It can become a vortex leading to, “I don’t have time to meet at all!”
Think carefully about the reaction you want
With your target audience in mind, you should know what your desired reaction is before you finalize any piece of writing: What do you want to achieve? What action do you want your target audience to take? That doesn’t always mean you will receive your desired reaction, but knowing it will help you craft a better piece of writing.
Consider the following line from a hypothetical media release:
The Hamburgler was endorsed by Planned Parenthood and he will have a press event to celebrate the endorsement on Tuesday, at 5pm, and here is a list of people who will attend.
Given that the release contains all the information, you don’t really need to attend the event at all. Instead, let clarity and curiosity prompt your reader’s reaction:
The Hamburgler has received an amazing endorsement and he will be releasing details Tuesday at 5pm.
You’re curious about who endorsed The Hamburgler and you’re far more likely to show up at 5pm on Tuesday for the details. If the reader wants more information, they are going to have to show up, or in the very least, stay tuned.
Where possible, always design decisions for your target audience – everybody is busy, so lay out the choices clearly and concisely. Don’t be afraid to make a non-reply mean something. For example, we can send an email to a team member saying:
“I have submitted visual content for the upcoming newsletter. I am available for edits, if needed. If I do not hear back from you by close of business, I will consider this part of the project completed and move onto writing content.”
Now, the person who barely had enough time to read that email can rest assured knowing they’ve done what was required: reading and moving on. And you aren’t held up on your project because of your colleague’s overflowing inbox.
Here are five quick writing tips to help you along the way:
- If your content requires a title/subject line, write it last. You’ll be surprised at how your content changes from start to finish and writing a title can really hold up the writing process.
- Patience is key in good writing. You must be willing to get through a few drafts to develop an idea into action-generating content. Give yourself time to do that and don’t always wait to the last minute to start writing.
- Read it out loud to yourself and then to someone else. Ask if they can answer the following golden questions: what does this piece of writing want you to do? Does it inspire you to do it?
- Take time away from the piece of writing, if you can, even a night to sleep on it.
- The last thing to ask yourself is always: Will these written words create the impact or action I want?
We are avid readers here at Javelina – in fact, we have a book club! So we know people commit more easily to shorter books with well broken-up sections because that material is easier to digest. More than that, they respect thoughtfully being led through a piece of writing that presents clear intentions, so an actionable response doesn’t get lost in clearing up communication errors.
With these tips in mind, remember that taking a moment to be intentional with your writing helps make the work of change a whole lot more in reach.