Note to Executives: Nobody Wants to Read Your Stuff

Four keys to making your written
content more pleasant than a root canal

Imagine …

You’re exhausted from a long day at work. But now at last, you’re home.

So you kick off your shoes, pour your favorite beverage and settle into a comfortable chair. And you can’t help but smile as you begin reading … the latest company memo from the vice president.

No?

Well, why not?

The truth is, there are some things we only read when we have to. That includes anything work-related.  Not just because it’s about work. But because, most of the time, it’s also excruciatingly boring.

When we’re reading something we really don’t want to, we tend to skim, to get through it as fast as possible. That makes us likely to miss important things.

We may also be tempted to avoid reading it altogether. Haven’t you ever ignored an important email for days at a time—just because you didn’t want to deal with it? Or haven’t you relegated an urgent document to your Big Stack of Unread Papers—telling yourself you’ll get to it soon (but knowing you won’t)?

That’s human nature. We tend to avoid unpleasant experiences as long as possible. And there’s no app, technique, or office policy yet devised that can override human nature.

So if your job requires you to communicate with colleagues or subordinates, here’s your challenge: to make your notes, emails, announcements, memos and proposals more pleasant and attractive—so that people will, you know, actually read them.

Here are four tips to get you there:

  1. Keep it short. Start by writing everything that’s on your mind. Then, go back and cut it down. Get rid of every unnecessary word.

Use short paragraphs. Like this one.

Short sentences too.  

Remember, before they read it, they have to look at it. And if what they see is a massive, unbroken wall of text, they’re likely to avoid it.

  1. Make it clear. This can be trickier than it seems. You know what you’re thinking, but your thoughts may not make it onto the page. Go back and re-read what you wrote. Is there any way it could be misinterpreted? Is it cluttered with content that’s off-topic? Is there a clearer, simpler way to say what you mean?

There’s an old saying: Good writing is rewriting.  Professional writers know this and practice it. You should too.

Remember, you really only have two things to convey: what you want them to know, and what you want them to do. Make sure you spell both of those out in unmistakable terms. Everything else is fluff.

  1. Write like a human. Imagine hearing this from your spouse or partner:

"The necessity of a visit to a place of commerce has been determined and will commence forthwith. A variety of grocery items and consumer goods will be purchased. Therefore, requests for additional purchases will be considered at this time."

You’d think it was a joke. Here’s another way of saying the same thing:

"I’m going to the market to get a few things. Want anything?"

That’s how real people talk. But for some reason, many of us abandon normal language when it comes to business. We think our words will carry more weight if they’re big and official-sounding.

The opposite is true. If you write in a simple, personal, even intimate way, your readers will be more likely to lean in and pay attention.

  1. Apply the Golden Rule. Once you’ve finished your masterpiece, take another look at it. Imagine it showing up at your desk or inbox. Is this something you’d enjoy reading? If not, why subject others to it? Unless you’re using the workplace to vent your sadistic impulses, the Golden Rule is still a good guideline: Treat others the way you’d want to be treated.

Apply these four principles in your writing—and people will look forward to reading it.

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What Makes a Good Quote?

 

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Let’s say you’re writing something that calls for input from outside sources—testimonials, expert opinions, statements from important people. So you conduct some interviews and end up with a ton of material. How do you choose what to use?

For journalists, a good quote might be one that conveys hard information—the who, what, where, when and why of the story—with at least some human feeling attached.

But for commercial copywriters who use quotes for press releases, ads, case studies, articles, sales letters, appeal letters, etc.— the task is a little trickier. We’re looking for color, vivid snippets that will bolster whatever case we’re making—while keeping the reader riveted. So we’re wise to be fussy. I’ve spent countless hours interviewing people –and then more hours transcribing the interviews—only to end up using a tiny fragment in my writing.

Why?

Well, first, because most spoken narratives aren’t very good.  Even geniuses aren’t always eloquent—especially when they’re speaking off-the-cuff.  Once I edit out the jargon, filler words, repetition, and incoherent nonsense, there may be only a little usable substance left.

Besides, a good writer can almost always provide the necessary facts more clearly and succinctly than the interview subject. So, you might ask, why use quotes at all?

Mainly, for credibility. It helps to have more than just the writer expressing an opinion. A second and third witness immediately give an argument more weight. If the topic is technical or hard to understand, a few words from an expert can do the same thing. And if you’re selling the benefits of a product or service, there’s nothing like the actual words of an ecstatic customer.

With all that in mind, here are a few things I look for in the quotes I select:

Authenticity

A good quote sounds like a real person speaking the truth. We all look for honesty when we’re weighing any proposition. If it sounds like a prepared sales pitch or a missive drafted by committee, we’ll tend to dismiss it–consciously or subconsciously.

Here are a few quotes I pulled from my archives. See if they ring true to you:

“What a fun experience! I’m just a regular guy. But I discovered some secrets about investing … and when I put them into practice, I made a lot of money.”

“I was stressed out because of the loan payments on my house. I couldn’t sleep well, and had frequent headaches.”

“I had lost all hope in the world around me, and fell into deep despair. I began to realize all my friends had started to change, so I thought to myself, if they could change maybe I could too—and there might be a hope for me.“

These are real human beings, recounting experiences that all of us can relate to. That makes them interesting and powerful.

Personality

This is where we get the color we’re looking for. Don’t dismiss a speaker’s colloquialisms and verbal idiosyncrasies. They can help paint a vivid verbal portrait, adding dimension and detail.

Emotion

A passionate, enthusiastic response always beats a cold recitation of the facts. We’re emotional beings and we look for that in other people. Real excitement is contagious. Here are some examples from my files:

“I love it! You can tell it really works.”

“I am definitely going to share this with my best friends!”

And (ahem) a few more from my own client testimonials:

“I’m so thankful!”

“Just yesterday I was singing your praises!”

“Wow! I am impressed!”

Don’t those beat any dry list of facts?

Insight

A good quote tells us things we didn’t know. And for this, the words of an expert can be invaluable. If you have the reader thinking, Wow, I didn’t know that, you’re on the right track.  I’ve written mailers, white papers, books and articles on a huge variety of topics—finance, medicine, economics, technology, politics, real estate, and many more topics. Am I an expert in all these areas? Of course not. But I can find people who are—and get them talking. In many cases that’s all I need. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “The next best thing to being wise is to live in a circle of those who are.”

Surprise

Don’t you hate it when you can predict the plot in a movie? A written piece is no different. You’ll keep the readers’ interest if a speaker catches them off guard with something new or shocking.  And a quote from an expert refuting the conventional wisdom adds intrigue to a narrative.

Let me end with a nice visual image of what we’re talking about, courtesy of King Solomon: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Proverbs 25:11 AKJV).

Look for those apples of gold and you won’t go too far wrong.