What would you say if I told you that everything you write needs to be written for its intended readers? Would you roll your eyes and say something like, “Well, duhhhh, thank you Captain Obvious!” (or some slightly politer version thereof)?
If so, I’m going to invite you to sit with the question a little longer. Because the reality is that so many people don’t initially write for their clients (or other intended readers). Instead, when they sit down to write a blog post, article or email, they write it at least partly for:
- That third-grade English teacher, who told them they ALWAYS had to write grammatically in complete sentences.
- Friends or family members, who might judge them for being too weird, too woo-woo, or just too “out there”.
- Fellow industry professionals, or folks who did the same certification programme that they did.
And unless their intended audience is those third-grade English teachers, family members, or fellow industry professionals? Any copy those folks create will be far less effective, and resonate far less, with the people they actually want to write it for.
One of the basic components of reader-focussed writing is language choice
There are two key components to writing for your ideal readers. The first, which I’ll cover in another post, is writing about topics they actually care about. The second is using the same language they do.
Sounds pretty obvious, right? But here are three common issues around language choice that can seriously confuse or even mislead your readers:
- Unfamiliar terms / phrases: every industry has its own jargon, which is often impenetrable to non-industry members. Just think of the obscure latin phrases used in law, or the scientific terms used in medicine! But we heart-based professionals have our own jargon too. How many coaches do you know that talk about “showing up in your highest capacity”, “manifesting your full potential” or “imagineering”?
- Familiar terms used differently: some industries are well known for taking existing words and using them in different ways. Landmark Education is famous for it (“racket” or “possibility”, anyone?) But the words “energy work” or “tapping” also mean something very different to an alternative health practitioner than they would to an average person.
- Unexplained acronyms: the same acronyms can have very different meanings across different gropus. For example, while EFT is a technique that involves the aforementioned tapping on meridians to some people, it’s an “Equivalent Full Time” student or employee to others. I worked for a company where “S&M” stood for “Sales & Marketing”. (Yes, seriously. No, I didn’t keep a straight face when someone told me).
Important note: jargon isn’t always a problem
However annoying jargon might be for people who aren’t familiar with it, it often serves a very specific purpose for those “in the know”.
Sometimes – not always, but sometimes – it can communicate very specific, very nuanced shades of meaning that ordinary language just doesn’t convey. Sometimes it can take you 2-3 sentences of plain language to explain what a single jargon term communicates. So if you’re writing for people who use the same jargon you do, it can actually help you to communicate more clearly with them.
The problem occurs when you forget that most people don’t use that jargon. And when you use it around people who don’t know it? Instead of communicating that precise, nuanced meaning, you actually end up communicating something completely different… or not communicating at all.
Plus, using terms that don’t make sense to your ideal readers can make them feel alienated, condescended to or ignored. Not an ideal way to build a relationship with them!
How can you tell if you’re confusing your readers?
One of the best ways to make sure you know the general language your readers use is to talk to them (or people like them). Find out where they hang out – either on social media or in real life – and actually start conversations with them. Ask them questions, and notice not only what they answer, but also how they answer. What words do they use or not use?
Another option is to write the way you’d usually write… and then ask someone who’s a close match to your ideal reader to check through it. If possible, actually watch them as they’re reading. Notice anywhere they make confused faces, or where they appear to go back to re-read something; and ask them what wasn’t clear. You’ll quickly pick up where the problems lie.
If you can’t watch your reader, just ask them to make a note of any areas that didn’t make sense or that confused them. And if you can’t get someone who’s an exact match to your intended readers, try at least asking someone outside of your industry. While a closer match is better, any outside feedback is better than none.
Next steps once you’ve identified the problem
Once you’ve figured out where the jargon (or any other problematic language) is in your copy, you have three options:
- Delete it: occasionally, you can just remove the offending words without losing anything in meaning or flow. If that’s possible, it didn’t need to be in there in the first place (simpler is almost always better), so leave it out.
- Replace it with an equivalent reader-friendly term: sometimes you can swap the confusing term out for something that means the same thing, but makes more sense to your readers. Again, if you can easily do that, it’s an ideal fix.
- Explain it the first time it’s used: sometimes you genuinely can’t find a reader-friendly term that means exactly the same thing. Anything you try either changes the meaning, or at least loses you the nuance you needed. In that case, spend a sentence or three explaining the term the first time you use it. Explain why you need to use it too, so people don’t assume you’re just being jargon-y for the sake of being jargon-y.
Any of these options will work better for your reader than stumbling across the term unexpectedly and getting confused about what you’re trying to say. And it should go without saying that if it works better for your reader, it works better for you!
Need help to make sure you’re writing in your clients’ language?
Writing in a way that makes sense to your ideal readers isn’t easy: I see clients and friends getting stuck on the issue almost every day.
If you have a web page, email campaign or opt-in gift you’d like to ensure is written to resonate with your readers, I’d love to help. I’m now totally booked out for August and September, but I still have 2 client slots available in late October.
If you’d like one of them, contact me for a free, no-obligation Discovery Session by clicking on the big red button below.