After a recent presentation, an audience member approached to compliment my talk. “You did a good job of taking what was a very complex subject to me and refining it into something I could understand.” I was flattered and satisfied that I had helped this woman grasp a topic that intimidated her.
As I thought about her statement, it occurred to me this is what professional communicators are charged with – refining complexities into meaningful data. It’s a shame that many of us lose sight of that.
Working on a client project several months ago, I was asked to review a page of website copy for a particular initiative. The company wanted the page to communicate an urgent call to action around a specific issue. I’ve changed the industry and anonymized the information, but this is an example of what the presented copy said:
Recent safety upgrades to non-biodegradable processors required to ensure Environmental Protection Agency disposal compliance have resulted in a budget shortfall in Palookaville’s Waste Management Department. The city commission is considering several options to offset the increased expenses of the department, among them is a 25 percent increase in disposal fees for area residents. To help persuade the city commission to consider other options, please email your concerns to email@example.com.
It’s not that the copy is confusing. The issue is clear. But the language is corporate, complex and sanitary … exactly how most public relations and corporate communications professionals have been trained to write.
My version of the copy for the web page looked like this:
The city commission is about to increase your trash bill. Click here to fight for your money.
Which would more easily compel you to take action?
The root of the problem is that we, as communicators, serve the wrong of our two different audiences. The two audiences are the actual one and the one that has to approve the corporate message. The actual audience (in the scenario above, citizens of Palookaville) doesn’t see the world or the issue at hand like the other (CEOs and marketing managers or their legal counsel.) The audience professional communicators end up writing for is the one that has to approve the message, not the one that has to consume it. Thus, we end up with boilerplates and industry speak and gobbletygook the average Joe or Jane Consumer doesn’t understand, or at least has the patience to get through.
In the most recent issue of the Public Relations Society of America‘s monthly newsletter, The Strategist , Alison Davis of Davis & Company offers thoughts about employee communications. The same applies. Davis wrote:
“Part of the problem is that communication, in its current form, is not design to meet the needs of its employee audience. Instead, it’s shaped to appeal to our internal clients — senior executives — and the lawyers who protect them. This means that communication to employees closely resembles communication to the board of directors: strategic big-picture pronouncements supported by a lot of data.”
Davis goes on to say that employees don’t want to reject or ignore communications from the company, but the resent how it’s prepared. Employees want the information, but it needs to be communicated to them in fresh, relevant and candid fashion.
All audiences are like that. Social media has emerged as a more trusted venue for consumer information gathering because most of the talking is not done by corporate mouthpieces but fellow consumers, like-minded or interested parties and even trusted friends. But it’s not just social media that needs that level of genuine straight talk. Effective advertising copy has almost always been that which is simple, clear and definitive. Press releases have a higher chance of getting used, or even copied and pasted, if the main gist of the story is clearly defined in the first sentence or paragraph and the ensuing words provide proof points.
And, in the case of the client I recently counseled, websites written or designed with only a few, simple and direct paths of exploration or calls to action are infinitely more successful in accomplishing their intent.
When I write copy for a general audience, I always write for my step-father. He is a high school educated, working class guy. He’s plenty smart, understands complex issues rather easily, but he’s a simple, everyday guy who would rather dismiss information than go look up the definition of a word he may not know. If he has to think about the message, he’d just as soon move on to something else. To him, the sentence, “The city commission is considering several options to offset the increased expenses of the department, among them is a 25 percent increase in disposal fees for area residents,” may as well be written in Mandarin. But the sentence, “The city commission is going to jack up your trash bill.” will resonate.
The first rule of writing, at least according to Layne Tackett, my brilliant, but exceedingly annoying freshman English teacher at Pikeville High School, was the KISS rule. Keep it simple, stupid. Why do we forget that so easily?
Sure, you’re getting all this information from a long-form, prolifically wordy blogger, but the reminder is important. Take the complex, the jargony, the corporate speak and the sanitary and make it make sense. Use my step-dad as inspiration if you want. You’ll get better results in the end.
IMAGE: Copyright Natalia Macheda from Shutterstock.com. Used with permission.