As soon as I read this passage to my three-year old from the classic book Where the Wild Things Are, I felt a wave of pleasure and a flash back to my own childhood. I had forgotten how ripe and tantalizing the words were; perfectly chosen, crisp, simple and powerful:
And when he came to the place where the wild things are
they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth
and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws
till Max said “BE STILL!”
and tamed them with the magic trick
of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once
and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all
and made him king of all wild things
“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”
Why isn’t all writing like that?
As readers, we hunger for clear, useful, insightful and inspiring words.
As writers, we long to speak the truth and say something relevant and important.
But somehow in our professional lives, we are taught to convolute, complicate and butcher perfectly good language when communicating with users, clients, customers, employees and partners.
How can we clean up our writing so that we evoke the spirit of a well-written children’s book? Some thoughts:
In Presentations: Trust your instincts.
In my prior days as a management consultant, I was brought into a project at a large multinational company with short notice and no information. For four hours, I sat in a dark conference room with a bunch of serious-looking executives and listened to an “overview” presentation that was a minimum of 300 PowerPoint slides, with eye-crossing graphs, charts and bullets. At the end of the presentation, although I wouldn’t admit it to anyone in public, I still had no idea what the project was about. Seriously. None whatsoever. And I was no green bean; I had participated in large projects in large organizations for many years. Finally, once I was able to corner a smart-looking person, I said “Can you tell me in 10 words or less what this project is about?” “Sure,” he said. “It is a reorganization.”
They could have saved 299.9 slides and 4 hours worth of my billable time if they had just said those four words.
There is a conspiracy cooked up by marketing wonks, consultants and executives to pay for words by the pound, and to question the intelligence of a corporate “professional” who does not create complex and obtuse presentations. They are wrong. Your instinct to keep things clean and simple is right. A few tips:
- Use clear language. As much as you may feel pressure to use the fancy words in your industry, stick with clear, descriptive language. Avoid jargon, clichés and insider metaphors. If your audience is highly technical, use the terms that they relate to and expect. If it is a mixed crowd, give a variety of clear, topic-appropriate examples, with a few specific technical references that relate to that portion of your audience. If you still struggle to simplify your language, you could always get a gang member coach.
- Focus your topic. Know what your primary message is, and support it with no more than three sub-points. Cramming every feature, benefit, angle or alternative into a presentation will just overwhelm and confuse your audience. If they want more information, they will ask for it, and then you can get to the real purpose of your presentation which is dialogue and interaction.
- Take the Presentation Zen approach to mixing words and graphics. Powerful graphic images anchor ideas in the minds of your audience. Cut most of the words out of your slides. If you have to say “I know you can’t see the details of this chart, but …,” you shouldn’t include it. Choose your graphics carefully, and make sure they truly help illustrate a point. My Dad, a professional writer and photographer, was laughing with me the other day as he recalled seeing the same “circular arrow flow chart” graphic in at least a hundred presentations in his career. “It never made any sense, but everyone used it,” he said.
In Blogs: Speak from your soul.
Blog culture encourages open, personal and straight communication. But we still fall victim to being either too boring and generic, or too self-indulgent with “Here are twelve more pictures of my cat and kids plus 35 responses to memes” posts. Instead:
Write for your audience.
Some bloggers write about whatever strikes their fancy, and it suits them well. I tend to stick close to my readers. Questions that guide my content include:
- What problems do they face?
- What really scares them?
- What is not being said on this subject on other news sources or blogs?
- What can I share that will make their life easier
- How can I make them feel more supported and confident?
- Who can I put them in contact with (via links or references) that will give them good information and advice?
- What will be fun and interesting to write about?
Speak from your soul.
Your head can play tricks on you when choosing topics. Mostly, it will play on your fears and insecurities of needing to appear “smart” or “hip.” Dig deeper and write what you feel is the truth. Your truth will be different than anyone else’s, so many are bound to disagree, but that is part of the fun. If you worry about how smart or important you sound, your writing will come out stilted and insincere. A passage from the delightful book If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland sums it up nicely:
Use your superpowers for good.
This is a favorite saying of my friend Marilyn Scott-Waters, a talented illustrator who has given away over 3 million lovingly illustrated paper toys on her website thetoymaker.com. Snark and gossip are part of our lives and can be entertaining in a superficial kind of way. But if you are going to spend hours and hours researching and writing and opining, why not do it for the purpose of uplifting and enlightening? There are enough forces in the world right now bent on humiliation, death and destruction. So voice your honest thoughts, just do so without shaming, scaring or ridiculing the subjects of your opinions.
In phone interactions with customers: Ditch the scripts.
I cringe every time I hear a dejected, underpaid (or hyper-cheery – even worse) customer service representative answer my call with “Hi, my name is Sue, how can I provide you with excellent customer service?” The last thing that is on my mind after waiting on hold for twenty minutes is how Sue can provide me with excellent customer service. What I care about is getting my questions answered and my problems resolved.
So if you have staff that answers the phone to talk with customers, skip the scripted nonsense, and encourage your folks to be polite, friendly and flexible.
In sales copy: Cut the hype.
Most of us have to sell our ideas in writing. If you work for yourself and sell a product or service, you may have to create marketing materials or a sales letter. There are well-documented copywriting recipes that specify what color or font size to make your headlines, which ‘words that sell’ to use at which part of the letter, and how to format and use testimonials from satisfied customers. Study these examples, as you are bound to learn something from them, but don’t become a slave to a formula. In addition:
- Show your personality. Don’t suddenly change your voice just because you are writing a sales letter. Use the style and language that you know makes your audience comfortable. Don’t be afraid to be playful and funny, or serious and straightforward, if it fits within the style and spirit of what you are selling.
- Don’t insult your audience with infomercial nonsense like “But wait, there’s more!” We are all tired of reading advertising copy that jumps out and screams at us. And as Seth Godin said:
- Use the “slime gauge.” Put yourself in the place of a potential customer. Read your words and see how you feel. Do you have a vague sense of embarrassment? Do you have a sudden urge to take a shower? Go back and scrub your document of any marketing slime and focus on the real, tangible benefits that make you truly proud of your product or service.
In messages to potential partners, customers, or mentors: Bring back foreplay.
Email is a great way to begin to build a relationship with someone who interests you. But too often, we forget all rules of human interaction and jump right to a jarring, intimate request, such as:
Such crude, direct language turns me off immediately. Instead:
- Treat online relationships like all relationships. Just as you wouldn’t go up to someone you had never met at a networking event and kiss them on the lips, you shouldn’t demand something the first time you approach someone online. “Link exchange” is a thing of the past. Before someone knows if they want to share you and your ideas with their audience, they want to get to know and trust you. So let that intimacy and trust build naturally, based on mutual interest and exchange of ideas. If a joint venture, book review, link exchange or product endorsement is meant to happen, it will. And you may just make a real advocate and friend in the process.
- Focus each part of the email conversation in the moment, not on your “closing goal.” In personal and business settings, you can feel when someone is going through the motions to try to “close a deal” with you. The most obvious examples are an overzealous suitor in a bar, or an enthusiastic relative recently introduced to a business scheme who is hot to sell you new skin products. Avoid this uncomfortable dynamic by just enjoying each email interaction as you have it. Look for ways that you can support, inform and encourage your “object of affection.” If there is not a natural momentum or energy, back off and put your attention elsewhere.
- Be respectful of the other’s time. You may find that you build a natural, friendly connection with someone that you really admire. Or you may develop a truly supportive and friendly mailing list of interested customers. Do not jeopardize this relationship by asking for too much input, or sending too many messages. Email clutter is a real problem these days, and if you go overboard, you will soon reinforce a connection between your name and the delete button.
Common sense is rarely common practice. So if some of this advice gets you ostracized, ridiculed or even fired, all I can say is “Welcome to the other side.” Your audience will thank you for standing up for truth and clarity.
Let the wild rumpus start.
(image credit: the awe-inspiring Maurice Sendak)