If you’re going to spend your career dealing in text — the currency of most online communication — you might be interested in upping your ability to express yourself, specifically your written communications skills.
This isn’t as big a deal as it sounds. You don’t need to be a Pulitzer Prize winner or even a language whiz. As I explained in my last post, all you need is to take a little care and time over what you say in all those emails, blogs, wikis, forums, IM conversations, status updates and so on to make sure you’re expressing yourself the way you intended.
Once you’ve worked out what you’re going to say, and who you’re saying it to, you need to say it. Here are the five key elements I try to consider as I formulate an online message.
Forget Self-expression, Think Audience
Your personality may ostensibly be the thing that got people to come to your web site in the first place, but it’s not likely to keep them there on its own merits.
Your audience will only listen if you speak to them. Use language that suits them; frame your arguments in ways that touch them; vary your messages to provide intrigue and curiosity. Building readership isn’t just about snappy headlines and keyword placement; it’s about rapport and providing new perspectives.
Structure First; Write Later
A lot of us fail to plan what we’re going to write, and it shows. The web is full of blog posts that say nothing, articles that have no proper ending and generally disjointed thoughts mashed into chunks we call “content” but would more accurately be described as “filler.”
Whatever you’re writing, plan it first. Once you’ve worked out what you want to say, and which messages and frames will best suit your readership, plan the flow of your communication. Perhaps you’ll write key or starting sentences for each paragraph before fleshing out each one. Perhaps you’ll create a few bullets you want to follow. Whatever your approach, take the time to formulate your communication first. This gives you the opportunity to ensure that, in both concept and execution, what you say will meet your readers’ needs.
Don’t Waste Words
How can you say something new if you’re using clichés? How can you talk on the level with your readers if you embellish your messages unnecessarily? How can you show respect for readers is if you insist on beating your message into them over and over, as if they were idiots? All of these are pitfalls that you want to avoid. Don’t waste words trying to make points in ways that aren’t effective, efficient or relevant to your readership.
There’s a long list of techniques you could use to emphasize a point, for example: spareness of language, putting the reader into the story, humor, irony, sarcasm, live source quotes, italics, punctuation — the list goes on. Some of these approaches will inevitably work better than others; some will work better in particular cases. Try different tactics, and see what your readers like best. Learn from your experiments. Edit what you write before you make it public.
Don’t Write It If You Wouldn’t Say It
Honesty, transparency and consistency aren’t just elements of personal branding — they’re crucial to your reputation. If you’d never say “cos,” don’t use it to fit Twitter’s character limit, on your site or in an email — unless your usage is tongue-in-cheek and that’s obvious. If you’d never say aloud what you’re writing, don’t write it. Those who know you will know when you’re not being authentic; those who don’t will be confused by your inconsistency.
Particularly in blog posts and online articles, link to your sources and back up all the facts you provide. Make it clear when you’re speculating or giving your opinion rather than presenting factual information. Don’t do this grudgingly, as an obligatory gesture: Be creative and enthusiastic. The tone of your link text should encourage readers to check out the extra resources to which you point them.
No one’s born with a pen in their hand, but anyone can learn what it takes to put together a compelling argument, present an opinion or research the facts. Here are a few ways to improve your text:
- Read better to write better. Good writers are good readers. Don’t limit yourself to reading online content or articles. If you’re keen to persuade, compel and communicate, read widely, and expose yourself to as many good writers as you can. By all means, read the books of your favorite gurus, but seek recommendations for other great writers in your genre — and beyond. Look closely at how they write and work out what’s so persuasive about their essays, books and articles.
- Not sure? Check it. If you know you confuse your and you’re, or too and to, or its and it’s, check your usage. Look up the rules and make sure you’re applying them correctly. It’ll take you no more than five minutes, and you’ll know how to use these problem terms and punctuation marks for the rest of your life.
- Edit and rephrase. Can’t fit that message into Twitter’s character limit? Or come up with a headline that reflects the style you set for your company site? Try again! Tight editing makes for clear communication. Rephrase tricky text until you strike the right tone for your audience, or a message that suits your site’s style. Not sure if you can edit yourself? Pay a professional to do the job for you.
- Make your own rules. It might be popular to use shortened slang — OMG, ROTFL, and so on — in online communications, but that doesn’t mean that you need to do it, too. Everyone might be talking about the latest celebrity scandal, social networking faux pas or cool gadget, but if it’s not of interest to you, why comment?
The fact that you have a voice doesn’t mean you have to use it at every opportunity. Talk about what’s important to both yourself and your audience — don’t just follow the crowd. This way, your content will have greater value among your audience members, and you’ll avoid saying the same thing that everyone else is, in the same way.
What tips do you have for those of us wanting to express ourselves more clearly online?
Related GigaOM Pro content (sub req’d):