The secret to engaging writing is so simple you will laugh. And it’s not something you’ll easily find the internet talking about. While there are loads of people talking about customer experience, user experience, and communication tips, few talk about how to reorient a technical team. The answer is real people. But why do we need to write for real people? What does that even mean? And what is the impact of not doing it?
For starters, customers are the lifeblood of your business. For some businesses, this doesn’t just mean new customers. It also means repeat customers. And depending on your role or team, the idea of ‘customers’ might be ‘stakeholders’: They’re internal, rather than external.
If you don’t know how to engage them, you could be missing out on significant opportunities to reach the right people. They may think that you aren’t right for them. They may feel like they aren’t going to get the help that they need. They may also think that you don’t understand them.
In this article, I’m going to share with you how to start writing for real people. I’m going to give you some ideas, tips, and actions that will help you to build the right skills for doing so. And, if you’re not a doer but a leader or a manager, some thinking about the kinds of skills that you can coach and mentor, and how to do it.
If you aren’t writing for real people, then are you just writing for yourself?
Imagine this. You’re in a large office, working on internal‐facing materials. You are surrounded by other people who work for the same organisation that you do. Truth be told, there are hundreds of them; you’re just one little person in a team that could be as much as 50‐strong.
You never talk to the people who might be your readers. They’re in another department, possibly in another location. You don’t know what they think about. You’ve never taken the time to have a conversation (who’s got time!).
All you have, if you’re lucky, is data. If you’re extremely lucky, you have a persona that you trulyunderstand.
When you are writing, therefore, you’re writing for a couple of reasons.
One is to get a job done, so that someone else in your organisation (probably your boss) will be happy with you.
The second is to keep that person happy enough that you might be in line for the next round of promotions, or pay rises, or (insert benefit here).
So far, you’re writing for your supervisor, and for yourself.
In this situation, you are thinking about:
- your goals, or your department’s goals. You’re not thinking about benefits to your audience
- your own outcomes and not the global outcomes for your organisation (or the people you’re writing for).
Therefore, if we were to turn your position around, and put you in a party situation, with a beer in you’re hand, this is where we are: You are standing in a corner, banging on about something that nobody cares about, talking about yourself.
It’s not exactly an engaging picture, is it?
If you’re not writing for real people, how do you create ‘engaging’ work?
Engagement is something that marketers talk about a lot, and something that writers are expected to understand. You need to write engaging materials that achieve particular outcomes.
Unfortunately, even if you have a tone and style guide that you follow, it’s very possible that the definition of engagement is missing. You, your team mates, your manager, might all be thinking about it in different ways. For you, it’s time spent reading. For your team‐mate, it’s how many people read it. For your manager, it might be how effectively your internal audience takes action based on what you publish.
When everyone is imagining different outcomes, how on earth can you achieve a coherent result?
Even if you have a tone & style guide, if it was developed by someone who also did not spend time talking to your audience then how can you expect to craft language that turns them on?
None of this is possible! Instead, what you end up doing is turning in circles wondering what each other means, writing materials for yourselves, and patting yourselves on the back when you get a good result. But it’s not systematic, it’s not deeply understood, and consistency happens more by luck than by design.
Oh, Leticia, it’s ok. We have personas!
Personas can be really useful if they are crafted properly. Most of the time, though, they are described as statistics. Some are just profiles, built on guess‐work and not deep research. It’s the deep research that makes them useful.
The reason that personas work, according to usability guru Jakob Nielsen, is that we are captivated
more by concrete instances than by abstractions and generalizations. We need all product‐team members to empathize with users and be willing to go the extra step to develop something that will work for the actual users. But if users are described in statistical terms and as broad profiles, that information will simply not lodge itself in team members’ brains as a distinct persona will.
A word of warning about this commonly used and oft‐peddled tool: A persona will not give you an understanding of how people speak. Of what they find engaging. Of how they read.
To understand what the real people who read your work actually want, you have to go and talk to them, observe them, learn from them. As a writer, a good, well‐used persona is a start. But it doesn’t beat the real thing.
The way to engage internal audiences begins with Ethnography.
Ethnography is easier when you’re writing for an internal audience. When you’re writing for an audience you rarely (or never) get to interact with, this advice is about as solid as a blob of jelly.
Ethnography is about participant observation. It’s a definite practice of participating in an environment (like your workplace) as an observer.
Jonathan Dalton, CEO of Thrive Consulting, points out that ‘ethnography is a vital tool that gives executives a real‐world understanding of people’s preferences, motivations and needs.’
What it requires are just three things, if you are going to turn it into a superpower of your own:
5 simple ways to bring real people back into the picture
Below are five simple things that you and your team can do to take real action, and start crafting more engaging writing for your internal audience.
1: Start talking to them
If your customers are external, find a way of getting some time talking to them. This might mean requesting some time in the call centre, if you’re in a large enterprise. It might mean requesting some time in sales, if you’re in a small or medium‐sized business.
When your customers are internal, it might require you to start digging out the people who can forge introductions to your ‘customers’.
Internally, your point is not to do anything more formal than to arrange coffee and get to know them. And if you need an excuse, here’s a good one: Offer to learn more about their needs so you can more effectively add value to them them. It’s something few people can resist.
Learning about your customers’ motivations gives you the ability to engage them
A great example I have from my own working history is the case of a customer of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, who had been a subscriber for more than 50 years. She rang to make a complaint, and it was escalated through to me. I wasn’t in a customer‐facing role at that point, and 90% of the time neither were my team members, though were were in subscriptions. I heard her tearful plea about the role that the Daily Tele had played in her life, and her firm conviction that she had to cancel because she felt that nobody cared enough to help her receive it consistently. She was so clear and definite about it, and it was so obvious that we had royally (if inadvertently) stuffed up, that I did as she asked and refunded her the remainder of her subscription.
But she’d got me thinking. She’d been a subscriber since the 1950s. The Daily Tele was really part of her life.
I got my team together and told them the story. They were sad about losing her, too! So we had a wild and crazy idea.
We wrote a giant note on a piece of cardboard that said, We’re so sorry. We’d love to have you back!We held up the note, and took a photo, and posted it to her with a letter introducing ourselves to her. We wrote a sincere apology, and asked her to consider coming back.
The net effect of this was that not only did our lovely subscriber reconnect to us, but this time she knew who we were. She had a photo of us! We took the time to connect with her in a way that made her feel really special, because we understood her position. She called back, breathless with joy, and re‐subscribed.
But if we hadn’t had the experience of speaking with this woman, and didn’t understand her underlying motivations in order to woo her back, she would have just been another numerical loss.
2: Keep records of your observations
Build a central repository so that you and your team can record observations. Keep records of the things that your audience loves, the things that they reference when giving you explanations or descriptions. Take note of how they speak, how they describe themselves and their team mates, or their work.
If you get the opportunity to talk to them in person, record the things that make their body language shift — for better or for worse. Body language is important because it is an indication of emotional shift.
Keep notes about their needs. What do they love, or hate? What would make their lives easier? What do they need or want from you or your team? What problems are they looking to solve?
When you do this, keep in mind the idea of writing an engaging story about this culture. What do you need to take note of to recreate it later? That is what to keep notes about.
Records help you to spot patterns in customer attributes
As business owners, we often forget to take notes of our observations. I’ve done it, in a number of businesses! We keep it in our heads. But the problem is, when it’s in your head, you can’t do anything with it.
Once you start keeping notes, you can start spotting patterns. Your brain starts looking for the next part of the pattern, and your understanding increases. It functions as a reflection on what you’re doing and who for, and you will naturally start thinking about what to do next.
Do yourself a favour, and keep notes about everyone that’s important in your relationships. The ideal place for it in small businesses is in the CRM on the customer file, with key points transferred to a value proposition canvas or similar. For a small team, maybe all you need is a central spreadsheet or document that everyone shares.
3: Make engaging your audience part of your team’s conversation
When you’re trying to help your team to engage more effectively with your real people, bring the practice of observation into your weekly meetings or huddles. (And if you don’t have these meetings, start doing it — it’s really valuable!)
In your huddle, share:
- Examples of what did and didn’t work, for whatever metric you’re using
- Things you did that changed relationships for the better
- What you learned in conversations or research with your readers or audience
- Tips, tricks, and hacks that others can use to make their writing more effective.
Your aim is to turn your entire team into one that is research‐capable. Your goal is to create a curious, empathic team that is good at listening. If they have to report back, they will listen even better! So make it part of the way in which they have to report back to you and share learnings. Your involvement is what will encourage them to shift their behaviours.
4: Test the customer‐focus of your writing
For those of you who work in technical areas, where passive voice and agency can be problematic, testing the customer focus gives you a more ‘objective’ view.
There are online tools that help you to do this, but with some very simple maths you can do it yourself. Read our how‐to article about how to do this.
5: Form a ‘mind of the customer’ group to understand what is engaging for them
Customer advisory groups can be really valuable. Your business might already have a ‘voice of the customer’ program, but what you are really looking for is a ‘mind of the customer’ program.
The difference is that voice of the customer gives you what they say about you. But mind of the customer is about how they feel, what their motivations are, their assumptions and beliefs.
When it comes to engaging writing, this is priceless material for you. Writing for these motivations, beliefs and assumptions allows you to get under your readers’ skins, to challenge them, to light up their worlds. That’s where engagement begins.
It’s ok if you feel overwhelmed by this. It just means it is new to you!
When you’re new to taking observations, or you realise you haven’t done it systematically before, you can feel anxious, overwhelmed, or even stupid.
I know. I’ve done it, and I’ve felt it, too. This is ok. It’s an indication that you’re aware that something has to shift. So embrace it and use it to help you create new habits.
Once you take a few small steps, and start seeing (and hearing about!) the results of observation, clarity, and record keeping, your perceived effort will be replaced by increased motivation to continue it.
Start small, have some interesting conversations!
The best way to start is by having conversations. With your readers or audience, if you can. With your team mates. This process of discovery is fascinating, full of lessons, and can be exciting.
By taking action today on just one small thing, you can start creating engaging writing much faster. Have a conversation. Keep some notes. Rinse and repeat.
Need some help?
Brutal Pixie has been helping businesses like yours to create engaging communications for half a decade. Our team members have 15 years experience crafting copy that educates, inspires, and engages, and our trainers are universally loved.
To find out how we can help you, book an appointment (below) or contact us.