The nuance of selecting the right word
By Shannan Seely
“See, the best interpreters are part linguists, part diplomats. They have to know the politics behind each word,” Danny Hajek, National Public Radio reporter.
Try to put yourself in the shoes of a prospective customer.
How do you want him to feel when he visits and reads the copy on your website? Like you’re speaking directly to him? So he feels like you understand him, can relate to his concerns and have the knowledge to solve his problems?
Do you want him to think, “These people get me!”
Many writers inadvertently fail to foster these feelings online with a prospective customer. Let me explain the three reasons why and how you can fix it.
1. We do not believe the right word matters.
“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words,” Mark Twain
When we edit our copy, if we think we only need to correct spelling and grammar, and then we’re good to go and publish, then we need to change our mindset. Words have the potential for good or for bad, or at a minimum, muddle the conversation. Just ask Igor Korchilov.
Korchilov knows the precise word matters from personal experience. He was featured in a National Public Radio (NPR) story about how interpreters work in highly stressful summits.
He was the Soviet interpreter in 1990 when former President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were having nuclear negotiations. During the talks, there was a moment when Gorbachev appeared to change his position dramatically. Tension peaked among White House staff. What happened? Korchilov admitted on NPR he interpreted and said the wrong word. The mistake was quickly corrected, but Korchilov was contrite. He apologized to President Bush afterwards.
“He (President Bush) made a stern look, you know, put his arms in his pockets and said, relax; the good news is that you didn’t start World War III,” said Korchilov.
Each word spoken in international situations has political and break-out-into-war consequences. For us, online marketers, our errors may not risk such dire consequences. But the outcome we’re striving for is no less important: attract, rather than detract, our readers.
2. We use our language, and not their language.
“Use words your audience uses. … Use words that are familiar to your potential customer,” Ann Handley
We do this when we forget to pay attention to our reader’s level of awareness. I see marketing agencies’ websites also make this mistake. The agency team members assume people already know what “inbound marketing” or “SEO” or “account based marketing” means. The agencies also assume people care about these terms.
But we need to be mindful of a marketing manager’s background and responsibilities. When they “talk shop,” the conversation probably isn’t the same as the ones you’re having around the refrigerator in the office lunch room. In fact, their lingo may be foreign to you.
In essence, a language barrier exists. Familiarity with our products and services is one cause.
We think we’re writing for our readers, but we’re writing for ourselves instead. Why? I don’t know if we are aware of our curse of knowledge, but I think we’ve forgotten what life was like before .. when we were ignorant. We may have forgotten what a beginner knows on the subject, and not realize people outside our company or job may be unfamiliar or categorize terms differently.
The biggest problems is we assume they care about what we care about. We demonstrate this curse of knowledge by using jargon and buzzwords too often.
Have you looked up the definitions of jargon and buzzword? Merriam-Webster explains:
jargon noun | jar·gon | \ ˈjär-gən , -ˌgän \ Definition of jargon 1: the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group 2: obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words 3 a: confused unintelligible language b: a strange, outlandish, or barbarous language or dialect c: a hybrid language or dialect simplified in vocabulary and grammar and used for communication between peoples of different speech
But the Merriam-Webster’s student dictionary version truly pinpoints jargon’s flaws:
jar·gon Pronunciation: jär-gn, -gän Function: noun 1: a mixed language used for communication between peoples whose native languages are different 2: the special language of a particular activity or group 3: language that is not clear and is full of long important-sounding words
Language that’s not clear? Full of long important-sounding words? Sounds boring. Will using jargon draw our readers in? I don’t think so.
Here’s the buzzword definition:
buzzword noun | buzz·word | \ ˈbəz-ˌwərd \ Definition of buzzword. 1: an important-sounding usually technical word or phrase often of little meaning used chiefly to impress laymen 2: a voguish word or phrase – called also buzz phrase
Ann Handley told her readers in Everybody Writes, “We want in our heart of hearts to sidestep nonwords and cliches and jargon. Better writing comes from that place of goodness. It means using the right words, choosing real words, and avoiding the temptation of buzzwords.”
In the words of Adele Revella, in Buyer Personas, quote:
“… messaging that directly addresses specific concerns cuts through the jargon and has the ability to catch their attention as if someone is speaking to them directly at the moment.”
I think we want to avoid “cotton candy” meaning as much as possible, and write words with substance. But the right word is not only about eliminating fluff. We’re also guilty of another writing oops.
3. We write boring copy.
“Your direction is simple: Effective messaging emerges at the intersection of what your buyers want to hear and what you want to say,” Adele Revella
I think writers suffer from a little amnesia about the “what your buyers want to hear” part. To not be boring is hard, but boring copy is easy to find online. Content that works like a sleep aid is available, everywhere. You’ve seen it. I’ve seen it.
And our target audience sees it.
Let’s weigh our words so they are a balance of what buyers want to hear and what you want to say. These questions can help you formulate your words better:
“Does what I’m writing matter to our reader?”
“Is the message valuable to our reader?”
“Are the words relevant to the customers’ problems?”
“Will the information help them do something that’s important to them?”
And, “Will the words help them take the action I want them to take?”
The Fix: Take the Words from Your Readers’ Mouths
In a post on Copyblogger, guest poster Joanna Wiebe wondered what words will encourage people to act in ways we want them to. How do we motivate them to click a link, sign up for your newsletter, or fill out a contact form?
What she found was writers are more successful when they behold certain characteristics: the words the audience already uses.
She tested the control (boring copy she wrote) versus the experiment, using language entirely based on the language used by the target audience.
Her results were amazing:
The result of our test? Variation B saw 124 percent more visitors click to sign up, with 99.9 percent confidence. The riskier, stickier copy was better for the business.
So how do you know what those words are? Steal them from your customer, according to Wiebe.
But where can you find their lingo?
Indeed, there’s an art to finding them. You’ll need to think of yourself as an editor… and think of your customers as your copywriters. Your customers are writing your copy all over the place, including:
- In support emails
- In raving-fan emails
- In tweets, on Facebook, on LinkedIn, in YouTube comments
- In online forums
- In LiveChat transcripts
[Hat tip to Joanna Wiebe, CEO of CopyHackers.]
When you open your mind, you’ll find more sources to gather this information, including:
- In the conversations your representatives have with the customer
- In customer testimonials
- In the conversations your customers have with customer service
- in Amazon reviews
Steal their words from anywhere that customers and prospects are openly talking.
What are you looking for?
Look for language that is exactly what you’re trying to come up with on your own: words that catch your attention. Language that’s unique, different, stands out and original. You’re open to their own words as they talk about their problems and describe the benefits.
Wiebe talks about the need to test and test because not every word is the right word, even if your target audience uses it.
What are your best sources for finding what your reader truly cares about?
- The Pressures Of Being An Interpreter At A High-Stakes Summit : NPR,
- The Pressures Of Being An Interpreter At A High-Stakes Summit : NPR, The Pressures Of Being An Interpreter At A High-Stakes Summit, https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=611734103
- Everybody Writes, Ann Handley, 2014
- Definition of jargon – Merriam-Webster’s Student Dictionary, Definition of jargon – Merriam-Webster’s Student Dictionary, http://www.wordcentral.com/cgi-bin/student?book=Student&va=jargon
- Buyer Personas, Adele Revella, 2015
- Buyer Personas, Adele Revella, 2015
- Big Bums, Scuffles, and How to Craft Copy Your Competitors Wouldn’t Dare Write, https://www.copyblogger.com/daring-copy/, Joanna Wiebe
- Write High Converting Copy… Without Actually Writing, How You Can Write High Converting Copy… Without Actually Writing, https://unbounce.com/conversion-rate-optimization/write-high-converting-copy/
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