5 tips for writing like a human being

Cyberman

If you’re worried your business copy might leave readers thinking they’re the last survivors of a cyborg invasion, try these tactics out in your next blog, ad or article.

1. Use everyday words.

Real experts know their subject so well that they can explain it to anyone – including their Gran. So if you don’t understand your topic, covering up with a load of jargon will only make you look like you’re hiding something.

Instead, ask questions until you get it. THEN start writing, and you’ll find you don’t need the jargon anymore.

2. Be specific.

Instead of flowery descriptions, use relatable details that help the reader imagine the subject, and keep you out of the picture.

For example, “In 1984, Big Brother watches every move Winston Smith makes” says a lot more about the book than “1984 is Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece”, and doesn’t conjure up the same image of the writer smirking at their own cleverness.

That’s just distracting. And a bit gross…

3. Make it personal.

We all like to think of ourselves as individuals – not part of one big, samey blob of humanity whose main function is to walk around buying stuff. Don’t be the person whose writing tells people otherwise.

Talking about your organisation? Use ‘we’. About the reader? Say ‘you’. For groups of people, go for words that sound human and specific – try music fans, book lovers or theatre-goers instead of users or customers.

4. Ask questions.

You already do this when you’re chatting to people – it’s just polite, right?

It’s the same in writing. Including questions you think the reader will be curious about shows that you’re interested in them, and understand their position – which you do, because you’re not a robot.

5. Choose words you’d say out loud..

If in doubt, read it out. Is that how you’d say it to:

Your boss?
Your workmates?
Your friend?
Your Mum?

If not, it’s time to redraft.

 

The only animal that writes

 

dogwriter

As far as I know, human beings are the only animals that write. At least on this planet.

We’re also the only animal that reads. So it’s amazing how often business writing fails to connect with readers as people.

So why do writers find it so hard to sound human?

Right now it seems like everyone’s taking the word of organisations they used to trust with not just a pinch, but a whole whole fistful, of salt.

The more their comms staff try to put this right, the worse it seems to get. And that’s largely down to a common tactic used by people who speak or write for organisations in this situation: playing the expert card.

This involves using elaborate language or technical jargon to:

a) Cover up our real meaning when we think people won’t like what we have to say.

Or

b) Make us sound clever when we’re feeling the exact opposite, because we’re struggling to understand our subject.

As professional writers, we can sometimes feel like the captain of the school debating team in the final round of a competition – lumbered with a topic we don’t know much about, a deadline that gives us very little time to prepare, and an argument to make that we suspect might be a bit… well, dodgy.

No one can write well in this situation, so the usual result is the kind of writing that pretty much just says:

‘This is too complicated for you, but that’s okay. You can trust me to sort it out for you because I really do know my onions much better than any other onion-seller. Honest. Here are a load of long words like Amaryllidaceae to prove it.’

Then we leave the office and remember that we’re human beings – just in time to quickly knock off a hilarious and insightful Facebook post or two on the train, have our families in stitches over the dinner table, or entertain our friends with stories about that holiday.

Because we know instinctively that the stories we tell are what feeds our relationships with other people. They’re our best tool for making connections.

But somehow, when we’re in work mode, writing on behalf of someone, or something, other than ourselves, we lose the ability to sound human. 

So what can we do about it?  

The good news is that, if you’re a human yourself, you already know what to do.

But to make it a bit easier to remember when you’ve got a deadline looming and 19 million other things to think about, I’ll put it all in one place in the next post. See you there.

Seen this week: All the Things I Lied About

Katie-Bonna-All-The-Things-Ive-Lied-About-Main-Image-Digital.jpg-

Katie Bonna got engaged last year. And like a lot of people about to tie the knot, she found herself thinking more about her parents’ marriage.

Revisiting her memories of their relationship, and the lies that ended it, she decided to make a show about her own difficult relationship – with the truth.

So in some ways it’s ironic that what makes this work-in-progress stand out is Bonna’s trademark brand of candour.

Hooking us in with a childhood story of how she once tricked her sister into drinking her pee, she is instantly fun and relatable.

When she moves on to more intimate confidences about the stories her teenage self would tell people she fancied in order to get off with them, her self-deprecating willingness to be vulnerable draws us ever closer.

And by the time she comes to share some more difficult, adult confessions, she has changed us.

If we came into the theatre a group of relative strangers liable to judgement, we’re now a roomful of allies reflecting on our own dishonest histories.

And that, right there, is the brilliance of the piece. At the centre of this story is a writer-performer who recognises the importance of the Everyman (or woman). She understands something all good storytellers must:

That if we come love a character, it will be for their flaws, and not their strengths.

It’s in those weaknesses and imperfections that we find reassurance, and inspiration.

Thank God, we think, that everyone else is just as messed up as I am.

But if they can change, then maybe I can, too.

You can catch the second performance of All the Things I lied About on Sat Feb 6 at the Vault Festival, or hear more from Katie in Episode 1 of the Funny Thing podcast.

Say it with feeling

“Emotions travel five times faster than rational thought.”

I spotted this quote in a BBC article about Facebook Reactions last week. Around the same time, I had a conversation with a journalist whose news team is trying to work out how to boost engagement with their stories on Facebook.

They’re finding that on social platforms – where individuals curate the content of their own media – the stuff that proves most popular with audiences is often very different to what a news editor might choose to run as a lead story.

His team aren’t the first to discover this. As far as I’m aware, cats’ interactions with boxes or vegetables have rarely, if ever, found their way onto the front page of The Times. But they do attract eye-watering volumes of social traffic.

When gaps like this emerge, it’s often a question of empathy. An audience will always engage with the story of a dog being rehabilitated after a car accident far more readily than a figurehead giving a speech about quantitative easing.

This is not because we care about dogs more than the economy.

It’s just that we can relate to the dog’s situation much more quickly than we can form an opinion about whether it’s a good idea for the Bank of England to create more money.

Humans are better at empathy than logic because, thankfully, it’s what we’re designed for. But our finest moments are when our emotional reactions move us to practical thought and action.

Like last September, when a photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body after he drowned off the coast of Turkey sparked an outpouring of support for migrants and refugees.

This single image was a far more powerful prompt for widespread action than any newspaper op-ed or parliamentary speech.

Feelings happen to us. Thoughts, we make happen.

And great storytelling uses feeling as a springboard to thought.

I saw this ad from Virgin Media in the cinema last week, and it’s a brilliant example.  It takes an everyday, thought-driven act – researching a topic on a search site – and gives it an emotional story that makes it feel life-changing.

Check it out below. If you’re watching for the first time, have some tissues handy!

Need a Big Idea? Ask a small question.

There’s a quote from tech leader Marissa Mayer that I think about a lot. It goes:

“Creativity loves constraints.”

The first time I heard it, I thought this couldn’t be more wrong. Surely all the best ideas come from ditching the rules and just letting your imagination run free?

Well, no. Not unless you have the kind of self-confidence Muhammad Ali would envy.

Personally, I don’t. So I find myself coming back to Mayer’s words whenever I’m confronted with the limitless possibility of a blank page.

On Tuesday I started a graphic design course. The tutor, Ruth, talked me and the other students through some of the basic principles we’ll be exploring over the next couple of months, then gave us our first brief.

London Zoo is moving premises. Design the announcement card.

Sketch out your ideas for the design.

You have 20 minutes.

This is an excellent brief. It gives four simple constraints:

  • One required short-term output (multiple sketched ideas)
  • One specific medium-term objective (design an announcement card)
  • One clear message to be communicated (London Zoo is moving)
  • A just-about-manageable deadline (20 minutes. Definitely no time for navel-gazing, then.)

Before Ruth had finished speaking, my normally blank page-phobic imagination was buzzing with ideas. Here are the ones I shared once my 20 minutes was up.

idea 1idea 2idea 3idea 4

Some good, some not so good. But you know what? Every single one is better than white space.

These sketches only made it into existence at all because the constraints in the brief forced my brain and hand to get over the inhibiting concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ideas and JUST DRAW SOMETHING, FOR GOD’S SAKE.

And now I’ve now got some ideas to build on, the whole task seems a lot less daunting.

This afternoon, in work, my team-mate and I applied the same technique in a workshop with a charity. They are looking for ways to get more young people involved in their campaign to tackle youth homelessness.

How do we end homelessness? is the kind of question a hundred brilliant brains could – and frequently do – puzzle over for weeks, months, and years, without finding a satisfactory answer.

We knew that asking it here would leave us confronted with nine blank faces and zero ideas that would help an audience understand the issue, let alone tackle it.

Instead, we presented the group with a list of campaigning actions that we know young people like to do – donating things, making things, wearing symbols, sharing stories and photos.

Then we asked:

How could people help tackle homelessness by doing each of these things?

One hour later, we had 16 brilliant campaign ideas, and 9 excited grins.

My point?

Next time someone tells you to ‘think outside the box’, ignore them.

Build your box, climb in, and the thinking will take care of itself.