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.

 

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!