Some time back I had a Facebook discussion with my colleague Adrienne Montgomerie about the importance of putting yourself in your audience’s shoes when you write. This involves acknowledging the language, concepts and experiences that are relevant to them.
In addition, it’s important to remember that your readers won’t hang around when evaluating your words. They’re busy people, so the first few lines will inform their response to the rest of your argument.
Breaking the rules …
Despite my awareness of both concepts, I recently broke my own rules. In a blog article that sought to explore the ways in which we can influence our potential clients’ perceptions of our ability to deliver on the claims we make about our editorial services, I was so wrapped up in my fascination with the concept of ‘truthiness’ that I overlooked a section of my audience.
US political satirist Stephen Colbert is credited with having coined the term ‘truthiness’ back in 2005. He was mocking politicians and the way they (mis)represent their claims in order to manipulate the electorate. I introduced Colbert’s name in the first few lines of the discussion and then swiftly moved on.
Why did I move on? Well, I wasn’t much interested in Colbert. I’m based in the UK. The Comedy Central channel isn’t available on my TV and while I’m aware of who Colbert is, he’s not top of my radar when it comes to political satire. I’m much more likely to think of Dara Ó Briain, Chris Morris, or Armando Iannucci. What I was really interested in was how the marketing and social psychology communities had taken Colbert’s ‘truthiness’ and begun to explore its relevance to how people think and behave, and how we editors and proofreaders might use it to think about how our customers perceive us.
But I didn’t explain this until the third paragraph, and even then I didn’t focus on the differences between Colbert’s motives and these more recent explorations.
Because my focus on was on my interest, I failed to acknowledge that a chunk of my audience (particularly those in North America) might home in on my early mention of Colbert. The result was that a discussion emerged on the lines of “that’s not what Colbert meant” rather than “forget Colbert – look at how his truthiness concept is being used NOW”.
Not only had I ignored the cultural framework of a big chunk of my audience, I’d used the most important space in the design of my article (the first few lines) to introduce information that I didn’t want my readers to concentrate on. In doing so, I created a focus for my discussion that I never intended.
… and learning the lessons
Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to tweak the blog article and explain myself in the comments section. More important though were the valuable lessons I learned: (1) Don’t make assumptions about your audience. (2) Don’t leave out important information for the sake of brevity if there’s a chance that brevity will interfere with clarity. (3) Don’t place information that you consider incidental in a prominent position. I can hardly blame my audience for focusing on a particular aspect of my writing if I force their attention there in the first place! (4) Get feedback.
I stand by the points I was trying to make in that article, but I recognize that this was not my best piece of writing. I can live with that. One of my favourite sayings is “there’s no such thing as failure, just lessons learned”. Learning lessons is difficult without feedback, though, so the fact that some of my editorial colleagues were open to discussing the issue allowed me to think about the mistakes I’d made in the way I’d presented my argument.
Getting feedback – let the editors edit you!
Whether you’re creating marketing copy, developing added value (training booklets or tutorials, for example), networking with your editorial colleagues via blogs or online discussion boards, or writing a book, article or report, listen to the feedback from readers and editors so that you can hone your message and communicate clearly.
Other people’s responses to your words are a fabulous indicator of whether you’ve said what you meant to say. All of us are prone to thinking that because we’ve clarified the finer points of an argument in our own minds, the resulting words on the page reflect this. It’s so often not the case, and it’s for this reason that being edited is such a high-value proposition. Achieving clarity is something editors do for a living. They’re good at it!
I’ve certainly taken note of what some of my editorial colleagues told me and I hope that it will make me a better communicator. If writing is an important part of what you do, embrace critique, especially from experienced professionals. You can only gain from the experience.
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