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An audience-centered life

I know it’s been a long time since my last blog post and for that I apologize. It’s been a lucky few months for me; months packed with travel and work. I’ve mainly had three different types of work in the last few months: scientific, business communications, and political campaign writing. As I reflect on them now, however, I see that business communications and political campaign writing are really quite alike. The first type of work is the work covered explicitly on my website, the writing and editing of different types of communications for business. The second type of work I discuss much less often because of its frequently divisive nature.

Before you get too impressed, please note that I write and edit mostly for the PR and marketing firms that handle smaller, down-ticket candidates. A global audience, such as the one I reach here, will not often be familiar with these candidates and few, if any, of those politicians have potential to affect your daily business. I am exactly as you see me, a relatively small fish in a big pond. That’s fine for me; it stops me from getting a big head.

As I thought about the similarities (and differences) between political writing and business communications, I realize that they share many rules. Every time I sit down to write, I am actually standing in front of a microphone, talking to an audience. That audience is the center of my universe. Here's how I make sure I never forget that:

1. Decide the purpose of your document.

It’s easy to say, “The purpose of our document is to sell Widget X” or “The purpose of our document is to elect Candidate Z.” What is less easy to say is why we are focusing right now on selling Widget X or electing Candidate Z. Widget X may be the answer to your competitor’s widget or it may be an entirely new concept that none of your competitors have. Are you selling your brand reputation or are you selling the newness? Candidate Z may just be your Party A person (and Party A is so much better than Party B – says your branding) or it may be that Candidate Z is a totally new concept put forward by your Party A brand. You see, it’s quite the same. If you are reminding people of brand loyalty, then remind them. If you are telling them about something new, tell them that. Don’t mix messages. For the most part, buyers (and voters are just another kind of buyer) need a consolidated message that is not bogged down by competing reasoning. They are not stupid; they are busy. If you confuse them, they will walk away.

2. Consider your audience at every stage.

All of you have a market research team. Sometimes you have several MR teams in the same company. Make sure your audience is well defined. Know their pressure points and their price limits. Also find out how educated they are, how they make buying decisions, and all of those other nice things your MR team should do. If you feel your document is speaking to an empty room, your market research has failed you – or you have failed to examine it. Remember, your audience is not just the direct target of your document. There are secondary and tertiary readers of your document as well, especially if you sell technical items. Many times I have spoken with purchasing agents who have no idea what the thing they are buying does. They just send out RFPs and check the incoming materials for compliance. Those that meet the requirements get forwarded to a dozen or more other people who have to verify the technology, interfaces, suitability for purpose, etc. Don’t just write to your one highly educated person. Write for everyone.

It’s not different in political writing. You analyze the voter you’re looking to win over and then you think about spouses and the “sphere of influence” around that newly won voter. I discuss voting choices at home with my German spouse and my spouse discusses voting choices with me, a non-voter in Germany. We do influence each other and we have changed opinions based on that input.

3. Remember your history.

On very down-ticket races, we are often dealing with two unknown candidates or even more than one lifetime local politician. Getting as much intelligence on the history of your competitor will help you to remark on how a particular strong point of your product/candidate overshadows a corresponding weakness in your competition without having to call out that competition. In political writing, we have a saying: history not mystery. You may have new or even just new-ish people on your team. It is up to you to make sure that they know everything about your company’s past and present stance on the Widget and also that of your competitors. Tunnel vision is a luxury only true market unicorns have.

4. Decide if you are a patriot or a zealot.

In political writing that I deem patriotic, the competition is never belittled or even discussed. Failures in the marketplace of ideas prior to my candidate’s emergence are highlighted, as well as how my candidate overcomes those failures. Furthermore, I highlight how my candidate’s strong points serve the greater good of all constituents. My personal opinion is that I have never found it useful to mention the competition by name. The best features of my product/candidate should be enough to let the target audience know that this is an improvement over what they have had in the past.

Zealous writing in politics is a lot like writing copy for the B2C market. It’s catchy, pushy, and sure of itself. We’ve seen a lot of that kind of writing in almost every western democracy in the last few years. If your product/candidate has that kind of consumer/audience, you can be zealous in your writing.

In most B2B writing, however, being too clever with slogans and catchphrases can alienate your audience. For example, if your product is a medical device, write like a healthcare patriot. Express concepts that explain how your product furthers the health of the population in which it is deployed. It might be hard to make thermometers “cool”, but it is no problem to write in a way that says you are serious, your thermometer is easy to use and accurate, and your company's mission is to advance the goals of the healthcare community.

5. Only write what you can support with facts.

The internet has made the world small. Any inaccuracy or exaggeration you write about your product/candidate today will be a hashtag on Twitter tomorrow. Don’t prevaricate, equivocate, exaggerate, or outright lie about anything. If you cannot support something with facts, then present it as an opinion. If you can’t say with certainty, “Our thermometers are the most accurate thermometers on the market today,” then save yourself some pain, embarrassment, and bad publicity by saying, “Our customers rely on our thermometers’ extreme accuracy.” It’s true and it gets the concept into the document. Most importantly, you will never have to backpedal from that statement.

6. More eyes make a better document.

I can hear the groans from here. I am the WORST when it comes to taking constructive criticism when I have written something I think is clever. If I think it’s clever, that probably means that it was written for an audience of one: me. What I find engaging, amusing, or stimulating will likely be seen as esoteric or even a little goofy to other people. I have a strict rule with my own writing: If I love it, it probably needs a revision. Anything I feel that strongly about was written by me for me. That is too small of an audience. (If you are wondering, no, I don’t love this blog post. I like it well enough. It’s probably fine.)

7. Consider your audience, again.

If you haven’t thought of your audience at least twice with every document, you have probably gotten too caught up in how correct or how obvious it is, or how clever you are for saying it. You will certainly alienate your audience. I’ve thought about you, the audience for this blog post, for several days now. Let me tell you about you: You are fairly successful, mid-career professionals who operate quite well in more than one language, but you are always a little bit insecure about your English communication for no other reason than you are a little bit perfectionist. I’ll promise you one other thing about you as well: probably 80% of you earn more money than I do. I am completely okay with that. However, knowing that, I have to be careful not to insult or alienate you.

It’s the same for voters.

It’s the same for the people who vote on your products and services with their wallets.

Editor’s Tip: If you are using Microsoft office, and I assume most of you are, do a normal spell check and grammar review from your review menu. Next, click on the Office icon in the upper left hand corner. At the bottom of that drop down menu, you will see a button marked “Word Options”. Click that button. Click on “Proofing” and then click the check box for “Show readability statistics”. Now, re-run your spell check and grammar review. You will get box of statistics. One of the statistics will be the Flesch Readability Score. You want to try to keep this higher than 50%. For comparison, this blog post was at 62%. It is very helpful if you are not sure how accessible your writing is. Remember that 70% of speakers of English in the world are non-native speakers. Keeping your writing accessible will enhance the communicative power of your message and increase your audience.

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