Do you ever feel like your business writing is overly formal? Stilted? Drab? You’re not alone. Companies face the same problem, often bringing in experts like me because so many of their employees write and deliver content that makes their audience yawn, or worse, hit “Delete.”
To address this issue, I ask clients the following question frequently: “How would you say or explain this to a child?”
Here are three places I recommend using this trick to transform content into something people actually want to read:
1) Your LinkedIn profile.
In presentations like How to Put Your Personality into Your LinkedIn Profile, I suggest doing this exercise: Explain what you do for work to a 5-year-old. That way, instead of using big words that few people understand, you will be forced to present what you do in a simplified, engaging way. You might not use the exact same words you’d use to talk to someone 35 or 55 years your junior, but something might come out that is fresh and refreshing! Here’s how one LinkedIn user, Jess Hornyak, describes herself:
It’s safe to say I don’t fit into a traditional bubble. I’m an art director, but I’m really so much more. I’m a strategist. A writer. An artist. A competitor. It’s why I’m looking for people who could use a little more non-traditional in their everyday lives.
Plus, it means I’m never bored. And definitely not boring.
Do you see the childlike energy in what she wrote? She definitely keeps me reading! I challenge you to put this type of wonder in your own LinkedIn profile, even in subtle ways. Your readers will appreciate it. They might even pick you first for the kickball team.
2) Video scripts and videos.
When I was working with a company who writes video scripts and then produces the videos to explain its product to users, I was fortunate to have the speaker from the video in the room. I asked her to read her script, and she asked if I wanted her to use her “video voice.” “Sure!” I said. It turned out that her video voice sounded like she was reading and presenting, rather than like she was talking to me.
I asked her to read the script as if she were reading to a child. She started to see that the script contained so much lingo that it was actually impossible to read it that way. A conversation ensued about how to create less terminology-dense content for the company’s users.
Shortly thereafter, I encountered a perfect example of kid-friendly content. Take a couple of minutes to listen to the audio for this Social Media Examiner article on How to Use Showcase Pages for Business. You’ll notice the excitement, even giddiness in her voice. You can hear her smiling. That’s the voice we use to talk to little ones.
You may also notice a nice amount of variety in sentence structure in the Social Media Examiner article. There are shorter sentences, longer sentences and questions mixed in throughout. That’s how we talk to kids too.
Not all of your content will be read aloud in an audio or video. But reading content aloud to yourself or another person, even if it’s being sent in an email or posted on a site, will give you a great sense of how it sounds to the reader. After all, most readers read things with an internal voice that we want to sound conversational and not bore us to death.
3) Instructional materials.
When we talk to kids we don’t say things like, “These toys need to be picked up by you.” No. We say, “Pick up your toys!!”
You’ll notice that the first sentence is written in passive voice (for a tutorial on passive vs. active voice, see Grammar Girl’s article on the topic).
If you’re a writer, you know that passive voice takes more words and generally puts people to sleep much faster than active writing. Yet technical writers often default to phrases like, “The search box is found in the upper right corner of your screen. When a search term is entered into the box, the site will be searched.”
Are you asleep yet? What about something more like this:
“Looking for something on our site? Just enter what you want in the search box in the upper right corner of your screen. Presto! Your search results appear!”
That second option is much more kid-friendly, isn’t it? Of course, depending on your company’s brand, you might choose to use words like “Presto” – or not. Always be appropriate to your company brand guidelines. Or you might get sent to your room.
If you’re having trouble breaking out of adult speak, try talking to an actual child about any of the above three items. Or, do this exercise: Write a script where you invite a child in your life to go on a trip to Disney World. How would you talk? What questions would you ask? How would they respond? Writing this way will jostle your brain and wake up some creativity cells.
Let’s face it: We’re kids at heart. And with everything we’re juggling on a daily basis, we can have the attention span of a 5-year-old. So let’s keep our communications simple and wondrous. Tap into your inner kid and have fun!