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If Customers Are Real People, Why Do We Talk to Them like Robots?

January 3, 2014 by James Daniel in Business Writing

If Customers Are Real People, Why Do We Talk to Them like Robots?

There’s a dangerous myth that’s wormed its way into the business world. It says a certain breed of customers expect a special tone of voice – a formal or “corporate” style that’s neutral and non-emotive. Anything less, says the myth, and they’ll disapprove because “it sounds unprofessional”.

It’s a weird misconception, and if you’ve joined the ranks of believers it’s probably costing you dear. After all, we’re just human – and pre-programmed to respond to other humans – so remove the humanity from your message and you’ve lost a massive advantage.

It’s easy to understand how the myth has come about. Formal writing is drummed into us all from an early age. In school, we’re taught to write in passive language, using the third person, instead of the active first person language we all use in everyday speech.

And if you progress through academia, the formal factor increases…then move into the business world, where the myth has a strangle-hold, and you just become part of the machine – believing “that’s how things are done”.

But take a step back for a moment. Nothing is more effective than face-to-face communication, where we drop the hyper-formality and talk to customers like real people – so surely when we put pen to paper, it makes sense to adopt the same easy style.

Marketing tests have shown this for years. Since the days of Mad Men and long before, copywriters have been split-testing their messages using different styles. And time and again, the more direct, less formal style has won out.

Of course, your tone should change from one audience to the next. You have one way of talking to friends, another way for relatives, and another way for customers – but ultimately, it’s all conversation. There’s no-one you’d talk to in the robotic style of Corporatese.

So, if you’re ready to break the habit and write more conversational copy, here are seven points to consider:

1. Make it personal

A customer would sooner hear from you the person, not you the company. So write it as a message from you – in other words, “I”, not “we”. That’s especially important in personal media like letters and emails, but you can also make it work in company messages like brochures and web pages. Just act as a guide or narrator, and the reader will relate to you more easily.

2. Be active, not passive

“The task will be assigned to our development team” works better as “our development team will handle this task”. Think of people doing things – not things being done by people.

3. Use simple words

In the last example, “handle” is less formal than “assign”. In the same way, “use” is better than “utilise”, “get rid of” beats “eliminate” and “finish” is better than “finalize”. Every time you opt for the longer, posher version of a word, it makes your copy sound cold and pompous – so keep an eye out, and keep it simple.

4. Use contractions

Compare “we’ll do this in the next week” with “we will do this in the next week”. The first is simple and chatty, the second sounds unnatural. Yes, sometimes the longer form is useful, to make a statement more resolute – but as a rule, don’t be afraid to keep your apostrophe button busy.

5. Make it clear

The marketing graveyard is littered with campaigns that led with witticisms and wordplay. If your meaning doesn’t come across at a glance, the reader has to decide what you’re trying to say. Many will just give up rather than make the effort, and many who persevere will get the wrong end of the stick. Better to be direct and get straight to the point.

6. Use grammar well…but also abandon it!

Grammar is a double agent. Sometimes the rules of our language help communication – but other times, they get in the way. There’s no need to follow the pedantic rules, like never starting a sentence with “and”, “but” or “because”, or never ending on a preposition like “at”, “by”, “with” or “from”.  But other rules, like sentence structure and spelling, are far more help than hindrance. Best to follow those to the letter.

7. Don’t say it all at once

If your sentences go on forever, filled with embedded clauses like this one, then by the time the reader gets to the end, a little confused by now, they’ve forgotten where they started. So break down longer sentences into two or three short ones – or use a hyphen to build a bridge in the middle. It all helps understanding.

By following these basic steps, you can quickly inject some personality and warmth into your copy. There are other steps of course, but there’s only one guiding principle:

Write the way you talk, and readers will be naturally drawn to the message.

This article was written by James Daniel, an award-winning UK Copywriter and author of “Do You Talk Like That At Home?” – a guide to writing simple, conversational copy.

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About James Daniel

James Daniel is an award-winning UK Copywriter and author of "Do You Talk Like That At Home?" – a guide to writing simple, conversational copy. He has a degree in Linguistics and a diverse career background, combining journalism, direct sales, business development and marketing. For more information, visit www.jamesthecopywriter.co.uk.

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One Comment

  1. Paul JonesJanuary 10, 2014 at 2:05 am

    Great post, James. Thanks for advancing the cause!

    You mentioned academia; I think the big mistake people make is thinking that what worked at university will work at work.

    But good academic writing isn’t good business writing. Bosses and workmates are too time-poor and focused on results to read long screeds of explanation.

    I thought you’d like this research, showing that using big words unnecessarily actually makes the writer appear dumber:

    http://magneto.net.au/blog/research-proves-it-big-words-make-you-look-dumb/

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