OK, I need to take you on a little bit of a journey to explain what I mean here, so bear with me.
I have a background as an educator. I trained as a high school English teacher. I started teaching at universities at 21 years old. I worked in indigenous tertiary education for 7 years.
I now train adults for a living.
Trainer. Teacher. Educator. Facilitator.
In the education sector we have strong feelings about all these words.
In the school of education, we frown on the word ‘train’ because there’s a history of seeing teaching as a vocation rather than a profession.
In indigenous education we prefer the word ‘facilitate’ because it rejects the ‘empty vessel’ pedagogy that has such close links with colonisation.
When teaching adults, we are less likely to use the word ‘teach’ for similar reasons – working with adults requires a more co-constructive, facilitative approach than a teacher-student model.
I make good money as a corporate trainer because that is what companies are looking for. When adult participants come into a room with me they want me to teach them things. They are looking to me to have the expertise I can pass on to them.
But here’s the curveball: in a lot of ways, what I’m delivering to people when I train, teach, educate, or facilitate, is CONNECTION.
I teach people how to connect with other humans, because that is the foundation for all the other things we want to achieve.
Want to write better documents (Business Writing)? Connect with your readers.
Want to teach people better in the workplace (Train the Trainer)? Connect with your trainee.
Want to work better with other cultures (Cultural Competency)? Build a connection with those people.
You won’t hear me distil it like that in a training room.
So what does this have to do with marketing? And writing?
When we name a product or service, it’s natural to come at it from our own position:
- What do I call this thing?
- What is it, from my professional perspective, that I’m providing?
- What words are acceptable in my industry?
- What words will my peers see value and credibility in?
But that’s a mistake.
We also name our products and services based on the outcomes we know they’ll provide to people.
That’s also a mistake.
Because, ask any trainer or consultant and they’ll tell you:
What these people need is X, but they think they need Y.
If I try to sell them X, they’re not interested.
But if I sell them Y, they’ll buy it, and that gets me in the door so that I can give them X.
If I only deliver Y they won’t be anywhere near as satisfied as if I give them X.
In a nutshell?
Ask yourself what your market is looking for.
What do they think they need?
And then label your product or service as that.
How not to argue
If you’re in an energetic discussion with someone, what’s a sure-fire way to get them to dig their heels in?
Flat-out tell them they’re wrong. Point out all the faults in their logic. Deny their point of view.
The more you do that, the greater the barrier between you. You’re building a wall (aye, Donald).
How to argue with a chance of winning
But if you want any chance of getting them to hear you, getting them to consider there’s a different way to look at the issue, if you want to be heard, they need to feel heard first.
To influence, persuade, and get buy-in to your ideas, you have to remove the barriers between you. You have to create connection, clear some common ground, so that then the foundations of your reasoning can be built together, one block at a time.
But Shelly, how do you know?
I’m a writing trainer. You’d think I spend most of my time training people in the skills of good writing. But really, I spend most of my time winning people over.
I teach plain language. And plain language is the polar opposite of most of the ‘rules’ of good writing you learned at university. It goes against all the things you learned about using higher-level, more complex language to sound more intelligent, against the written voice you’ve always believed is what will give you credibility at work.
The people I train have had those ideas reinforced (and been rewarded for them) for years – often decades. The only way I can get them onside is to make sure they feel heard, validated, affirmed in their position, and then gently persuaded to consider a different view. And to sit with that different view. To play with it. To experience it. And to decide for themselves.
I’m a professional mind-changer.
The principles are the same when writing
So, to be persuasive in your writing, you need to do those same things.
1. Acknowledge the reader’s position
Like in all good business writing, start with your bottom line up front. Tell them where the destination is before you start the journey. That’s always a thing. And then, address their concerns. In NLP it’s sometimes called objection inoculators. Don’t leave objections simmering away in the background. Address them straight up. Acknowledge them as real and valid.
2. Validate their concerns
There’s a careful balancing act here of acknowledging validity, showing you understand the thinking and can see that it’s a reasonable position, without adding fuel to the fire.
Try using phrases like:
- It’s a common and understandable position…
- We’ve previously believed…
- Understandably, we have fears around…
3. Know their points of leverage
Here’s where intimate insight into your reader’s way of thinking becomes vital. If you know your reader is swayed by financial benefits, address those – and do it hard. If you know they’re particularly concerned with efficiency, processes, streamlining, show them benefits related to those. If long-term strategy is their thing, focus there. Maybe it’s quality. Maybe it’s ego. Know your reader, and use what will sway them.
4. Emotion always plays a part
Again, it’s a careful balance. Most influencers in the workplace will respond negatively to writing that is overly emotive – we’re so used to being sold to through informercials and hard sales pitches. So don’t do that. But the occasional subtle and well-placed emotive word for impact will work. While we don’t want to overuse emotion, we also don’t want to fall into the trap of believing that there’s no place for emotions in business. That’s simply not true – humans run businesses. Humans are emotional. The end.
5. Everything else is an extra set of steak knives
After all that, hit them with all the bonuses. All the added extras!
Once you’ve addressed their concerns and leveraged their wants and drivers, show them all the benefits they never even considered.
Make it too good to say no to. Just too valuable, too beneficial.
Overpower their arguments – not by fighting against, but by winning over.
Ready to go?
Practice this in conversation. Then plan out a well-sculpted argument and write the damn thing.
You’ll never know whether you can win someone over if you don’t try.
In my trainings, structure is one of the most common things participants say they want help with. They hope I’m going to give them a standard report structure. *snort* That’s like unicorn farts – would probably be really lovely but there’s no such thing. Sorry bout it.
In part one I covered the upfront framing that –
- gives readers an incredibly satisfying experience, and
- engages the right audience.
But I promised more. So let’s move from reader behaviour to a reader-centric document structure.
Let’s be very clear about how documents work
- You’re writing a document because you need to achieve something. An outcome.
- To achieve YOUR outcome, the document has to work for THEM – the reader.
- The upfront framing either engages or loses your reader (we’ve already covered this)
- The structure of the rest of the document determines its success (ie – YOUR outcome).
- Shall I say it again? Write for them. Not for you. That’s the only way you’re going to ultimately get what you’re after.
Purpose, purpose, bla, bla, bla
Any writing trainer worth their salt will tell you to identify the purpose of a document before you start writing. This is true. But I find purpose – both the word and the concept – problematic.
Firstly it’s overly and inappropriately used as a heading (how many documents have you read that have the heading purpose followed by a waffly, non-specific introduction??).
And second, when I ask people what the purpose of their document is, they give me answers like –
- to inform… (for what purpose? We don’t tell people stuff for no reason)
- to analyse… (documents don’t analyse things. People do)
- to define… (see above)
- to describe… (see above above. For what purpose?)
None of which give a writer the drilled-down clarity we need to develop a fit-for-purpose structure.
Instead, I train people to ask 2 questions:
- What does this document need to ACHIEVE?
- If this document works, what will HAPPEN?
Both questions direct us to a tangible, observable action by our reader.
Know your audience, bla, bla, bla
Again, everyone tells us this. And it’s true. But what’s most common in business documents today is that we have multiple audiences, with differing needs. So knowing that can make the writing process even more daunting and definitely not simple and clear.
How about this as an alternative: list all the readers of your document. Who will access it? Who will use it? Who will sign off on it? Who might need to refer to it?
Now look back at the solid outcome you identified with questions 1 & 2.
And ask the 3rd question:
- Who has the authority, ability, or position to make this document achieve its purpose?
Answer that and you’ve identified your primary readers. They matter the most. Write in a way that works for them, above anyone else. (By the way – this also gives you the ability to push back when an approver wants a document written a certain way, but you know that won’t work for the end user. Handy!)
Now create the headings/sections/chunks of your document
With clarity on outcome and readers of influence, you can now create a fit-for purpose structure. I wish I could wave a magic wand and tell you what that structure looks like. But again, unicorn farts. From where YOU sit, with YOUR knowledge, expertise and insight, and with the new clarity about purpose and readers, YOU have all the pieces to the puzzle. You can create a structure that will work best.
Ask yourself –
- What does my primary reader need to know so I can get my desired outcome?
- Does my primary reader need to know X (ie, any chunk of information) for my doc to achieve its purpose?
It’s all connected.
Want to know more? Bring me in for a training. I’ve got so much more!!!!
So I’m guessing you’re here because either
- you LOVE plain language and want to convince someone at work that it’s worth investing in, or
- you’ve heard about this plain language thing but you’re not yet sure you buy into it
Either way, I can help you out. So let’s dive into this.
Plain language (or plain English) saves money. It’s a simple fact. Plain language means your business will
- save time (don’t just skip over that – it’s the most significant financial benefit)
- improve customer experience and reduce queries
- increase compliance and reduce risk
- increase brand trust and credibility
Want more detail? Duh, I know that. THAT was just the intro – the high-level overview. Which, by the way, is a handy plain language approach to structuring documents.
Like how I did that? Now enough chit chat. Here’s what you came for.
Plain language saves time, which saves money. Piles of it. Sometimes great whopping mountains of it.
Save time reading
Joseph Kimble reports a US study using a Marine Radio Regulation. They gave people 1 of 2 versions of the regulation: the original or a plain language rewrite. Then they asked questions, and the readers had to find the answers in the document. The time to read, process, and answer the questions was almost halved – from 3 ½ minutes per question with the original, to less than 2 minutes per question with the plain language version.
How many minutes a day do your staff spend reading regulations, standards, policies, procedures and other indecipherable stuff? Just imagine how much time they could save.
Save writing time
In my trainings, I help people reconnect with our natural ways of expressing ideas – basically, the way we speak. When we write that like that we let go of so many worries and conventions and constructs that slow us down. It’s just faster! And the Plain English Campaign in the UK agrees.
Plain language improves CX and reduces customer queries, complaints, and all those fun games of email ping pong
- The US Federal Communications Commission once needed five fulltime staff members to field all the phone calls and queries about its rules for Citizen Band Radios. Putting the regulations into plain English freed all five staff members to, well, get other shit done.
- The Canadian government reports that when they rewrote their Certificate to Register Livestock, the compliance rate soared from a miserable 40% (imagine how much time THAT wasted) to 95%. That’s huge!
- The Arizona Department of Revenue reported they received 18 000 fewer phone calls the year after they started using plain language letters.
Plain language makes your brand more trustworthy and easier to feel personally connected to. And that, my savvy business friends, will make you money.
- If you think about the brands you love, you’ll see they speak to you like a human. No formality, no waffle, no fluff. Microsoft’s stated position on this is beautiful. Why wouldn’t the same apply to your company?
- This Siegel and Gale study is just one of many that prove how readers trust information they can easily understand. Did you hear that? CLEAR AND SIMPLE = TRUSTWORTHY.
- I’m sorry to say it, but Trump’s use of plain language is one of the reasons people voted for him. (Use your #PlainLanguage powers for good, people.)
Work it out – how much can you save using plain language?
The UK’s Plain Language Commission recommends this calculation to estimate how much money your business can save through using plain language:
Work out the number of sheets of paper, e-mails and faxes in your organization produces in one working day. Estimate the cost of each of these documents at $10 a page. Now calculate by the number of people who have to read them and add $1 for each person reading each document. (To give you an idea of this figure, a typical office worker receives over 100 messages a day). That will give you rough idea of the cost of your paperwork for each day. Then multiply the figure by 240 to find out a realistic cost of paperwork in your organization every year.
The Commission says that plain language will cut this bill by 30 percent.
So the question is, really, can you afford NOT to invest in upskilling your people and embedding beautiful, crisp, clear plain language communication strategies throughout every inch of your business? I think not. I know someone who can help you with that …