You are your web site

Earlier this week I was reviewing the web site of a company that helps the children and spouses of people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

These people, as I know from personal experience, are ready to explode from the stress that builds up from trying to prevent Dad from wandering into the ravine or Mom from destroying the bathroom.

When my mother’s degenerative brain disease was getting out of control, I didn’t want to read clinical descriptions of services. I didn’t want to look at happy snaps that reminded me of what life used to be like.

I needed to find someone, right now, who would make sure my chain-smoking mother didn’t burn down the house when my father took a well-needed break on the bike trails. I needed someone strong enough to stand up to her rage. And that was just the beginning.

Talking to the people who run this service was so much better than reading their web site. They were passionate and compassionate, expert and experienced. They understood me and my mother and father and the millions like us. I wish I’d known them when my mother got sick.

Unfortunately, like so many other small business owners, they thought they could write their own web content. After all, they are experts in their field. They have excelled at university, written countless essays and been published in professional journals.

Unfortunately, organizations like these don’t think they can afford to hire a writer, a good one anyways. So what should they do?

Write like they talk. That’s my top piece of advice and the inspiration for the e-book that I’ll be publishing very soon.

Like the Alzheimer’s helpers, most people, especially those with businesses and causes, are quite articulate and emotional when they talk about what they do.

The trouble comes when they treat writing as something utterly divorced from talking, worse still when they forget that web sites are about starting conversations.

Too bad. People like them don’t make money by exploiting the desire to look cool or young or whatever. As anyone who has fallen down the caregiver rabbit hole can tell you, they fill a profound need.

Their site wasn’t all bad, but it needs to be much better so more despairing caregivers can be reassured that there’s quality help available.

So let’s hope they can learn how to write like they talk. Or make enough money to pay someone.

After all, their web site is their introduction to the people who so desperately need them. They are their web site.

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Write like you talk

Write as I to you.

Apply what you enjoy in conversation to your writing.

Ask questions. Get excited. Interact.

More coming soon in the interactive e-book Write like you talk—only better. 3 steps to turn good talkers into great writers.

Can we talk?

People want to talk, especially if the subject is very personal or important.

Study after study has shown that employees want to receive information by talking to their boss and colleagues.

But we don’t need research to confirm the value of talking. Look around your own life.

We talk the most to our nearest and dearest.

We get offended when a co-worker two cubicles away sends an email about something that could have been handled better in person. We are hurt when a friend bails via a text message. We get pissed when a call center rep reads from a script instead of discussing our problem. We zone out when a presenter reads the text on his slides.

Social media communication is often referred to as conversation, because it promotes two-way dialogue. But it is not as engaging as talking because we are writing, mostly to people who don’t know well. Despite some rare gems, we see mostly banalities like “great post, dude” or “awesome movie ” or the dreaded 140-character sales pitch.

When I have a truly important response to a DM, email or update, I will suggest that we meet for coffee or I’ll pick up the phone. That’s because talking says you are valued.

Talking is also easier because we’ve been doing it since we were about two years old.

Talking engages, because we know we need to involve and stimulate the listener.

Talking is interesting. Although colorful language often rolls off the tongue, it usually fails to flow from the brain to our fingers and keyboard.

No matter how much time we spend on it every day, writing is more difficult, slower and less engaging for the vast majority of people. I’m sure neurologists will soon reveal the scientific explanation.

Of course the problem with talking is that we’re limited to the people we’re talking to in person or on the telephone, unless we have our own television, radio or podcast show. To reach more people, we need to write.

But what if we took what works about talking and applied what we could to writing? Would writing become faster, easier and more engaging?

And what if we took what works best about writing and preserved it? I’m talking about the ability to think about who we want to connect with, what we want to say and how we’re going to say it before we start writing.

I’m also talking about the ability to revise–shorten and focus, fix the mistakes that make us look bad, replace phrases to become easier to understand—before we hit send, publish or print.

That’s why I’m calling the book I’m drafting Write Like You Talk–Only Better.

The two habits of highly fast writers

I am a fast writer. Fingers flying, I can dash through a post or other assignment.

While I’ve always suspected that some of my speed at writing, talking and much more may come from a genetic neurological blip, I know that much of it comes from some habits that have evolved from pressures at work to crank out quality content quickly.

Let me call them the two habits of highly fast writers, sort of like the famous seven habits of highly effective people.

1. Before you start writing, think about who you’re writing for, what you want to say and whether you’re to write it in tips, a story or other approach. You will more than make up the time spent on this quick thinking from the faster writing it makes possible

Thinking doesn’t have to take much time, though people writing long treatises about complex subjects may wish to prepare an outline. Most of the time, I simply spend a minute or two thinking, sometimes jotting down a few notes.

If I don’t think things through, I can still write quickly. But the results are not pretty. I spend so much time rewriting that I waste scads of time, which defeats the whole purpose of writing quickly.

Writing without thinking first is like going on a road trip without first studying a map. You will miss out on the most scenic route and the sites worth stopping for. You will have no clue about short cuts. You will get lost.

What’s more, because you remember the route from reading the map, you will be free to concentrate on the road ahead, which brings me to my second habit.

2. Focus on what your brain is telling your fingers to type.

Do not be distracted by checking back with your research. Often I paste the research notes I know I’m going to need in the document before I begin. Other times, I work from memory, where the most important ideas are stored, and check back when I revise.

Do not answer the telephone, check emails, listen to music, tweet or do anything else during this enthralling time.

If you work in an office, put a “Do not disturb” sign on your door. Better still, work from home if you can when you have something important to write.

Some people have the steely discipline that allows them to concentrate in the midst of chaos. But most of us need to exit that scene.

Like pushing away intrusive thoughts when you’re trying to meditate, you will have to actively resist inner distractions. Silence any inner critics who try to tell you to write properly, whether it’s your high school English teacher and some vaguely remembered rules or the jargon that everyone at work seems to speak.

The more you focus, the easier it is. Thoughts of your mean boss, that nagging pain, the chocolate bar in your drawer, the dry cleaning, space and time will also fade.

The only drawback to writing quickly is the greater need to revise. You have to revise anyways. It probably won’t add significantly to your revising time to ferret out the typos and word fog that may sneak in. Fixing these mistakes is a small price to pay for the gain in speed, quality and fun.

Yes, I said fun. Once you’ve thought through your main ideas, you can switch off the logical side of your brain and turn on the fun creative side. It’s exhilarating.

That’s my two cents, think and focus. Do you have any more habits that help you write quality content quickly? Please share.

Talk to your ideal reader

Pretend you’re talking to your ideal reader. That’s what I advise people who want to better connect with customers, colleagues or other people through emails, reports, tweets or other written communication.

Although we learned language by talking, many of us began separating the functions of talking and writing at school and then work. By reuniting them, you can put some bounce and intimacy back into your writing. Besides, it’s much easier and faster to write like you talk.

But how, my ideal reader would ask, do you do that when you’re writing for a group of people?

Like presenting to a group, you focus on a few friendly faces in the crowd, but give the impression you’re talking to everyone.

So if you know the group you’re writing for, pretend you’re talking to one person you’re comfortable with. If your group includes people of varying interests, pretend you’re conversing with a few differing types.

If you’re writing for a large group, potentially the world when you write for the web, pretend you’re chatting with the kind of people you expect would most enjoy or otherwise benefit from your writing. Visualize one, with good looks, deep pockets or whatever else motivates you.

Start with the ideal reader’s age, gender, income, education or other demographic information. But don’t stop there.

Go deep, imagining pains and problems, pass-times and passions. What keeps your ideal reader up at night? What makes your ideal reader jump for joy?

By writing for this ideal reader, you can establish a more intimate connection with other like-minded readers. You can choose your most appropriate structure, for example emotional stories or logical argument. What’s more, you can employ the terminology, examples, humor, questions and other elements that your ideal reader would relate to and enjoy.

Draw a picture or grab a photo and tape it to your monitor. Give your ideal reader a name. Draft a Facebook-like profile. Whatever works for you.

Who is my ideal reader? For this blog, my ideal reader wants to learn how to communicate more easily and effectively through the written word, without having to relearn all those boring rules from school.

My ideal reader is well-educated, probably not in the arts, with a white collar job. He wants to move up. My ideal reader is frustrated with all the emails, reports and other written work he is expected to do and the fact that his colleagues and clients don’t give him the attention and respect he feels he deserves.

For this post, my ideal reader becomes more specific. In addition to overcoming these frustrations, she wants to build a relationship with her readers, to encourage them to pay attention, remember and maybe even respond a specific way.

Am I on target? Does my ideal reader sound like you?

Poo on my shoe and insights about me and you

I talked to a group of small business owners this morning about my upcoming book, Write Like You Talk–Only Better.

They seemed to understand the importance of first thinking about their ideal reader and just what they want them to think or do.

They listened intently, as shown by the absence of Blackberry checking, while I summarized some of the structures they should use for different objectives.

They appreciated the importance of revising to fix embarrassing mistakes and make their content shorter and more focused.

But many of them had trouble with the notion of personalizing their writing. They worried they would look unprofessional. While they saw the merit of connecting with their ideal reader through a more conversational tone, some did not seem quite ready to write as “me” to “you.”

Still, these cautious ones told me they were going to read more blogs to get a better sense of friendlier writing. And they would probably give “me” and “you” a try. Once they see results, I know most will switch.

Or maybe they were just going along with me in the hopes I’d finish and leave. You see, after I sat down, I realized I had earlier stepped in dog poo. When no one was looking, I quietly wiped it off my high heel with a leftover muffin wrapper then cleaned up in the ladies room.

Thank goodness I hadn’t seen the poo while I was up there talking. But now I’m worried some of the evaluations will says the speaker stank. Serenity now!

Write like you talk: faster, easier, friendlier

Many people struggle with all the writing they’re expected to do. If they want their writing to flow like conversation, they should try to write like they talk, pretending to have a conversation with their ideal reader as they write.

They’ll receive at least three benefits. They will:
1. Write much faster.
2. Avoid much of the jargon and become easier to understand.
3. Connect with their readers.

But that’s not all.

People who write like they talk avoid long sentences by inserting a period when they need to take a breath. When they briefly pause, they know it’s time for a comma.

They naturally use connecting words to link their thoughts. They ask questions, make declarations and express emotions. They interact with other people, not keyboards, screens and their own thoughts.

I accidentally fell into my write-like-you-speak approach when I was a speech writer for politicians. I would have research notes and a general outline before I’d begin. Then I would pretend to channel the spirit of the politician. I would imagine I could hear him speak as I typed.

More than that, I would visualize the audience. I would build in pauses for these people to respond to jokes, touching stories, alarming statistics and rhetorical questions. My goal was to hear them clapping enthusiastically, better still cheering, when he said “thank you.”

This approach worked well, I discovered, not only for presentations, scripts and other spoken communication, but also for newsletters, announcements, memos, reports and other formal communication that too often sound like they’re on life support.

The irony is that many people who are uncomfortable writing are great talkers. Even shy people are generally fine chatting one-to-one with people they trust.

We learned language by talking. We gain fluency in new languages by talking. When we are in doubt when writing, we usually go back to what sounds right. Writing like you talk is easier because it comes naturally.

Why do so many people treat writing and conversing like separate functions? Here’s my theory: As words travel from the brain to the computer screen, they become over-processed and artificial, like the wheat and other farm-fresh ingredients that are turned into bland white bread.

Many people deplete the linguistic flavor and nutrition by trying too hard. Because they want to impress, they blast out the big words and jargon that they’d be embarrassed to use in personal conversation.

Anxious to avoid mistakes and sound proper, they rely on flimsy memory scraps about grammar rules. They write “with Jean and I” rather than “with me and Jean,” “an historic moment” instead of “a historic moment” or Barb Sawyers’s blog not Barb Sawyers’ blog.

Worse still, they focus on themselves instead of the reader. Or keep the reader at a formal arm’s length.

That’s why I recommend anyone who spends time at the keyboard pretend they are talking to their ideal reader as they write.

Sure, you may not be able to talk out loud from your cubicle. But you can pretend or mutter under your breath. Before you know it, your brain will be retrained to process writing more like it processes speech. Your writing will flow.

You’ll probably need to spend more time planning and later checking your draft for mistakes that make you look bad or undermine their clarity. And you’ll need to chop out the fluff words and sentences.

But fortunately, you’ll make up the time through faster writing and better results. By combining the measured reason of thinking-writing with the spontaneity of talking-writing, you can have the best of both worlds.

Of course, writing like you talk may not work for everyone. Writers still need a certain literacy level. People whose parents spoke badly need to find eloquent role models and upgrade their talking first. And some people may be too uptight to have imaginary conversations.

But from the many chatty writers I read on blogs, Facebook and other social media, I know that more people are using a conversational tone to bake artisan word bread. So give it a try.