Back in 6th grade English class, our teacher was Mrs. C…a small round lady with a 100-megawatt personality and an utter dedication to the English language and its rules. She taught grammar like a science, with sentences diagrammed like chemical molecular structures.
And she is one of the biggest reasons why I do what I do today. While I never did get the hang of chemistry, I loved the challenge of English as she taught it, with passion and precision and tough love for her wayward pupils.
But heaven help the struggling classmate who told Mrs. C., “I don’t know why it should be that way – it just sounds right!” That was the invitation for her to launch into her favorite lecture: “I don’t care how it sounds to you. You’ve been listening to your friends, to the television, to all kinds of things that have trained your ears. Whether it sounds right isn’t the question – do the rules say it is right?”
Most of the time, they didn’t. We learned, unforgettably, that proper English and colloquial English could be two very different things. And sadly, some of my classmates took away an abiding fear that they would never grasp the rules fully, that their conversational ear was not to be trusted.
So imagine the surprise I experienced when I shifted from journalism and technical writing into online copywriting, and I learned that the single best test was to read my work aloud and see whether it sounded right.
This wasn’t the place for formal, academic English in which no infinitive was split – it was a conversational venue in which contractions, exclamations, even sentence fragments were allowed if they carried the message forward. The important thing was to connect with the audience – to know their concerns, understand their feelings, speak their language.
Of course there’s more – much more – to professional copywriting than that…and there is a big difference between conversational and ungrammatical writing. However, the truth is that if you don’t begin by connecting with your readers, none of the rest matters; you’ve lost them. And this applies whether you’re writing a sales letter, a marketing article, or a blog post.
But how do you tell if your writing sounds right for your audience?
Start by picturing one person – your perfect prospect. Is it a man or a woman? Old or young? Homeowner, apartment dweller, or corporate traveler? What are his or her interests, talents, problems, worries? What does he or she long for, dream about? If he or she were standing right in front of you, asking you about your message, what would you say?
Got the picture? Now hold that image, and write to the person you’re envisioning as if you were speaking directly to him or her.
When you’re finished, don’t let the image go – instead, keep picturing your perfect prospect as you read aloud what you’ve just written. Does it sound stilted? Awkward? Insincere? Go back and revise. Keep revising until the written message flows as smoothly as if it were spoken from your heart.
But what if you – like some of my 6th grade classmates – are still channeling your inner Mrs. C., and paralyzed by the blank paper or screen in front of you? One solution – if your phone has a voice-recording function – is to put it to use. Speak your message to your imagined listener, record and transcribe it, then read it back to check for tone. As you practice this technique, you’ll find the words coming more easily.
Of course, there are those times when the message itself is difficult, the audience is challenging, you’re frozen with writer’s block, or you simply need another person to spark your creativity or edit your work. For times like those – or to place the job in professional hands – email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.