Thursday, May 25, 2006

Are You Sending Out Communications With Holes In Them?

Sometimes I read communications that have holes in them.

Usually it's a marketing piece or article. Sometimes it's web content. The problem's the same - a hole is a place where my line of thinking is derailed. Nobody likes to be left hanging, yet I find these holes all over the place.

Time for the Blue Ferret to educate!

First off, how do you know when you've come across a hole? One of three things happens to me: a) I get gaps in my perception, b) I've suddenly lost track of the topic, and c) I find it's easier to misunderstand more easily than understand.

From thought and reading into these holes, I can determine four potential causes. Read these over and check your material very carefully. If you've got more than one hole in a piece, you're losing readership. Losing people. Losing business.

Using industry terminology is a requirement when you're talking with other industry colleagues. It's the only way you'll get any communication done. But using buzzwords with someone who doesn't know them does more than confuse them. It will frustrate them, because their thought process is disrupted. That will cause them to automatically devalue your message. This will in turn frustrate you - after all, you know what you said, right? Why can't they get it too?

The problem here is, it's a natural human instinct to be defensive of your work. I get it all the time. But using buzzwords liberally, or using even a few without defining them, is guaranteed to puzzle your reader, regardless of their expertise level.

Solution: Have a non-industry editor look over your material. Buzzwords are part of your language and psyche; you'll breeze right past them in any document. However, they'll stick out like flashing stop signs to someone who isn't familiar with them. A fellow employee in another, completely different department will work in a pinch.

Audience Mischaracterization
It's very easy to assume your audience knows more about your product than they actually do, because you're in the position of knowledge. You know what you're offering. (Or do you? A question for another day...) The reader, by definition, does not know as well as you. So you try to educate him. Unfortunately, since you're so familiar with the knowledge, it's easy to slip into the position of talking to yourself.

It goes something like this: "Do they know this? Well, I know this. It's very simple. Surely anyone can understand that. Yes, I don't need to reiterate what they must already know. Okay, I'll take that out."

You've just mischaracterized your audience by grafting part of yourself onto them. B-grade horror movies aside, that is a big problem. Mischaracterization can also occur from flat-out aiming at the wrong target market. Or the reverse of the above - assuming your audience knows less than they do. We've all read at least one marketing piece that talked to us like we were morons, haven't we?

DETECTION TIP: You're reading a marketing piece that was misdirected to you as an audience if you suddenly stop and think, "Wait, why am *I* reading this?"

Solution: Having someone in your target market read your material would be the ideal solution here, but that's not always possible or advisable. (If you can run A/B testing or contact prospects directly, by all means do so. It's worth the expense.)

Leaps in Logic
These are pretty easy to spot. It's when the author makes a huge assumption about the reader's thought process and relevant knowledge. (Anybody remember that lexical joke about 'assume?') Often it comes in by skipping a subtopic, the writing dipping into a buzzword-laden paragraph, or ignoring an implied question. You can almost hear the author saying, "And then I assume you know all about this little doohickey, so we'll skip that part," as he writes.

Whoosh. That was the brochure going into the nearest circular file.

(Note: Leaps in Logic could easily get confused with Audience Mischaracterization. The difference is that Leaps in Logic can apply to the author as well. Mischaracterization is making a presumption about a reader's overall position and knowledge. Leaps in Logic are omitting an entire point for the sake of brevity, reader presumptions, or simply forgetting to include it.)

Solution: Once again, a good editor can spot these. You might also try having several other people - one of them ideally being a member of your target market - proofreading and giving feedback. If their reports match up at one point and all indicate a problem, you've likely made a Leap in Logic.

The Road Less Traveled
There are even times when the writer just gets lost along the way. Writing takes focus. You're weaving a story. It's not easy to keep your mind on what you're writing about. Believe me, I know. It's a constant temptation to go off on tangents, inject too much personal experience, or use flowery language. When you do though, you're carrying the reader down a path they didn't ask for and don't want.

Solution: This one's best to, pardon the cliche, head off at the pass. Schedule a block of time for writing. Move any and all distractions aside. Ignore email. Turn the phone off. Write down what you want to say, in one sentence. Stare at that a while. Then put hands to keyboard and begin. By removing distractions and telling yourself you will focus on one coherent message, you take a big step toward doing exactly that.

And as always, have an editor or proofreader look it over.

Holes belong in cheese and old socks. Not in our communications material. It's very easy to irritate readers by dancing around your point, or yanking their attention back and forth. Every time I read a brochure or website that makes me blink and my mind blur out, I've encountered communications with holes. I'd say that occurs, on average, twice a week. It's a good average, with how much I read every week. But it's two times too much. Make sure your copy isn't next in my average.



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home