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Think about your reader. It’s probably the advice given most frequently to anyone who wants to improve their writing. Yet the evidence of many thousands of words of business communications suggests very few people listen to it. “We are this”, “We do that”, “We have the other”. Their only thought about the reader is the assumption that he or she is as interested in their company as they are. They’re not, of course. Nowhere near.

But why don’t they think more carefully about it? Surely it’s obvious you should consider the person who’s going to read your stuff?

The only explanation must be that they simply can’t. It’s just too hard.

If you’re not in the habit of doing it, putting yourself properly in the reader’s shoes isn’t just a little step into them. It takes a huge mental leap – from the comfort zone where you simply write about what you know, to the less cosy place where you have to think about what your reader (whom you’ve probably never met) might want to know.

Take a crude example: imagine you’re writing an ad for a dishwasher. What are you selling? The automatic detergent dispenser? Intensive bacteria removal? A+ energy rating? Perhaps, but these aren’t what the reader is buying in the first instance. They might be on the shopping list, but not at the top of it.

What the reader’s really buying is all the things they can do with their life instead of standing at the sink, up to their elbows in Fairy suds. It’s the clean dishes with next to no effort.

But if you know all about the whizzy features, you’ll really, really want to write about them. And this is where that mental leap comes in. You have to force yourself to forget what you know about the product, and think instead about why the reader will want to buy it. In most cases, you’ll end up with a very different sales message. Instead of, “Hygiene and efficiency through technology”, your headline will probably be something like, “Sparkling dishes while you’re still partying”.

There’s a famous quote of disputed origins: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” Yes, of course they do. But it takes much more thought and effort to write about the hole. In fact, it’s a completely different way of thinking.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re still – and probably always will be – reminding people to write for their reader. It’s very obvious. But it’s not very easy.

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