When did we decide that being an actual human was bad for business?
I blame corporate policy-makers and Mrs Muirhead, my secondary school English teacher.
They have a lot to answer for when it comes to the content with no soul you’re bombarded with every day.
My teacher had hips so wide, she was an exact replica of the school bell they used to call us in from break. And a shriek that made the canteen mice run for cover.
I remember handing in a piece of creative writing and being told, “a sentence should never start with the word ‘but’.” No matter that my story was a teenage mini-drama set in a school locker room. Apparently these kids spoke the Queen’s English between fag breaks at the bus stop.
BUT here’s a secret most people don’t realise. (See that BUT, Mrs Muirhead? That one’s for you.)
When you’re writing for your business you don’t have to sound like a robot that’s had its personality surgically removed. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. Because, while everyone else is boring the cojones off each other, you could be out there being REAL and – get this – actually making your customers smile.
I know. Don’t tell Mrs Muirhead.
Being profesh has nothing to do with sounding like you’ve got a steel rod stuffed up your pencil skirt. It’s about showing your expertise in a way that’s engaging and fun. And delivering the goods, as one human being to another.
It’s about bringing your customers a little slice of joy, at the same time as showing you’re the smartest bad-ass business ninja in the room.
But how do you suck your English teacher’s stodgy lessons out from the depths of your brain? Here are 4 astonishing secrets to writing for your business that your English teacher didn’t want you to know:
1) Write how you speak, innit
You know all those ‘filler words’ that used to make your mum and dad wince when you spoke?
Words like, ‘like’ or ‘you see’ or ‘know what I’m saying bruv.’ OK, maybe not the last one, but you get what I mean?
You were probably taught NEVER to write those words down. But when you’re writing for your business they’re precisely the words you need to add in, on purpose.
If you want to write like a human, take time to notice the words that make you sound like a human when you talk. Which I assume is all the time, otherwise you’d probably have no friends.
If that sounds tough, try recording yourself speaking the message you want to get down on paper. You might feel totally awkward, but shake yourself loose and let rip. Note down the natural way you speak out loud, and recreate your little linguistic quirks when you’re writing your copy.
You’re aiming to sound conversational – like you’re chatting to a mate. Because God knows there’s enough robotic corporate content out there and the world doesn’t need any more.
2) Use Slang
Here’s another piece of advice that’ll make your English teacher shudder. When you’re writing for your business, use slang.
Don’t be afraid to get down with the kids and use words that haven’t made it into the Oxford English Dictionary.
Hell, you can even swear if you want to. OK, I’m not talking about attention-seeking swearing. Don’t use profanities just to shock people into reading your words.
People who resort to gratuitous cussing, usually do it because no one will notice them for any other reason.
But if you do have a natural poo poo mouth, let it all come out. Because it’ll make you sound like you. And if we’re being honest swearing’s kinda funny.
Now when it comes to using slang, your goal is to make yourself part of the gang. If your clients express their struggles in a particular way, mirror those words back to them to show them you’ve listened and you get them.
Everyone wants to belong to a tribe. And the language you use is all part of building a warm community and human connection.
3) Keep it Fresh
Did you ever see Will.i.am on The Voice? He’s the master of keeping it ‘fresh.’ Part of what made him come across as so charismatic was the way he expressed himself.
You can feel the personality oozing out of him.
He has a way of saying things that are both funny and amazingly descriptive. Take these quotes:
The boring way: Tom Jones is cool.
The Will.i.am way: Tom Jones is like, igloo cool.
The boring way: European civilisation has hundreds of years of rich history. America is a much younger nation.
The Will.i.am way: If countries were people, England and France would be old men. Italy would be dead. Compared to them, America is in its 20s.
The boring way: I’m not scared to express myself creatively. Even if that means offending people, or looking crazy.
The Will.i.am way: If I were a painter, am I going to say, ‘I’m not going to paint this neck because people think I just want to lick on necks?’ Please! That’s not what art is about.
See the difference? Will.i.am’s message is nothing new. But the way he shares his message is fun, fresh and unique to him.
His words pack way more punch because you can actually picture what he’s saying in your imagination. They make you smile. And they make me want to hang out at a party drinking tequila slammers with him.
But beware. Back away from the cliché!
It’s easy to get lazy and think a well-known expression like, ‘white on rice’ or ‘black as soot’ is going to cut it. But just like my favourite pair of jeans, clichés get worn out from over-use. They feel baggy and limp, and aren’t half as sexy as a description you’ve come up with yourself.
Here are a couple of descriptions I’ve recently used in my own copy:
- My brain’s more fried than a piece of cod at the chippy
- He sucked the fun out faster than a health and safety inspector at a trampoline park
- The buzz was as much a part of Christmas as the sweaty pile of brussel sprouts nobody wants to eat
Keep your copy fresh and cliché-free. It’ll have far more force than over-done drab expressions that we’ve seen 1000 times before.
4) Don’t get fancy
I was listening to Alex Banayan the other day. If you don’t know who he is, he’s the writer of my favourite business book (The Third Door). Check him out because he’s brilliant!
He made a point that might be hard to stomach if you’re a bit of a smarty pants:
“Writing long sentences with fancy punctuation, makes you an arrogant amateur.” Ouch.
You might be tempted to use linguistic flourishes as a way to prove how educated you are.
And sometimes I still have to fight the urge to show off using big words. Because, you know, that makes me sound like Mrs Big Balls, right?
Well, no. It makes me sound like an insecure bore with a point to prove. It actually takes serious skill to break down a complex idea into simple words that ANYONE can understand. Anybody can reel off jargon and industry-insiders language.
But a really good writer can make other people understand without them having to reach for the dictionary.
Bureaucrats are particularly bad at this. In fact, I recently received a letter about some EU funding I’d won. Now, I’m pretty educated. But Christ on a Bike. It took me 15 re-reads to understand that I wasn’t being sent to jail in Brussels, and that I didn’t need to do anything with the letter.
Here’s a sample from that letter:
“It is proposed that assistance provided will comply with the state aid rules since it will be provided in line with the De Minimis exemption (in accordance with Commission Regulation (EU) No 1407/2013, OJ L352/1). Under this exemption a single undertaking may receive up to the limit of £200,000 of De Minimis aid from the member state within which it does business and which provides the aid over any period of three fiscal years.
The writer of that letter probably graduated top of their class from a sh*t hot university. But here’s the thing. Most other people didn’t graduate top of their class from any university. And they don’t care how smart you are. They just want to know what you’re saying and what’s in it for them.
So the point I’m making is this, if you want to be clever, apply to go on University Challenge. If you want to make money here’s what you’ve got to do:
- Write short sentences
- Don’t use fancy punctuation. Stick to full stops and commas where possible
- Use simple words that a ten-year old could understand
If you’re not sure how easy to understand your copy is, you can plug it into websites like Readable. It’ll give you a reading grade (aim for B or above) and your average sentence length (the lower the better).
The more people you can get to understand your writing, the more sales you’re going to make. It’s a case of simple maths.
I don’t know why it’s so hard to write like a human.
After all, we’ve all spent enough time practising at being a human. But whatever our teachers did to us at school – damn – those lessons are sticky.
Almost every piece of content and every marketing email you receive will be so boring even a Triple-shot Red Bull Cappuccino won’t keep you awake. If you don’t want it to be your copy that’s sending people to sleep, you need to delete everything they taught you at school. Immediately.
The key to making more sales in your business is being human and being clear. That’s all there is to it.
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