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How to talk to your customers (without talking down to them)

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Any writer worth the name knows that you have to tailor your message to your target audience. No matter what your personal writerly inclinations are, no matter how vast the breadth of your vocabulary, you may need to rein in your natural style to suit the people who’ll be reading you.

For many writers who work for contemporary brands, that means aiming a little lower than your own capabilities: sentences may need trimming to make them easier to read, three-dollar words like ubiquitous may need to bow before more common terms like widespread, and what you learned to be a strong, classical paragraph may need to split itself, amoeba-like, to accommodate less skilled readers.

But no matter what measures you have to take to speak properly to your whole audience, one thing you can never do is make them aware you’re talking down to them.

How talking to your customers becomes talking down to them

American literary god Mark Twain had a famous dictum about writing that boils down to this: “show, don’t tell.” It’s a maxim no writer can afford to forget, because the simple fact is that telling instead of showing is boring, and worse, can cause readers to resent the writer who obviously doesn’t think his audience can keep up with him.

If telling were the better route, we wouldn’t have novels, parables, and poems; we’d just have a bunch of folk sayings that boil down the messages of all those other literary forms into zippy one-liners.

And this maxim holds just as much water when it comes to deciding how to talk to your customers. You can’t tell them you’re taking great pains to speak at their level—no, you “show” them by, without commentary, using the simpler word, the terser sentence, the punchily brief paragraph. You show them by avoiding industry jargon and, when you must do so, providing quick definitions using “plain English.”

Do all this without bringing it to the readers’ attention, without hammering them over the head with all your painstaking efforts, and it just works—nobody notices your efforts and the result is copy that sounds like it was made for them, because it was.

But the moment you start talking about your efforts, you’re breaking what theatre folks call the “fourth wall”—that invisible barrier between the audience and the play that facilitates the audience’s suspension of disbelief. And while literary theatre and fiction in the modern and postmodern ages have playfully broken the fourth wall again and again, revealing and meditating upon their own artifice, it’s not a tactic one can safely deploy in the blogging and marketing spaces. At least, not when it comes to telling people how you’re talking to them.

To illustrate, allow me to defy the very guideline I’m discussing right now by talking a bit about how I’m speaking to you in this post.

As a copywriter maintaining a personal blog, I assume (and have some data to back up the assumption) that I’m speaking to other creatives. Therefore, I’m not being so careful to curb my diction, shorten my sentences, or regularly lobotomize my paragraphs. I’m okay with mentioning concepts like the fourth wall and postmodernism. Commas, em dashes, and parentheticals abound.

You okay with that? Yeah, I thought so. But isn’t it a little weird that I’m talking about it?

Talking down to your audience, a real-world example

A couple days back, the Esurance blog posted an article announcing a recent study that found that women admit to having road rage more often than men (if only slightly). Now, it’s important to note that word admit there: the study was based on self-report, which means that, objectively speaking, it has nothing to say about whether or not women actually get road rage more often than men.

The one and only thing it means is that women feel they experience road rage more often than men feel they experience road rage.

Really important distinction … and not one the Esurance blog stressed.

But that’s a bit of an aside: the real issue I want to call out here arises from a particular moment in the article that reveals it is self-consciously talking down to the reader. Here’s the passage:

According to some experts, this gender divide isn’t a random occurrence. Rather, it likely stems from women’s possible subconscious need to break free of society’s expectations (well … of course).

In case your eyes just glazed over like Krispy Kremes, let’s rephrase in plain English. Essentially, they’re saying women might feel forced into a nurturing, non-aggressive role in public. This can result in pent-up frustration — frustration that comes out behind the anonymity of the wheel.

There are a couple of things worth calling out here, and though I’ll focus on the second, the first is pretty valuable:

  1. “According to some experts”? Which experts? Are they afraid to reveal themselves? Is the Esurance blog reluctant to name names? Whatever the case, these few words automatically weaken the story insofar as they diminish any sense of authority it might have had. Saying “some experts” instead of naming them is an act of obfuscation, which is obviously antithetical to the journalistic spirit that should inform blogging of all kinds.
  2. “In case your eyes just glazed over like Krispy Kremes, let’s rephrase in plain English.” This is the line that really speaks to the point I’m trying to make here. The problem is that is presupposes that the reader had a hard time understanding the previous sentence—a sentence that wasn’t exactly difficult to comprehend. It’s most difficult word is “subconscious,” which, let’s face it, isn’t that difficult. Sure, we might not all be up-and-up on what Freud meant when he introduced the concept, but, Jebus, I think we’re all aware what the average person means when they use it.

And that’s exactly the point Jezebel.com blogger Madeleine Davies calls out, saying:

“Thank goodness they rephrased one simple sentence as another simple sentence so that we could all better understand.”

The problem is not that the article tried to clarify its point. A good writer should always be seeking the clearest and best way to communicate their point to readers. The problem is that the attempt to clarify called the readers’ attention to itself. Not that that couldn’t be done successfully. In fact, simply saying, “in other words …” would’ve sufficed—without deliberately insulting the reader.

Instead, the author tried to work in a bit of humor with a reference to Krispy Kreme donuts. Granted, the image of eyeballs-as-glazed-donuts is kind of effective. But the result is that the line directly addresses the reader and does everything but actually say, “Hey, I know you’re kinda dumb and might be having an issue parsing that sentence. So let me try again, idiot.”

Unfortunately, the result of doing so is a dissatisfied reader. Not to mention the destabilization of a brand message that’s focused on making difficult matters easy to understand, not because the customer is dumb, mind you, but because these difficult matters truly are difficult. Even for smart people.

Talking to your customers (aka, readers)

Knowing the right tone, voice, and diction to use with your customers is a complex and multilayered task. But it’s vital to properly presenting your brand and speaking to your customers in the way that’s most likely to engage, interest, and cause them to act. And once you’ve got your voice and vocabulary nailed, it’s vital that you stick to it without making the reader deliberately aware of your decisions. Keeping Twain’s famous dictum in mind at all times and you’ll be on the right track.