In a world that runs as much over digital media as in real life, we all have to learn to think more like writers.

Even if you go into an office every day, you probably spend most of your time talking to colleagues, clients or customers through email. Or, increasingly, through texts or messaging apps. If you work from home or run your own business, you might go full days without speaking out loud to another human. No judgment; I've been there, too.

This means, regardless of how much you loathed English in high school or composition in college, you're a writer. Don't expect to come after my job anytime soon -- I'll fight you for it -- but you should take the skill seriously and understand a little about how to convey a message through the written word.

The key to written communication most people forget

Most of us write business communications with our goal in mind: the information we need to share or what we want the recipient to do for us. The message is often lost, because we forget one fundamental element of any writing: the audience.

Understanding your audience is vital to writing something that makes sense to them -- and that, therefore, moves them to whatever action or understanding you want to achieve. It's true whether you're writing a book for the masses or a chat message to a single coworker.

You'll waste a lot of time with misunderstandings if you don't first take a moment to understand the person on the other side of your message. Borrowing from the way software developers plan projects by first working to understand their end user, I define an audience using what I call a "reader story."

It's a simple way to quickly outline who they are, what they know, how they think, what they want and why they want it. You need to know these things if you want your message to land well, whether you're sharing news of a new policy with your staff or just giving them directions to the holiday party.

To create a reader story, fill in the blanks in this statement: As a [type of person], they want [some goal] so that [some reason].

How to craft a message to achieve everyone's goals

Here's an example I face every day at The Penny Hoarder. I manage an editorial team that interfaces with our sales team. By nature, we speak different languages and have seemingly competing goals. A reader story about our sales team might look like this:

As experienced sales representatives, they want to land high-paying clients and give them what they need so that they can earn revenue for the company and keep clients happy.

When I chat with a sales rep about whether an advertiser is a fit for us, I could speak only about my team's goal to write engaging content:

Hey, that product is boring, and the language they asked for is misleading, and I can't ethically write something that recommends it to our readers.

Or, I could consider the sales rep's goals and motivations and write with them in mind:

Love that you're looking at companies with budgets that size; it could really open up opportunities for us! Historically, our readers haven't responded well to this kind of product, so I worry we wouldn't be able to deliver the audience the client is looking for. What do you think are our best next steps?

Spoiler: I've learned to do the latter, and it's more effective at achieving the goals of both teams. Conversely, our sales team understands our editorial motivations, and they speak to us with those in mind.

This goes for jargon, as well. Don't overload a recipient with a message full of buzzwords, acronyms or industry-specific language if you know they're not likely to be in the loop. That'll just make them feel stupid or lead to confusion you have to spend time to untangle.

Instead, take a second to define them with a reader story before shooting off your email or text to figure out what they do and don't know.

Published on: Apr 16, 2019
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