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Web Writing That Works: How to Talk Like a Human Being

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

By Lisa and Jonathan Price

We used to write for a mass audience—one big, amorphous, floating cloud of people out there somewhere, just beyond the TV set.

Now we write for small groups—niche markets, segments, special interest groups.

And within those groups, we often talk directly to one person at a time. We have returned to writing for an audience of one. Like a poet writing to a beloved, or a traveler writing to a spouse, we create text designed to move, amuse, entertain, and persuade that one person.

Customizing text for a group, and then personalizing what we say for individuals, we take advantage of the fancy software on our web sites, but we go back to a way of writing that’s more like a conversation. The test is: can we stop sounding like corporations, and begin to talk like human beings?

Human beings often listen, during a conversation. Can we?

Listen Before You Talk

When you know a lot about the people you are writing for, you can tailor your text to their needs. For example, you can:

  • Come up with more of the topics they want
  • Organize those topics the way these people think
  • Use words that they use
  • Adopt a tone they find congenial
  • Tailor your words to the relationship you have developed with them

In these ways, you allow your visitors to influence the way you write.

Like a Real Conversation

In a real conversation, you are always aware of the way the other people are reacting—where they nod, when they lunge forward hoping to interrupt, and so on.

You adapt your words and tone to indicate how you regard the other people, what you want, where you are going.

But when you do not have the full bandwidth of direct human contact, you have to guess what the other people think of you, how you are going to relate to them, what they want to hear, and what you want to say to them.

That’s why we need to know more about our online audiences before we carry on a virtual conversation with them.

Getting Rid of Your Own Originality

The more sensitive you are to online conversation and its nuances, the more you can eliminate the odd quirks, biases, and focal points in your prose so that you don't rub your readers the wrong way with your own personal agenda.

In part, then, you are erasing your own originality, but you’re doing this for a reason: To make contact, to make sense, to convince, to reach out to this other person. How sociable!

Ignoring Your Audience—That’s Normal

Do you really know your audience? We often write for ourselves, for our boss, for our team. Oh, and incidentally, we may draw on the little we know about the people in our audience, too, but that doesn’t take us very far. So, we soon forget them.

Result: consumers find the prose impenetrable, and gripe about the frightening amount of jargon, the unfriendly tone, and the confusing way the material is organized.

Info Consumers Are Not You

To determine what topics really matter to your many different audiences and to develop a tone that works for individual members of that crowd, you need to learn more about them as members of particular niche groups, and, more important, as unique individuals.

What Info Consumers Want From Your Text

These uppity consumers are impatient, self-absorbed, and a bit confused. But if you give them the content and service they want, they will return over and over, becoming loyal fans and customers.

Here are a few of the things these consumers demand of your text:

"Don’t waste my time." —No more lengthy explanations. Clear away those introductions, transitions, and summaries.

"Remember me." —I want to be remembered when I arrive at your site. But recognition goes beyond greeting me by name. I want to see topics I care about, like on my personal version of the Wall Street Journal, Interactive Edition. I want to have my pages look and sound like the design I chose for My Page. And I want your text to sound like you share my concerns, goals, and obsessions.

"Let me answer my own question." —Embed answers right in the forms I have to fill out. Give me a way to run a diagnostic on my own problem, so I can troubleshoot it myself.

"Admit you have zits."—Admit all problems, and send me to a discussion board where other consumers have come up with solutions.

"Exceed my expectations." —The road to satisfaction leads past OK performance. When you give me more than I expect, I’m pleased. If you go beyond the standard a few more times, I am yours.

"Talk to me in real time." —If I’ve just put a product in the shopping cart, don’t act like you don’t know. Drop the pitch for that product. Add stuff about add-ons. Just as I expect used links to change color, I expect your system to know where I have been, and what pages I have looked at, adjusting the text to reflect that.

"Let me personalize the content." —I like some topics more than others, and I want to see that content first. Let me choose what shows up at the top of my own page.

"I want to feel special." —I’ve been to your site so often I feel like I know you. I’ve read much of your material, and I have debated with you, either in my head, or in email. I expect you to recognize that I am a repeat reader.

So...

With all these impulses, each consumer envisions a different text.

At the least, each small group of consumers demands that you pay attention to them, reflecting their interests in your organization, attitude, and style.

Analyze Their Tasks

Imagine that, somehow, through interviewing people, studying the research, or asking questions on your site, you have gathered a lot of information about exactly what your consumers do and why.

If you want to produce text that helps people achieve their goals, think through the tasks each consumer performs over and over.

A task is an action that someone performs to reach a goal.

The name of the task is whatever the consumer says it is—not what your team likes to call it, and not the glamorous term used by marketing.

Each person starts with some more or less articulate goal, such as

  • Finishing the budget
  • Getting a raise
  • Learning a new skill
  • Getting in touch with other people
  • Being amused

Sometimes, an individual’s goal aligns with what your boss wants the person to do, but usually the organization’s goals, such as increasing profit margins, reducing time to market, or cutting five people from the support team, just make the individual’s life difficult. As a writer, pretending to do what the boss wants, while getting some personal amusement, can be a challenge.

As a writer, you must care more about your consumers than about their corporations, universities, agencies, labs, or non-governmental bodies. Corporations don’t read.

Try to identify the goals in the way your consumers really talk about them, because the terms they use to describe their goals reflect their values, passions, and life experience.

Identify The Goal. Why Are They Doing The Task?

Goals are as multifarious as people. For instance, here are some of the different goals people may come to your site with:

  • To have fun—to be entertained, pulled out of one’s self, aroused, fulfilled, stirred up and satisfied, to participate in a game, to play.

  • To learn—to pick up facts, to see patterns, to recognize sequences, groups, hierarchies, and themes, to learn to solve problems, to talk in a new language.
  • To act—to make a purchase, to register, to acquire, download, send/receive information, software, music, videos, whatnot.
  • To be aware—to sense what is going on internally and in others, to grow, to become, or just to be.
  • To get close to people—to share, to show off, to feel intimate with total strangers through virtual conversations, postings, flames, posturing, and revealing.

Each Task Has a Cycle

Generally, people formulate a goal rather vaguely, and then form a specific intention, which demands a certain course of action.

When they carry out that activity, they pause and look around them, to see what has changed. They interpret the state of the world, to evaluate the outcome.

Carrying out a task, then, involves the entire cycle, starting with the aim, and moving through activity to a decision about whether or not the actions have led to success.

You may want to analyze important tasks by walking the person through this cycle. Or you might settle just for noting the concrete actions taken to achieve the goal. (These actions may end up as individual steps in your instructions, if you need to tell people how to do the task.)

Organize The Tasks

Start by listing all the tasks that flow from a particular goal, in no particular order. Then organize them into chronological order, as best you can.

  • Some tasks always happen at the start, others at the end, and the rest could happen, well, at any time.
  • For the tasks that could happen any time, try to discern a reasonable grouping, by action or object worked on.

Make some kind of meaningful order out of the collection of tasks, because this inventory forms the basis for a menu system and an organization of your instructions or procedures.

Recognize The Scale Of The Tasks

You may find that some tasks are very large scale, such as shopping, or getting a raise.

Other tasks are intermediate in scale, such as finding the section of the site that describes printers, or completing the new proposal for the boss.

And lots of tasks are small scale, like spell-checking the proposal to make sure you have the company name spelled right.

Beneath the level of a task are individual steps.

Turn Your Inventory Into A Task Hierarchy

Make a multi-level taxonomy of all the tasks that your individual consumer performs in pursuit of a particular goal, from large to small.

You may want to build a task hierarchy for each goal pursued by each of your consumers, then merge the hierarchies, to see which tasks are vital to everyone, and which aren’t, or where the variations occur.

In this way, you are creating a menu system for a set of procedures, or FAQs, showing people how the large-scale tasks relate to the others, as they drill down to the specific task they want help on.

And, you are beginning to see where you may need to offer separate menus for people who have different goals.

Diagram The Flow Of Work

When work often moves from one person to another, diagram the workflow, too. Show how the same document or transaction moves from desk to desk. In this way, you can create accurate scenarios for different consumers, looking at things from one person’s desk, and then another’s.

Insert the problems along the way. You’ll probably want to write a way around these, or offer a solution.

Extract A Vocabulary

Make a list of the terms that these different consumers use for the goals, tasks, objects they operate on, and outcomes. For definitions, quote your consumers, if you can, rather than acting like Noah Webster.

Create Personas To Represent The Groups You're Writing To

When you write as if you were someone else, fitting into his skin, you are adopting a persona.

But Alan Cooper, inventor of Visual Basic, suggests creating a persona for each important segment of your audience, too.

Creating a persona to represent a small group in your audience gives a personal face to the group’s prominent characteristics, and gets you past the blandness of demographic generalizations.

A persona is a made-up person you will write to.

A real person may have several different goals in mind, but a persona is built around a single goal, one main objective, what actors used to call "a through line."

Every time you spot a different goal, you can create a new persona.

Striving For A Goal

Remember the person aims to achieve a goal, not go out and perform some particular set of tasks. (Yes, eventually, they may have to do those tasks, to get to the goal. But the persona is focused on the goal, not the steps to get there).

Emphasizing one goal per persona helps you get your mind out of the gearbox.

Dress Up Your Character

Once you have a persona’s goal clearly defined, you dress the character up. Just as an actress relies on props, sets, and costumes to develop a role, you must come up with interesting specifics about the persona:

  • A name

  • An age
  • An employer
  • A daily routine
  • A car. Not just any car: a particular car, with a dent on the front right bumper.

You want to create a character you can believe. Borrow facts from the people you have actually met, but do not just copy wholesale from a real person.

Build the persona around the details that will influence what you write. If you succeed at developing a believable character, you will stop letting yourself assume that if a sentence makes sense to you, it will do. Now you have to make sense to the fictional character.

Escape The Skills Trap

With believable personas standing for key groups in your audience, you escape the conventional idea of skills, too.

You begin to see that individuals have expert skills in some areas, but novice abilities in other areas.

No one person is a complete idiot.

By focusing on goals, you can get away from the easy but simplistic distinction between power users and beginners, a distinction that was probably first created to excuse failures in interface design and programming. ("Well, any power user could manage this feature," or "Well, we know beginners can’t figure this out, so we provide a wizard for those dummies.")

A persona helps you focus on the main activities this kind of person wants to carry out, pursuing her goal, encountering your text as part of the interface, and then as meaningful content. A persona embodies a niche audience in action, following an intention through your prose. Now you are in a virtual conversation with an individual, and your prose takes on a warmer tone.

Develop A Cast Of Personas

You might create a few dozen personas, then recognize similarities, toss out redundancies, and end up with six or seven.

Give top priority to any persona who must be satisfied with your text, and who cannot be satisfied with text intended for someone else. In this way you end up with a set of "real" people you are writing to, like familiar e-mail correspondents, and you can create targeted text for each.

Write For These Personas

You’re going to create content for each persona.

You’re not going to make one persona read something that’s really intended for another, the way a magazine site often does.

"The broader a target you aim for, the more certainty you have of missing the bull’s eye," says Cooper.

And, because you come to envision each persona as if he or she were a living person, you develop a unique relationship with the persona. And your tone reflects that, making your style more, well, personal.

Example of A Persona for a Team Developing Architectural Drawing Software

Name: Emma Aragon

Age: 35.

Birthday: March 26.

Family: Mother of Adrian (12), Lucero (10), and Jose (6). Her husband Herb is the head of the morning shift down at the Sears Auto Parts shop at the Coronado Mall.

Job: She works as an architect of one-family homes in a three-architect firm, Aragon, Carter and Rodriguez, in downtown. She’s responsible for:

  • Meeting with potential clients

  • Interviewing them
  • Preparing preliminary estimates
  • Sketching out floor plans
  • Refining the design
  • Working with the engineering team on air, electrical, and plumbing plans
  • Preparing budgets
  • Supervising contractors during construction
  • Meeting with the partners to plan expanding their practice into office buildings and manufacturing plants

Education: She has a B.S. in Physics, and a Masters in Architecture from the University of New Mexico, and she is working on a Masters in Business Administration through the Anderson School of Management, at UNM (only two more years of night and weekend courses).

Vehicle: She drives a six-year-old white Ford pickup with a dream-catcher hanging from the mirror.

Concerns: Her concerns include daycare for her youngest, healthcare for her grandmother Elisa Baca, who lives in the house next door, and the poor quality of her neighborhood elementary school, Los Gallegos, which regularly ranks in the bottom third of all schools in the state.

Current Practice: For blueprints, she uses AutoCad but hates its interface, and for presentations to clients uses consumer programs such as 3D Architect, because the results look more attractive, and help clients imagine what the house will look like. For contractors, she uses AutoCad, but finds it imprecise, hard to show small corners, and difficult to label.

Goal: In using drafting software, her main goal is to create full schematic drawings that her contractors can understand and follow, with zoom-in close-ups of difficult intersections, fully legible labels, and layers that line up accurately.

She expects her drafting software to offer the highest technical precision and up-to-date conformity to code.

She does not need 3D graphics from the CAD program, because she uses a consumer product to show clients what the house will look like.

When she has a question, she expects the Help to offer several different ways to do a task, and an explanation of the difference.