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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Develop an Attitude

Cut through the anonymity

On paper, corporations, universities, and governments have always favored an impersonal style, talking in a consensus-seeking committee speak, avoiding taking any stand that might offend anyone anywhere, squeezing out resolutely anonymous prose. In the rush to fill up Web sites, a lot of this faceless prose got posted. So now some sites are like Wall Street at midnight in winter—cold as granite under ice.

It's the voice of quirky, individualist writers that best captures the quirky, individualist spirit of the Net.
—Constance Hale, Wired Style

Your style reflects your attitude toward your readers, implying a relationship. The old approach was authoritative: "We know what we are doing, and you are lucky to be listening to us."

But the Internet works best as a series of two-way conversations. Interact with your visitors. Ask their opinion. Start a conversation. If you intend to provoke a conversation, reveal yourself. At the least, tell your readers as much about your own life as they reveal in registering, answering your questions, or stating their preferences. Instead of being all-knowing, admit when you feel confused. Include a byline. Hell, put your picture at the top of your articles.

When people sense that you are a real person, they respond. And if you take a definite position, clearly distinguishing your ideas from the herd, refusing to take a corporate snoot at them, people get the sense that you might listen to their opinions. The more you express your own individuality, the more you cut through the plastic, silicon, wire, and glass of the computer and the Internet.

Customers expect to receive a consistent branded experience no matter which touchpoint or channel they use.
—Patricia Seybold, Ronni Marshak, and Jeffrey Lewis, The Customer Revolution

Tone shows how you react to your readers. Contemplate the relationship with Emma, if you have developed a persona to represent an important niche audience.

Figure out what your stance is. What are you doing in this conversation? What is your aim, in this relationship?

  • If you want to amuse people, as on a site like a webzine, be outrageous. Go beyond the norms. Get into the intimate details of your emotional sturm und drang, your paranoid fantasies, if you think they will be entertaining on a particular site. Recognize what people normally think, and come up with something different. Your job at a webzine is to provoke discussion, and the hotter your prose, the more they talk.

  • If you want to teach, then be considerate. Be willing to start with the familiar and move step-by-step into the unfamiliar. Teaching requires enormous sympathy, an intuitive awareness of each moment when the student may be puzzled, upset, or drawn off course. The more you pay attention to the student's internal experience, the more you can articulate your subject matter for them. (Too many academics write Web pages to impress their colleagues, leaving students far behind).

  • If you want to help people become more aware, then open yourself up to sense their inner life each moment. Tune in to their fears, desires, dreams, and as you write, imagine how the readers react. Shifting your attention from your made-up self to your listeners lets the meaning flow through. Your text loses some of its personal flavor, but takes on a deeper significance. Oddly, at that moment, some people will start to praise you for your "original style."

  • If you just want to be helpful—a good scout—then be plain. Give up all those tricks you learned in school, when you were struggling to be persuasive, attractive, plausible, and convincing. When you are mentally trying to demonstrate how unusual, special, fascinating, mysterious, or complicated you are, your writing draws attention to itself, away from the subject— it's okay if you are deliberately showing off, but not particularly helpful.

Let's talk persona to persona

So you have to invent some kind of persona on your own side, to figure out how to talk to the individuals in your audience, whom you may have caricatured in a set of fictional personas. Generally, we consider creating a writing persona as a little dishonest, almost like putting on a mask. True, when the intent is to deceive, overawe, or attack. But you can create a perfectly reasonable persona, one that has some of your own background, concerns, and pet ideas without being dishonest.

You are about to engage in a virtual conversation, after all, where you don't know a lot about the person you are talking to. Sure, you've read the profile, plowed through the e-mail, checked the transaction history. But you are still guessing. And so you really don't start out with a human relationship.

But if you build your own persona sincerely, out of your own real experience, you will develop a definite connection with the person you are writing for. If you reveal a few facts about yourself, watch the response. People realize, gosh, there is a person there. Suddenly, they want to know about your town, your hobbies, and your kids.

To guard your own privacy, and to keep your own boundaries secure, you need a carefully developed persona—a public personality. In fact, you may need to develop a different writing persona for each major group you talk to, so you can morph into their team, looking at things from their point of view as much as possible, using their language, dealing with their concerns.

We celebrate subjectivity.
—Constance Hale, Wired Style

The process resembles writing a script, where you switch from one character to another, speaking as intensely as you can in that voice, then switching character, and responding. Sound crazy? Well, sure. Nutcases carry on imaginary conversations and get locked up. The challenge for you is to stay sympathetic enough with each group and each person so that you don't feel strained adopting the appropriate stance for your relationship.

So you are acting in a role, as one persona, and when you address a niche audience, you are talking to a character you have invented, a persona who stands in for the real people who are members of that group. That's talking persona to persona.

And when you answer e-mail, or type responses in a chat session, or post replies on a discussion board, you are, in a way, writing person to person. But even here you are acting in a role, adopting a persona, and the other person is too. So the conversation has an artificial flavor.

Your job is to break through the artificiality of the experience, the distance imposed by the medium, and the constraints of your own context. You have to work hard to become a human being on the Web.

Imagine the way you would like the virtual conversation to go—what you will say, and what she will say, and how the exchange will progress. Envision a satisfactory outcome. What exactly do you want to happen, as a result of the texts you send and the responses you get back? Where is this relationship headed? As Ann Landers asks, what will make you both happy?

Stretch the canvas and sketch in the basic outlines of the goal. But leave the picture unfinished.

You ask. I answer. You ask. I answer. You're not supposed to watch the sun set, listen to the surf pound the sun-bleached sand, and sip San Miguel beer as Paco dives for abalone while you craft your e-mail.
—Guy Kawasaki, The Guy Kawasaki Computer Curmudgeon

Let the unknown enter—the unpredictable other, the amazing quirks, the surprising feelings, the odd twists of the other person's thoughts—and your own. Because people turn out to be full of surprises, if you listen with an open heart, build your persona loosely enough to make room for their side of the conversation.

See: Bruffee (1986), Clark (1990), Cooper (1999), Dumas and Redish (1993), Fish (1980), Freed and Broadhead (1987), Hagen (1999), Jonassen, Hannum, and Tessmer (1989), Norlin (2001), Norman (1980), Ong (1975), Porter (1992), Redish (1993), Rubin (1994), Seybold and Marshak (1998), Seybold, Marshak, and Lewis (2001), Shneiderman (1998), Stevens and Gentner (1983), Weiss (2001), Wood (1996).

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