A huge part of Employee Engagement revolves around communication. While videos can pack a big punch in a short timeframe, and design can make complex information easier to distill, the default method of large-scale communication is still writing. A large amount of Internal Communicators have a history in journalism. A lot of HR people have a background in psychology. Neither are necessarily used to writing online content. Yes, your social intranet may not reside on the World Wide Web, and yes, it is not accessible to everyone – but your employees won’t care. Parts of it will look like a website, other parts will look like a social media platform. That type of impression creates expectation: “don’t waste my time, give me what’s relevant”. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of tips, straight from famous literature, that will help you make your writing better than ever.
1. Skip the jargon. Don’t write to please your company’s lawyers, go for a conversational tone with simple language. Don’t worry about “dumbing it down” – writing simple, clear and concise is interpreted as more intelligent than language that requires a thesaurus to understand.
2. When communicating, for example, quarterly results, be sure to put the percentages into context. Numbers don’t mean anything without words, because words bring the story to life.
3. Using humor is one of the best ways to make communication memorable. Just don’t overdo it – when it’s unexpected, it hits the mark. But it’s still an organization – not a bar.
4. On your social intranet, end your communications with an open question. It’s a quick and simple way to illicit comments.
5. The Gettysburg Address was just 272 words. You don’t need a magnum opus to convey your point – nor does the CEO.
6. An amazing way to test your writing abilities is to write your message as you would naturally, then scrap out all the adjectives. Pretend your audience has limited brain-cell capacity per paragraph – every one word they read takes up the capacity of one brain cell. The more brain cells that go unused, the more brain power your audience has to remember and play around with your message. Especially words like “very” or “often” should set off alarm bells. After you’ve gotten used to this stripped-down way of writing, introduce one to two adjectives – but make sure they are infused with meaning. If you say “international company” rather than just “company”, the adjective “international” should be there for a reason – for example, to convey a Unique Selling Point (USP).
7. Breaking up text with questions is a great way to get your reader’s brain to re-engage. Avoid closed questions though – if the reader answers undesirably (“no” where you wanted a “yes”) in their head, you’ll have lost them.
8. Use the word “imagine”. John Lennon proved it’s one of the most powerful words in the English language.
9. Always write with an active tone of voice. “So we could best service our clients” should be “to best service our clients”. You don’t want to suggest, you want to convince. “A problem is being solved by him” should be “he’s solving the problem”. Why? Because he’s working on it now and you’ll want to convey that sense of urgency! Verbs ending in -ing (present progressive) usually indicate passivity.
10. Never include more than one Call to Action (CTA) in one piece of communication. One is memorable, two is a comparison, three is a proposition, four or more is a list.
11. Be explicit. Spell it out so no one can misinterpret what you mean – you can’t rely on your reader’s full attention, or implicit and contextual knowledge of your communication.
12. Rhythm – the grand differentiator. It breathes. It lives. It captivates. Rhythm is the difference between a ‘good’ and a ‘great’ text. The beat? The length of your sentences. The paragraphs are the measures. Want to win? Write with rhythm.
See what I did there? “Rhythm is the difference between a ‘good’ and a ‘great’ text” is the only point in that paragraph, but I use an opening statement, a triple-whammy and a metaphor to make it memorable. I bend the rules by asking a closed question, but I don’t end with it, so there’s no fear of losing my reader. Instead, I immediately follow-up with a CTA to end the copy.
13. Almost every part of the sentence that ends with the word “that” can be scrapped. “One of those events that eventually lead to change” should be “this event eventually lead to change” – and if we’re being picky, scrap “eventually” too.
14. Tell, don’t sell. Your content should be so authoritative and convincing with all the amazing facts you’ve gathered, that you don’t need to sell - with all those beautiful adjectives - to convince someone.
Interested in more?
“On Writing Well” is one of the most famous books, full of useful tips and best practices on writing non-fiction content. After reading that, check out “The Adweek Copywriting Handbook” by Joseph Sugarman. Funny enough, a large part of it can be ignored - especially the parts about long form copy - but the parts that talk about the psychological effect of words are relevant even today. His rule on what the first sentence should do (get you to read the second!) is invaluable too.
Lastly, after those two books, dive into “Sin and Syntax”. This book is more about copywriting, playing with words and breaking the rules – rules of grammar, and the ones I’ve listed above. It turns writing into an art form, without the fluff. Reading these books over a length of time should see your writing change from superfluous to meaningful with “On Writing Well”, from meaningful to engaging with “The Adweek copywriting handbook”, and from engaging to unforgettable with “Sin and Syntax”.