10 tips to avoid talking at your audience


How do you feel when someone is talking at you? It's not quite the same as someone talking to you, is it?

When someone talks to you, they might be using your language or even matching your rhythm. By contrast, someone talking at you seems like they're more interested in what they want to say and less on what you want to hear. Talking at your audience creates a communication environment where the transmitter jams the receiver, so even if a two-way exchange is possible, it's not inviting the exchange.

Unfortunately, much of business communicaton today falls in the talking at bucket.

We recently had two colleagues that lead teams of writers talk to our marketing department about conversational communication. Mary Ann Hickland and Brock Pierce  shared examples that show how communicating conversationally equates to writing something the way you might say it. It’s a key ingredient of content marketing, and how you build a relationship with customers.  In other words, to engage customers, you talk to them - not at them.

Part of their presentation included a 10-step guide to conversational writing. I'm very happy to share it below because I found it helpful. I hope you agree! 

  1. Avoid Jargon
    Edit your own words by finding simpler ways to say something, or ask if would you say it that way at the dinner table. Read it out loud to yourself - if you wouldn't say it that way, don't write it that way.
  2. Use the words "you" and "we"
    These are words we use in conversation, you know? As a marketer, we often "talk on behalf of our organization," but in that situation the pronoun "we" is still truthful, right? "We" can make your brand sound more personable, and it emphasizes the personal opinion or perspective of the writer. "You" emphasizes the reader’s experience by placing them at the center of the action; the command (imperative) form is good for advice or instructions.
  3. Use contractions.
    It's quite alright to use contractions. Consider these two examples so you don't miss the point :
      -   Aren't you ready to see what you've been missing?
      -   Are you not ready to see what you have been missing?
    Do be careful if your audience is global because contractions don't always translate clearly. In that case look for alternatives, such as: Ready to see what you have been missing?
  4. Ask questions.
    Don't you feel compelled to read on? That's the point. Try questions in headlines or first sentences - they draw the reader in. But avoid yes/no questions as your opener - you have a 50% risk of losing them before "Hello."
  5. Begin sentences with conjunctions.
    Traditional grammar rules say that you should never start a sentence with a conjunction (and, but, or, so, yet). But it's how we speak. It's a great way to keep sentences short, punchy and easier to read. And it's also effective for emphasizing your point. Don't overdo it, or you'll risk making your copy choppy, awkward and fragmented. Remember - all good things are best in moderation.
  6. Use sentence fragments.
    It's OK - really. This is also a grammar no-no, but very effective when used strategically in business writing. They act like mental speed bumps that break up longer sentences and help the reader focus. Like conjunctions, use them in moderation or it may just look like an error.
  7. Be concise.
    Get right to the point, or you undercut the importance of your message. Think Jane Eyre vs. Ernest Hemingway and channel Hemingway in your business writing. Specific suggestions from communications expert Ann Wylie include:
      -  Sentences per paragraph: 3 max. (print); 1 to 2 (online)
      -  Words per sentence: 14 max. (print); 10 to 12 (online)
      -  Avg. characters per word: 5 max. (print and online)
  8. Use copy rhythm.
    Doing that keeps your readers' attention because the words you write don't just appear on a page - your readers actually hear them in their heads when they read. Vary your sentence length to give your copy rhythm and texture. By mixing a few medium-to-long sentences with shorter, punchier ones, your copy will flow more smoothly.  
  9. Try a one-sentence paragraph
    Make sure your single-sentence paragraph highlights an important idea that you really want the reader to focus on. Don’t waste it on a secondary detail.
  10. End sentences with prepositions
    This is another grammar rule that's OK to break - occasionally. Doing that helps avoid awkward phrases. For example, you wouldn't write: "There's nothing of which to be scared." Phrase it more naturally as "There's nothing to be scared of."

Mary Ann and Brock were very clear on one point - writing conversationally is NOT sloppy writing, nor an excuse to use poor grammar, nor a license to be unprofessional, cute or silly. We should make sure the "meat is still there" in terms of content, but just reframe it so it’s accessible. For a final check on whether you're talking at your audience, just stop and read what you've written out loud.

There's no better way to check and see if it's actually something you'd say. If it sounds awkward, then change it.

I know many of you are terrrific writers, so I invite you to add to this list with a comment or two. Please share your ideas below. As always - thank you for following!


About Author

John Balla

Principal Marketing Strategist

Hi, I'm John Balla - a Digital Marketing Principal here at SAS focused on Content Strategy. I co-founded the SAS Customer Intelligence blog and served as Editor for five years. I like to find and share content and experiences that open doors, answer questions and maybe even challenge assumptions so better questions can be asked. Outside of work I stay busy with my wife and I keeping up with my 2 awesome college-age kids (Go Quakers! Go Tarheels!), volunteering for the Boy Scouts, keeping my garden green, striving for green living, expressing myself with puns, and making my own café con leche every morning. I’ve lived and worked on 3 contents and can communicate fluently in Spanish, Portuguese, Hungarian and passable English. Prior to SAS, my experience in marketing ranges from Fortune 100 companies to co-founding two start ups. I studied economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and got an MBA from Georgetown. Follow me on Twitter. Connect with me on LinkedIn.


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