Using words to engage your audience

Using words to engage your audience

By Chris Silberston


20 writing tips from the writing experts, A Thousand Monkeys.

'Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly - they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.' Aldous Huxley

You've spent a disturbing amount of your next 5 years' budget on your new website. You've hired a fresh-faced graduate social media/design/digital type person. You've spent months thinking about brand colours and web fonts.

Then you realise you haven't written any copy. Whoops.

Words are still the main way your audience interacts with marketing materials, whether it's your new website or your latest flyer. So if you're responsible for the copy on your next project, make sure it's not just an afterthought.

Here are 20 of A Thousand Monkeys' best tips to help you engage your audience, because we're generous like that.

1. Get ready

Before you even consider writing anything, do some prep.

Research, jot down ideas, gather quotes and examples, plan themes and structure, and put on a big pot of tea.

2. Keep it short

Short is powerful. Like this story: For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Try to aim for under 15 words per sentence. More like 8 for digital content.

3. Keep it simple

'[Hemingway] has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.' William Faulkner

'Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are  older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.' Ernest Hemingway

Don’t use a complicated word where a simple one will do. We learn simple words first, so these are the ones that have the most meaning to us.

4. Try, try, and try again

No one gets it right first time. Keep your draft, but don’t be afraid to try something different. Or start again. Be tough on yourself –
your first attempt was probably rubbish anyway.

5. Do something different

Go analogue and use a pen and paper. Or go to a coffee shop. Or spray-paint ideas on your theatre’s safety curtain. Variety in your routine is the best way to add originality.

6. Look outside the arts for inspiration

Play Pokémon Go. Read Fifty Shades of Grey. Try a bubble tea. If you can figure out why those things are so popular you’ll be able to convince anyone of anything. Copywriting is just selling ideas after all – it doesn’t matter if it’s a mobile game or a contemporary dance show.

“Don’t look to the arts for inspiration – play Pokémon Go”

7. Your organisation isn’t a special case

You’re competing with cinemas, restaurants, zoos – anywhere else people spend time and money. Odeon wouldn’t get away with “facilitating the development of opportunities to explore the contemporary Hollywood methodology of the blockbuster medium.” Why should you?

8. Passive voice is only for timid writers

“I think timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to content with; the subject just has to close its eyes and think of England.” Stephen King

“I made this sculpture” flows much better than “this sculpture was created”. Passive voice slows down the action of a sentence because the subject isn’t doing anything. You’re not a timid writer are you?

9. You can’t engage people if you don’t address them

Pronouns are an essential part of good marketing copy. Don’t say “the gallery would like to apologise for any inconvenience”. Say “we’re sorry”. Don’t say “audiences can experience”. Say “you will”.

Being direct involves people in your words, just like in a real conversation. And, just like a real conversation, don’t brag – try to use “you” much more than “I” or “we”.

10. Want to sound believable? Use contractions

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Bill Clinton

If people don’t use contractions, we often think they’re lying to us. We talk with contractions, so we should write with them too.

A car bumper sticker that says: Monika Lewinsky's x-boyfriend's wife for President.

Image by Jasen Miller

11. Avoid smothered verbs

The arts sector loves hidden verbs – where a verb is turned into a noun. “Undergoing the development of” just means “developing”, so why not say that? Verbs make your copy flow. Flow is good.

12. Forget school English “proper sentences”

“London.” Charles Dickens

Not every sentence needs a subject, verb, and object. And yes, you can start a sentence with “and”. Or “or”. But surely not “but”? Yep, even “but”.

13. Avert thyself from archaic utterances

Whilst. Amongst. Aught. They’re getting too old to be useful. It’s time to send them to that big new retirement place they built where the library used to be.

14. Front-load content

People skim read, especially online. And people with low literacy take a while to get through long text. Put the interesting stuff first and everyone’s a winner.

15. Structure everything

Big blocks of text are bad. Break it up with subheads. Make sure they’re descriptive, especially online where blind and partially sighted people might use them to navigate your site. Add a quote here, a picture there. Make it look interesting. Otherwisepeople get bored.

16. Personality is key

If you sound like a confident, interesting person when you write, you can get away with anything. Use the odd quirky phrase, or light-hearted side note. Don’t write about your My Little Pony collection though, no one wants to hear about that.

“Don’t write about Your My Little Pony collection”

A unicorn toy

Image by Lisa Brewster

17. Check your copy’s readability

Use Microsoft Word’s readability statistics (Google it). The Flesch-Kincaid level should be under 8. This guide is 5.1. If your copy is above 9, it’s more complicated than The Economist. If it’s above 12, call our emergency copy-fix hotline, you’ve got a verbosity leak somewhere.

18. Be specific

Real examples bring ideas to life. If you’re refurbishing your theatre, don’t give a long list of all the work, just talk about one thing in more detail. You could say “we tested out the new seats and they’re almost as comfy as that battered old recliner you used to have in your bachelor pad.”

19. Cut the crap

“If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” George Orwell

Too much description doesn’t add anything – your copy will sound better without it. Find yourself using lots of pointless adjectives like “world-class” or “dynamic”? Get rid of them.

20.Forget SEO

Google is now some sort of genius, slightly terrifying futuristic artificial intelligence. Stuffing in keywords won’t trick search engines into making your content seem appealing. Write interesting, engaging copy instead. People will share it, and Google will like you. Save the click-bait for those weird cat videos you post in your spare time.

“Save the click bait for those weird cat videos”

Head of a large ginger, fluffy cat

Image by LilyRose97

You got to the end?

Wahoo! But you’re definitely in the minority. Unless you’ve written the next Harry Potter, people rarely read every line of text all the way to the end. But follow our advice, and hopefully you’ll convince a few more muggles to actually engage with your enchanting

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Resource type: Guide/tools | Published: 2016