Writing for the web sometimes seems like a mysterious, almost mystical process. It's also the subject of much conflicting advice. "Write short," say some experts.
People who read the Internet only scan. "Nah," retort others. "Be absolutely sure you answer all of the customers' questions. Write as long as you need to make the sale.
" Instead of getting stuck in the long-versus-short debate, I like to cut through the bafflegab by focusing on a web writing trick that's wonderfully simple, straightforward and non-controversial. It is: Think like your customer. Why? The reason is simple. If you think like your customer, more people will read your website and if you're selling something, more of them will buy. If you doubt the effectiveness of this advice, I urge you to imagine yourself walking into a retail shop. How would you feel if the clerk was dressed in a Chanel jacket, looked down her nose at you, frowned and turned in the opposite direction when you asked her a question? Not a very welcoming thought, is it? But funnily enough, many websites give the impression of being "guarded" by an equally fussy, snobbish clerk.
How? It's the writing. Let me emphasize that writers don't make these errors deliberately. I think they often just emulate other sites out there in Internet-land -- assuming that if other (apparently successful) businessess have done likewise, then it must be a good strategy.
Sadly, they're wrong. Here are the three biggest mistakes they make. (Note: the examples below are not manufactured --they're from real live websites.) Mistake #1: Using language that's too formal -- "Government spending is a major economic driver that has a tangible impact on the economic well-being of every business and individual," reads one typically pompous site. Doesn't the writer sound like he's wearing a smoking jacket and holding a glass of brandy in the other hand? No one in real life says stuff like "has a tangible impact.
" A smarter writer might have said something less formal like: "When the government spends money, it helps businesses and individuals alike." Language that "sounds" like ordinary people talking is the best kind of talk for any website, no matter how sophisticated the business. Mistake #3: Selling too fast -- If I walk into a store and the sales clerk greets me with: "What would you like to buy today?" I tend to run fast -- in the opposite direction. Don't you? Sure, responsiveness is good, but over-eagerness is frightening.
We get scared that someone is going to try to pull a fast one on us or force us to buy something that we don't really want or need. Similarly, many websites make the mistake of leaning in for the kill too quickly. "Get the best deals around on computers," screams one home-page headline. And it doesn't let up with the subheads: "Whether you are looking for refurbished, used, brand-new, laptop, desktop, large-screen, multimedia-centric, there's the perfect computer for you out there," it continues. Fair enough.
But just like a shopper in a retail store, I'd like to feel comfortable and get the lay of the land, before I get mowed down by the sales pitch. Let me wander through the metaphorical aisles a bit -- pick up some merchandise, examine it. Don't appear too needy or greedy. Instead, look relaxed and helpful -- friendly, even. Mistake #3: Focusing on me-me-me -- Don't you get tired of the cocktail party bore who can talk only about himself, his job, his kids, his neighbors? Ever noticed how many websites are similarly narcissistic? They feature large "about us" sections but give only a weak description of their customers' problems. They approach every topic from their own perspective, rather than that of the customers'.
"We are continuously working to improve our products," says one such site. Well, bully for you, I say. But if you want my business, let's stop the focus on you and talk about me for a change. Show me you care by anticipating my needs and discussing my challenges.
Convince me you have a solution -- but do it by demonstrating you recognize my problem, first. In summary, if you're a webwriter, remember that the words you choose are important. Talk to me in warm, simple language. Don't sell too soon.
And talk about MY issues (not yours.) Then, and only then, I might be in the mood to buy what you have to offer.
Need to write better, faster? Sign up for Power Writing. Daphne Gray-Grant, a former journalist, and author of this article, is a writing and editing coach. Power Writing is her weekly newsletter and it's free. Sign up at http://www.publicationcoach.com