Friday, May 17, 2013

Think Like A Reader

Think Like A Reader when you write ... anything.

How many writers do you know who write from a reader’s perspective? Odds are, you know few if any writers using this approach.
My take is writing exclusively from a corporate perspective is not only old-fashioned, but very ineffective. Writing from a reader’s perspective is essential if you want to capture not only their attention, but their desires.

The ‘Old’ Way Of Writing

In The Beginning … there were stone tablets and ponderous, stone-like marketing methods. Companies decided what products to make. They made them. They decided what products to make available to consumers. Consumers picked the products they liked from the limited—compared to today—choices. Manufacturers were happy. Consumers were slightly satisfied, but often not thrilled.
Business writing followed the corporate edict of. “This is what we have. This is why you should buy it.” This method was based on the desires of the corporation not the needs or wants of the consumer.
Then things changed.
The Internet appeared and all of a sudden—overnight in the eyes of some slow-moving corporations—consumers had access to many more choices. Instead of one brand of breakfast cereal, there were 30, 50 or more. And with this explosion of products all competing for the same consumers, business writing was dragged kicking and screaming into a new century.

Consumer-Centric Writing

“Think Like A Reader” simply means that writers must include the needs of their audience when writing … anything.
Audiences don’t go to movie theaters to hear someone preach a religious gospel. They don’t go the nearest cinema complex to be lectured about morality or the problems with the political party in charge. Audiences go to theaters to be entertained.
Reader’s don’t pick up a gun magazine expecting to read about the latest in women’s fashions unless those fashions happen to relate to camouflage clothing. And they don’t read a cooking magazine expecting to learn how to field-strip a pistol.
Readers pick up different print publications seeking information and/or entertainment. They do the same thing with their online sources. When they go to a news site, they are looking for information. When they go to an entertainment site, they want to be transported to a world far away from their current problems.
And when readers go to a business-oriented website or blog, they want to know why they should spend their hard-earned money on your products instead of someone else’s.

‘Why?’ Is At The Center of This Approach

Journalists use the approach of the “5 W’s and 1 H” in their writing. This stands for who, what, when, where, why and how as in, “who was involved?,” “What happened?,” “When did it happen?,” “Where did it take place?,” “Why did it happen?” and “How did it occur?”
Effective business communications uses this same information but presented differently. Consumers still want to know, “who is selling this product or service?,” “what is this product?,” “when is it available?” and “where can I get it?” A key difference between journalism and marketing is that consumer are not asking “why did something occur?” but instead, “why should I buy it?”
That is where “Think Like A Reader” comes into play.

Consumers Need To Be Sold, Not Told

Back in the days of small towns having one grocery store, shoppers had one practical choice: buy what was available or go without.
Now in the days where even small towns have two, three or 300 grocery stores, consumers have become far better educated. If they don’t like the local selection, they can order it online from anywhere and have it shipped to their door. Consumers want to be sold, not told on what to buy.
Granted, there are some people who will “do as they are told” and buy what a given corporation is selling … but there are a lot less of them to day than there were 20, 30 or 50 years ago. We have access to a lot more information, more than our grandparents often even dreamed of. Your average homeowner can buy a computer hard drive that can store the entire plain text works of the Library of Congress and have extra space, too.

The Essential ‘Think Like A Reader’

“Think Like A Reader” simply means persuading each and every reader that the material you are presenting to them has value to the reader. Your blog post, web page or press release can have value to an organization or corporation as well, but it mustcreate value to consumers before it does anything else.
Your documents must clearly and explicitly explain why your message fulfills a need or want that individual reader has.
Tell each reader why they should care about your product. Explain how it meets their immediate or future needs. Don’t say these message once, but at every opportunity.
For example, let’s say your company sells smart phones. You can list a string of features your newest phone has, but only if you explain how each feature or the combination of all features meets their needs.
Let’s say your phone includes a feature called “parental controls.” Just listing that feature without any explanation is going to generate a shrug at best.
Ah, but change your message and “Think Like A Reader.” “Our newest phone has parental controls. These controls let you limit which websites your children visit and who they can talk to.” You’ve now told readers why your parental control feature is important to them.
Some people like to compare and contrast products. You can create documents that explain the difference between your own products or between your products and those of a competitor.
Phone A, for example may be your lowest priced model. It has a set of features one person could describe as “stripped down” while another person calls them “essential.”
Phone B would likely have all of the features of Phone A plus additional options. For example, if Phone A has a single camera pointed away from the user, Phone B could include a second camera facing the user. You could explain the difference as “allowing users to enjoy face-to-face conversations even when they are miles apart.”

Provide Value

The difference between any combination of similar products today is not in what they do. Three cell phones all let you send and receive calls and surf the Internet. The difference is in the value they bring to specific consumers.
A tablet with a built-in voice to text software offers a value to a select set of workers—say doctors taking notes on a patient—versus one requiring a clunky keyboard. A mobile phone with tiny keys may be effective for writing brief text messages, but lousy when taking notes at a meeting.
Your documents should provide value to your readers. They should give them reasons to read the headline, the first paragraph and every successive graph.
The more value your documents provide, the more likely readers are to come back to you for more.

Think Like Your Readers, All Of Them

Thinking like a reader means not only writing for one group of readers, but adjusting your writing to handle the different needs of varying groups.
Teenagers have one set of requirements in a cell phone. Parents have other needs when buying cell phones for their teenagers. Hunters need one type of weapon. Police officers and soldiers have drastically different requirements.
Taking each of these needs into account means either creating one document that explains everything to everyone or creating a series of documents oriented at specific groups.
For example, your cell phone website could have a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). On it you could rephrase the same essential question of “why should I buy this model?” from several perspectives.
You could explain features aimed at youth, such as its ability to send text messages. You could explain how it has a feature that converts speech to text so users can concentrate their attention on other tasks, such as walking. You could even explain how your service plans allow unlimited text messages for a low monthly rate, regardless if these messages are sent by an individual, a family or a company.
Corporate communicators might create one document aimed at consumers and another at executives. Consumers want to know why they should purchase a product. Executives want to know if they will make enough profit to justify making the product.

Tell ‘Em, Tell ‘Em What You Told ‘Em

There is an old advertising adage that goes like this: “Tell ‘em. Tell ‘Em what you told ‘em. Tell ‘em again.”
Good communicators essentially do the same thing. They give readers a reason for reading their document. Then the good writers give them another reason to keep reading and another and another, etc.
Good writing also has a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning tells people what the article is about. The middle gives them the details and the end wraps it up. Every document gives you at least three spots where you can explain why a consumer will want to buy your products.


“Think Like A Reader” is a writing style that puts the needs of the readers first. You are writing blog posts, web page stories and press releases to be read, not tossed in the recycling bin. Readers are the reason you are writing. Write with their needs in mind first, second and always.
“Thinking Like A Reader” means writers seek to persuade readers that the information in each document provides value to them. Tell them what a product does then explain how it benefits them.
Corporate communications that consider the consumer first will succeed while those that put the corporation first will fail. Why? Because you will not have a corporation if all of your customers buy from the competition.

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