PRODUCTHEAD: Writing for the needs of your audience (communication toolkit #3)

PRODUCTHEAD: Writing for the needs of your audience (communication toolkit #3)

PRODUCTHEAD is a regular newsletter of product management goodness,
curated by Jock Busuttil.

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tl;dr

What you write online is there to serve the users’ needs

Writing for the web = using short sentences

People read differently on the web than they do on paper

Tools exist to help make your writing easier to understand


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Last week, I shared a few perspectives on how to read more effectively. The next important communication skill for product people is writing. Writing is a particularly fiddly skill to master.


Content, tone and medium #

Content is what you write. Tone is the style you use to write it. The medium is what you’re writing in. This could be an email, Slack, a report, tweet, timeline post, blog article, and so on.

Content, tone and medium all contribute to how people interpret what you’ve written. So too does the audience’s perception of the authenticity and sincerity of your words.

A failure to communicate #

My blog started out very much as reminder to myself of what I should have done in a particular situation. It’s no surprise that one of my earliest articles was about writing better emails. I wrote “Ill communication” in 2010 after inadvertently causing an almighty email shit-storm at work.

Learn from my fail, people. Learn from my fail.

On that day, I learned a couple of home truths the hard way about emails:

Emails lack the cues we usually receive through body language.

Email is not the right medium for a heated discussion.

Evolving etiquette #

Another tricky thing is that writing etiquette continues to evolve. You not only have to consider the context in which you’re writing, but also the needs of the people you’re writing for.

Writing a letter used to be the only option for communicating over long distances. With no ready alternatives, the etiquette of letter-writing would differ wildly. Was the correspondence was between friends, lovers or business acquaintances?

In contrast with a letter, email is a less formal medium. Even so, we still need to adopt the right etiquette. This again depends on the content, context and recipients. Likewise for social media.

Cultural dissonance #

Different generations evolve or subvert media in different ways. Sometimes it’s to make a point: ‘our generation is different to yours’. At others it’s to provoke a reaction, or reflect their own relationship with that medium. In a perverse way, I quite like the cultural dissonance this causes.

Consider Facebook’s existential struggle to attract younger generations of new users. Younger people see Facebook as their parents’ social media platform, not theirs.

This TikTok from @ninetyeightla is a another good example. Do you think the Gen-Z email sign-offs are:

a) amusing;
b) provocative;
c) subverting business etiquette;
d) a reflection of how a generation that’s grown up with social media communicates; or
e) all of the above?

Signing off emails in this style is neither right or wrong in itself. There’s no point in blind adherence to tradition and etiquette for its own sake. What matters most is that the author conveys their intended meaning in a way that’s easy for the reader.

Dissonance occurs when authors write solely for people like themselves. They’re forgetting to consider the needs of the rest of their audience.

Do you know what I mean? #

Sara Wilcox writes about the similar challenges she faced at the NHS*. She was trying to convince the conservative management team to ditch formalised doctor-speak. In its place, she encouraged them to use words people actually used: ‘pee’ instead of ‘urine’, and ‘poo’ instead of ‘stool’ or ‘faeces’.

‘Urine’, ‘stool’ and ‘faeces’ are perfectly valid – though somewhat archaic – medical terms. Yet they obstruct the audience’s understanding. They make it harder to convey valuable health information to the general public.

Writing can be a happy marriage of self-expression and effective sharing of information. Like any other skill, it takes practice to find the right balance, and to become proficient. Practice is one of the many reasons why I write this newsletter each week.

For you this week #

This week I’ve collected some more helpful articles, tips and tools for you to improve your writing. (I used Hemingway to help me make this article easier to read. Can you tell?)

Speak to you soon,

Jock

* The UK’s National Health Service



what to think about this week

Writing for the user

Users have something they want to do, something they need. They think of a word or phrase, put it into a search engine, look through the results, choose the one they think is relevant and off they go.

Then the user can stay on or leave the site, but whichever option they choose, it’s based on their initial need – what they need right now.

Users are selfish

[Sarah Winters / Content Design London]

6 simple exercises to help you write better short sentences

Short sentences are gospel truths when it comes to clear, concise writing.

In this post, you’ll find six exercises that can help you write short, clear sentences that pack a punch — plus three tips on removing unnecessary words.

Just one exercise a day

[Demian Farnworth / Copyblogger]



Content design: planning, writing and managing content

People read differently on the web than they do on paper. This means that the best approach when writing for the web is different from writing for print.

Our guidance on writing for GOV.UK is based on research into how people read online and how people use GOV.UK. It explains what each rule is based on.

How to write well for your audience, including specialists

[GOV.UK]

Hemingway

Hemingway makes your writing bold and clear. It’s like a spellchecker, but for style. It makes sure that your reader will focus on your message, not your prose.

Too often, our words are like our thoughts — innumerable and disorganized. Almost any bit of writing could use some cutting. Less is more, etc.

Your readers will thank you

[Adam & Ben Long]

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Read more from Jock

The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock is a freelance head of product, author and conference speaker. He has spent nearly two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. His clients include the BBC, University of Cambridge, and the UK's Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, a product management consultancy and training company. He is also the author of the popular book The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management and the blog I Manage Products.

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