One of the unexpected highlights of 2020 is being able to un-sarcastically use the expression “these trying times”.
— Joe Hall (@joehall) June 22, 2020
Fifteen weeks. That’s how long it’s been since we were within an arm’s reach of another person not in our immediate household. My household consists of myself and my four-year-old son. That means its been 15 weeks since I’ve had a casual conversation that wasn’t about fruit snacks or jumping on the couch. I’m not proud when I say—its showing.
I’ve been over-talking, over-sharing, and writing long sentences when three words suffice. And as so many ads have told me lately—I’m not alone. So many of us are communicating less effectively during a time when communication is more important than ever.
How can we fix it?
Stop talking to yourself.
The darndest thing has happened—for all the emails reassuring us we’re in this together, we’re talking to people like they are ALL THE WAY OVER THERE and not right here reading the words we’ve written. We slipped the physical distance we are experiencing into our communication, swapping second person for third and making it all feel so much more impersonal, more cold, more awkward than it ever did before.
There’s something about being locked in our homes that has made us feel, well, locked in our homes. As a writer and a marketer, we’re trained to write to The One. To make an email being sent to thousands sound as though it’s being written for a single person–someone we love and care about. Every word thoughtfully chosen specifically for them. But today? Right now? We’ve abandoned that. We’re scribbling desperately with lipstick on the bathroom wall.
Before you send another piece of communication, read it out loud. Analyze the language. Are you saying “you” and “I” or are you speaking to “them” and “they?” Are you speaking to me like I’m in front of you, where you could watch my eyes as I opened your message, or like I might not even exist? You feel stranded on an island. I get it. It’s not a reason communicate like you are. Make it personal.
Give people what they need, when they need it.
If you’re my health insurance company, I want to feel safe and protected.
If you’re where I ski, I want to feel resilience and camaraderie.
If you’re Instacart, I want you to be like, “girl, how about a vegetable?”
In our attempt to do right, brand messages have become templated saccharin. I don’t want a cookie-cutter message of hope and optimism. I don’t want to read what legal approved. I crave something that feels reals. A message that reaffirms you understand your role in my life and that you’re ready to double down on it. So much of what I get to do for clients during Normal Times revolves around creating competitive frameworks for messaging and it’s been so helpful to lean into known tenets when everything else feels broken. That’s what I’d encourage you to do in this moment. Do the work to understand who you are and why you are and bleed it on the page. Make your place and your intent clear to those you’re trying to reach. Give them what they need, in the moment they need it.
Say what you need, then say what you want.
Don’t bury it; spit it out. Tell me the one thing you want me to know or do or act on immediately. Then, and only then, can you sing me a sonnet. We are thirsty to be heard, to be seen, and to share our experiences. The result is messy communication.
I’m oversharing news and events with people who just want to hear the content strategy I’ve laid out, and I’m starting my daily 9 a.m. team check-ins with recounts of where I am in my binge-watching of Grey’s Anatomy and how my kid did or did not sleep last night. I am so fully aware that NO ONE CARES but I need to get it out. Maybe you’re oversharing to a similar degree or maybe you have a football fields-worth more restraint than I do (congrats), but the concept remains. I get it. I know you’re looking at that email communication as a way to be seen, but so is your audience. That means when your email shows up in their inbox, they need it to be about them, not you. Tell them what’s useful and what’s actionable for them first. Don’t make them read 400 words to get there. Start there. Give them their treat. Hand over the good stuff. This way if they keep reading, it’s a treat for both of you. If not, well, you’ve scratched their itch.
Drop speed bumps.
We are existing on autopilot. This is trauma survival mode. We’re feeling testy, burnt out and overemotional. When communicating, pick your words with laser focus. Leave tone at the door and seize an opportunity to make evocative word choices that sing your message rather than merely state it. Be playful. Be spicy. Break someone out of their mental hibernation and wake them up to hear what you’re trying to say. I like to trip people up when they’re not expecting it. It’s a favorite hobby. When it would be easy enough to grab all the common words and string them together but instead drop a word that makes them slow their read. That forces them to really pay attention to see where this is going.
Folks, we can collectively decide to never repeat phrases like “these trying times” or “unprecedented events” ever again and replace the jargon with our own words and our voices.
If you need some inspiration, I picked up Related Words from an Ann Handley newsletter months ago and now it lives in my bookmarks. It’s truly the difference between using a word someone will skip over and throwing one in that trips them up in a way they weren’t expecting. Once you’ve got their attention…well, you’ve got their attention.
As Joe Hall notes in his tweet above, “in these trying times” we have an opportunity. To communicate better, to be seen, and to show up for our audience in ways they weren’t expecting. Your customers are listening and they’re damn well remembering.