This is the first of three pieces I’ll be writing about content strategy. As I mentioned before, content is a bit of a bland word for describing all the stuff we put into our websites. So, in this post, I’ll focus on the very core of what websites are for: your message.
What’s the point, again?
Before we talk about what you’ve got to say, let’s have a think about the other side of a message. Who is supposed to hear your message? That’s the badger: your audience.
Designers, content strategists, and user experience architects talk a lot about audiences – and you should listen to them. You’re their audience, after all, and they have a very good point. In recent years, web-builders have worked hard to get people thinking in the same way good architects have for generations. Some call this thinking ‘user-centric design,’ and it means building things intentionally with the user in mind. Another way to think about it is that it is purposeful design: the purpose of an app, site, building, well-made chair, et cetera is for someone to use it – comfortably and well.
This is playing catch-up to writers, though. One of the things I heard so often in my creative writing lectures – aside from: “No, you’re thinking of Chekov!” – was: “know your audience.” So, that isn’t new.
“Speech belongs half to the speaker, half to the listener.”
— Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592)
But, let’s play a quick mind game. Close your eyes and imagine the word: “audience.” Now, open them. Oh, this isn’t going to work as text, is it?* Anyway, what comes to mind when you think: “audience.” For me, it’s a bunch of folk surrounding a stage, being spoken at or performed to. The audience is passive, and they mainly receive. This is where message-crafting can learn from user experience designers: the user has a purpose, and it’s the website’s job to help them.
This is the crux of creating a message: write for your users, not for yourself. By reviewing your content from the perspective of a user (you can always ask some of them to read it for you), you will be well on your way towards a clear and useful message. You’ll learn to avoid common mistakes, like using words that only make sense to your organisation, or wandering off topic.
Now, let’s get down to some handy tips for putting words up onto a screen.
First tip: write for mobile first. Take a look at your content on a mobile screen, and pity your readers. No one wants to flick through dozens of screen-lengths’ of text. Use as few words as you can. If you want to expand something, put it in a blog post, where people expect longer prose.
With few words comes greater responsibility, so choose your words carefully. Aim for plain language. Keep your sentences short and clear. Well-written paragraphs which are concise do not feel dumbed down.
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
― Mark Twain
Avoid jargon – corporate or internal. Leveraging your content for ROI and actioning your synergistic solutions won’t help anyone understand what you mean going forward. Always use use; never use utilise. If you have industry-specific jargon, consider a reader who has never heard the terms before. That’s not to say you need to explain everything at length. Sometimes a course module, planning application, or 19mm copper elbow is the right phrase to choose.
How you arrange and present your words also counts. Keep up your quality; and avoid misusing punctuation. Use spellcheck.
Edit. A first draft is never perfect. So, set it aside and come back to it. If you have access to other writers, share drafts between you. Read it out loud – if it sounds weird, it is. Also remember that the web is a beautifully dynamic medium – you can revise quickly, without waiting for a bookbinder.
Don’t forget microcopy.
Content strategists and copywriters talk about a website’s microcopy, with sage nods. Many words on a website are there simply to do something: navigation, button-text, link-text, notifications, and instructional text, for example. This stuff is easy to forget, but a well-crafted website considers it.
If you use a notice, word it carefully, and clearly. Consider your navigation, and find out if people will know what they’ll get when they click on something. In other words: call things what they are. Remember that users are people, so treat them so in your microcopy.
Microcopy sometimes includes link-text, the words which invite a person to click on them. Most of the time, you won’t have to explain how links work to a visitor. They got here, so don’t say:
“Click on the link below to find out about our widget programme.”
Just link: “our widget programme.”
Show; don’t tell.
Finally the most important thing I can tell you about shaping your message. It comes from creative writing, and journalism. It’s a simple aphorism.
Show; don’t tell.
I don’t mean you should use dialogue, or cheesy characters. But, if you want to tell people that you know what you’re doing with widgets: show them. Case studies and testimonials say more about your organisation than your marketing team can.
If it’s your job to inspire confidence in your community, demonstrate it. Provide your services simply, and make it easy for people to find what they’re after. Don’t get in your own way by telling people.
My next content strategy article will be on governance – a look at who does what. Like this one, issue 2 will share some tips and hacks to help organise your teams. Or, at least, to give you a picture of how different people can look after content.
*Sidebar: know your medium, too.