What Great Website Writers and Great Conversationalists Have in Common

I was recently invited to speak at the Moms in Business Unite conference this fall. This is a really neat seminar series for … ready? You’ll never guess: Mom’s who have — or are planning to start — their own business. I’m going to be talking to them about … ready? You’ll never guess: Writing! (Specifically writing for the Web.)

This audience will be filled with smart, talented, motivated women, but they are not writers. What could I possibly teach that will stick in just one hour? Maybe nothing, but hopefully this: Being a good Web writer is really just about being a good conversationalist. Here, I’ll show you …

Tip #1: Who are you talking to, anyway?

Imagine having a conversation with a stranger while blindfolded. Are you talking to a teenage girl, young mother or single businesswoman? How can you possibly know what to say if you don’t know who you’re talking to? But so many of us start writing our website copy “blind” without having a clear vision of our audience. Take off your blindfold. Get to know her and only then should you start writing.

Tip #2: You can’t talk to everyone at once.

I know what you’re thinking: “But my product appeals to everyone.” No, sorry, it doesn’t. See, even if you’re selling something as generic as milk, your particular brand of milk has an audience. Is it organic milk from a local farm sold in a glass bottle? You’re writing to the Whole Foods mom. Is it strawberry milk in cute BPA-free plastic strawberry-shaped containers? You’re writing to her young daughter. Customize accordingly.

Tip #3: The gift of gab belongs to those who know how to listen.

You know the people we love talking to? The ones who take a genuine interest in our lives: our hopes, our dreams, our ongoing dilemma of finding shoes we can wear to the office and for a night on the town. So if you’re writing about those shoes? Sure, we want to hear about the revolutionary removable heel, but what we really want to hear is that you understand our need to feel comfortable during the day and stylish at night. In marketing speak, this is known as selling “benefits,” not “features” — the sizzle, not the bacon.

Tip #4: Please. Stop. Talking!

Ugh. We all know those people who go on and on. And we all know what we do when we see them coming: Discretely head in the other direction. In webland, this is akin to those long blocks of copy that say nothing, or say the same thing over and over. Get to the point, already! Shoot for concise, scannable copy.

Here’s a quick guide:

  • Headlines/subheads: 8 words or less
  • Sentences: 12-15 words
  • Paragraphs: 40-70 words
  • Pages: 250-350 words

Oh, and bullets. Readers love bullets. Don’t you?

Tip #5: No one likes it when you talk over her head or down to her.

You know those people who pepper their language with multi-syllabic words to impress you? Does it work? Nope. You feel a) stupid, b) annoyed or c) both. None of which leads to the long and fruitful relationship you’re hoping to build. So strip out the jargon, kill the needlessly long words and talk like a real person, not someone reading from an encyclopedia.

Bonus tip: It’s hard to be taken seriously if you have mustard stains on your shirt.

You may be the smartest person in the world, but if you show up to a job interview in a rumpled suit, you’re not getting asked back. Same goes for your website: It’s got to look professional. According to the Stanford Web Credibility Project, “Typographical errors hurt a site’s credibility more than most people imagine.” If you aren’t a professional proofreader, hire one to go over your site before it goes live. The cost to get your site right is nothing compared to the cost of losing potential customers.

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