Dunce cap photo illustrating a post on The Word Factory blog

Nobody likes to feel stupid. And nobody likes to be around people who make them feel that way. Yet so many brands talk down to us. Even if we know we're not stupid, we end up with bad feelings about a brand whose marketers thought that tone was appropriate.

As content creators, we're most likely to do this when the subject matter is super-technical or super-serious. And making sure people understand the stakes is critically important in this kind of writing. But just like yelling at someone who may not understand your native tongue doesn't make them more likely to comprehend what you're saying, using a tone that says, "I'm not sure you understand what's at stake here" doesn't make people pay more attention. In fact, if often has the opposite effect. We think, "Of course I know that" and either stop reading altogether or harbor bad feelings about your brand. Neither, of course, is what needs to happen.

Writing to make people feel smart and capable is the key to keeping them engaged and getting them through the content that's crucial. It's an empathic act that makes us all feel more confident and that makes us more loyal. Who doesn't like hanging around people who make them feel great?

As Wharton prof Adam Grant wrote in a terrific article on vulnerability last year:

Good communicators make themselves look smart.

Great communicators make their audiences feel smart.

Sometimes, we get hung up with the content itself -- the ideas and details we decide to communicate. If they are too below or too above where our audience is, we can be perceived as talking down or talking over the audience's head. But more frequently, what I see causing the biggest problem is the voice or tone.

How to Make Your Audience Feel Smart

Voice and tone feel amorphous sometimes. Like good design, which many people can only "know" when they see it, the right voice is often not known till heard.

But it doesn't have to be that vague (or frustrating). Voice is actually pretty simple, driven by two key elements of our writing:

  1. Word Choice
  2. Sentence Fluency

Word choice is the easiest to master. Knowing our audience well enables us know pretty much where they are in terms of background knowledge and context. When we pay attention to that, we have a better barometer for what's too high or too low. For highly complex topics, plain language explanations go a long way to defining complicated processes and topics without "dumbing it down". This is also easy to suss out with A/B testing. Take a deeper dive into word choice.

Sentence fluency is the way we line up the words and sentences that tell the story and convey the information. Lots of long sentences (like in a lot of highly technical or legal content) is hard enough to get through that even good readers may start feeling intimidated. When we add in words that are too high -- and don't even bother to explain them plainly -- the impact is even worse. Learn more about how to create a rhythmic flow in your writing.

Similarly, a lot of short sentences sends a subtle signal that we might not think you can understand this. And a lot of short sentences in a row is tedious as Hell. Add words that are too simplistic and we lose the audience because they figure they can manage this on their own.

The best way to make people feel smart is to combine words that are at or just above their comfort level and to put them in sentences of various lengths so the rhythm literally propels them through the piece.

When we make progress and build understanding, we feel not just smart, but like learners.

Let's think about that for a minute. Almost every one of us recalls a favorite teacher who imparted some kind of learning on us. Decades later, we look upon them fondly. Those teachers who made us feel stupid? Our bad feelings about them persist just as long. We like feeling smart about what we know and feeling smarter after learning new things.

5 Actionable Insights to Connect with Your Audience

  1. Before you start any piece of content, take what you know about your audience and develop a persona for you, the writer. Describe a person your audience members would want to hear from on this topic. Jot down those criteria. Then think about how that person would sound (i.e., knowledgable, helpful, compassionate). What words do you think this person would use to talk about this topic? What words would you audience would use? Write them all down. This is your guide.
  2. Draft your content without thinking too much about word choice or sentence fluency -- just get the ideas out of your head and into a format you can work with. Do a quick revision to clean up errors and make the piece better.
  3. Now look specifically at word choice. Do you see opportunities to change words up or down to meet your audience? Do you need to describe some complex terms or processes? Have you used language that's too simple?
  4. Read over the piece again with your eye on sentence length and patterns within each paragraph, section and the entire piece. Is there a pleasing rhythm? Can some long sentences be broken up or punctuated more clearly? Can some short sentences be combined? Make those fixes, then read the piece out loud. Chances are good you'll find more places to create better fluency, including moving some stuff around.
  5. Finally, review what you know about your audience and your writer's persona. Read the fully revised piece aloud again to make sure it meets both sets of criteria. Keep turning the dials on your words and paragraphs until you get the right sound for your audience.

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