“We want you to buy our product or use our service.”
That’s the primary motivation of most business writing, right? It’s an easy assumption to make, but what if we’re wrong? What if the motivation isn’t quite so mercenary? What if the motivation of a business writer leans more towards helping people instead of prompting them to hit the “Buy Now” button? Then the question becomes why don’t readers see the real motivation more clearly? What’s happening that the reader’s assumption defaults to the mercenary instead of the helpful?
I believe it’s something simple: We never bothered to figured out what motivates our writing in the first place.
When we’re unclear about what motivates our writing (other than the obvious of checking something off the list) it’s easy for readers to misinterpret our intent. If given no guidance from the writer, then of course they’ll default to, “You want to sell me something.” Clearly some projects will be motivated by selling, but what about when it’s not? What if you’re trying to strike that balance between being helpful and being mercenary?
From books to ads, writing absorbs and reflects the world around us. George Orwell rightly noted that a writer will be influenced “by the age he lives in…he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.” Take a look around and you’ll see how our age has influenced what today’s writers produce. With short attention spans and evermore information available, it becomes that much more important for business writers to get really clear about their motivations for readers.
We (the general public) don’t trust companies. While some companies warrant this suspicion, others obviously don’t. So if you’re a writer facing these obstacles—time, information overload, trust—how can you counter these biases to accomplish something more than putting words on page?
1. Play the long game.
It’s rare that one or two attempts will be enough to communicate the true motivation of why you’re reaching out to people. The initial assumption is that you want something. It will take time to build trust and familiarize people with the difference between when you’re trying to sell them something and when you’re trying to share something useful.
2. If you don’t care about what you write, it’s difficult for the reader to care.
Ever had your business writing described as dry, boring or politically correct? You’re not alone. It’s easy to default to traditional business speak, but it’s possible to avoid if you take the time to find the most relevant entry point to connect the reader and the business. If you’re writing crap because you don’t care about what you’re writing, please explain to me why you think anyone will read past the first sentence. It sounds trite, but figure out a reason to care.
3. Write about why you’re writing.
Humans excel at making assumptions. So it’s no surprise that the humans in business assume that people just know why they’re doing what they’re doing. While it doesn’t have to be anything dramatic, like a manifesto shouted from the rooftops, put into words why you’re writing. It can become a reference point for writer, business, and reader alike. It provides an invaluable baseline to help you accomplish both #1 and #2 and provides a way to measure if you’re meeting reader expectations.
For decades, we’ve defaulted to the notion that business writing was motivated by making more money. It’s still a valid motivation, but it’s not the only one. Business writers and the businesses themselves must highlight the other motivations that exist and make the case that not all business writing is about sales, but also about being incredibly helpful sources of information.
Photo credit: tamahaji