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Don't Write Like You Speak
👉 use this *much* more practical technique
I’m sure you’ve heard the guidance to “write like you speak” many, many times.
I think it’s bad advice.
It’s the kind of tip that gets reproduced by writing coaches and experts in articles, blogs, emails and books without anyone ever thinking “hang on, that’s not actually how I write”.
It’s bad advice from two perspectives.
The obvious one is, well, have you ever listened to yourself talk?
I’m barely coherent at the best of times. I speak in grunts and fragments. I change tack mid-sentence as a new thought hits me. These days I forget to say the last word in a sentence so often that it’s beginning to worry me.
None of that makes for good writing.
Good writing is easy to read. It gets your idea into the brain of your reader with the minimum of fuss.
That’s why spelling and grammar are important. Because they make it easier for readers to understand what you mean without having to waste energy decoding it or stumbling round a badly constructed sentence.
It’s why we edit writing rather than just leaving it as a stream of consciousness.
I’d go so far to say that good writing is a pleasure to read because it has a cadence to it. A beat.
To be fair, what people really mean when they say “write like you speak” is to write informally. To avoid stuffy, highfalutin words and phrases, corporate speak or bureaucratic passivity.
But in reality, how we speak depends on who we’re speaking to.
A university professor will speak in very different ways depending on whether she’s explaining something to her young kids, the students in her classroom, her peers at a conference or a cop who’s pulled her over doing 45 in a 30-mile-a-hour zone.
And that’s the second reason why “write like you speak” is bad advice.
It doesn’t actually help in any practical way. Because we speak in different ways to different people.
Better - though more complicated - advice is to think about who you’re writing to. Get a really clear picture in your head of your ideal reader/client and what they want to know and what they already know.
Then write in the same tone as you might speak to them.
Not the actual words you’d say if you were speaking to them. That would probably be an incoherent mess. But the tone you’d use.
How do you do it? ← by the way, a rhetorical question is something else that works well in writing but would get you carted off screaming if you did it too often when speaking.
Anyway, I digress. How do you get the tone of your writing right?
Just write. Say what you have to say. Don’t worry about writing like you speak or anything clever. But keep that picture of your ideal reader/client burned into your brain as you write and it’ll make sure you’re 100% focused on writing something they’ll “get”.
A quick exercise might help here:
Read a bunch of the emails in your inbox while thinking “what sort of person is this written for?”
You’ll very quickly pick up on who the author had in their head as they wrote the email. They may not have been doing it intentionally, but it’s there.
It seems to me that some authors see their readers like students in a lecture hall as they explain something to them in great detail.
With others it’s more like a friend has just discovered this cool new thing and they’re excited to show it to me.
Sometimes the email feels more like colleagues chatting and joking in a bar.
And sometimes I read emails that make me feel like I’ve accidentally let Ricky Roma into my inbox.
All of these styles are fine, I think. They all work. And they all click with a different sort of person (well, maybe not the Ricky Roma one).
I’ve said before that when I started learning magic decades ago I got annoyed reading Eugene Burger’s books as I just wanted to be told what to do.
Years later they became some of my favourites because I’d developed to the level where I wanted to be credited with some intelligence and have my thinking prodded and challenged to help me come up with my own ideas, not just be spoon-fed. The “tone” of Eugene’s books were perfect for me at that stage.
It’s the same when you’re writing emails.
I’ve been around the block a bit now and I know that my readers - you - usually have been too. I’m not writing to kids fresh out of school or people with limited business experience.
That means I can - and should - give you credit for experience. I should write to you as smart, experienced businesspeople. I just happened to have focused a bit more on emails than anyone with any common sense would :)
To get the tone right for your emails think about who your ideal readers/clients are. Are they just starting out on their journey and would appreciate being “spoon fed” by an expert who’s far ahead of them?
Or maybe they’ve been at it a while and want to hear from someone sharing their journey who’s a couple of steps ahead?
Or maybe you’re actually peers bouncing ideas?
Keep that picture of them burned in your head as you write and you’ll get the tone pretty much right.
PS Whatever tone works best for your readers, there’s plenty of scope in there to be you as well. You can be witty, snarky, serious, evangelical, anything really.
But having that picture in your mind of the person you’re writing to will help you come across in the friendly, casual style that I suspect the “write like you speak” advice intended.
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