It has been awhile since many of us have spent time in an English, grammar, or rhetoric class. Yet, in business good, clear, easily understandable writing and speaking is a must for any executive. Also consider that the average audience will only retain about 15% of what they hear during a presentation. Depending on how content is presented in writing, our understanding and retention vary. The sad truth is, audiences today are so inundated with information, that often times their retention is “0%” because we hit delete before we even give the content a chance. So, as a leader who wants to get a message across, how do we draw on some writing tips to boost readership and retention? Here are some of our thoughts on that subject:
Use active voice. This means subject + verb + object construct, so it’s simple for the brain to read and hear. Ask yourself, is the subject in the sentence performing the action? Then you likely have a solid active voice sentence. Example: Today I changed a flat tire. vs. passive voice: The flat tire was changed by me.
Speak in the positive vs. negative tense. For example, “We collaborate for better results” is better than “We don’t work in silos to achieve better results.” Tell the audience what you want to achieve, do, or experience.
Use concrete words and examples. In other words, avoid vagueness. For example, this is a vague sentence: “Innovation is key to success in our future.” A better sentence is: “We need to develop 2-3 new biologics in 2020 to build our innovation pipeline and meet our 2021 goal.”
Be brief. Our brain has a limit to what it can hear, interpret and retain. Create 2-3 short, easy-to-understand sentences versus writing one, long one! Also be cognizant of word count and cut unnecessary words. Lose adjectives that are adding color or context that we don’t need.
Pick your structure and stick to it. Beginning, middle, end? Problem-solution? Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em, tell ‘em what you told ‘em. Structure aids retention.
Use alliteration, the repetition of initial consonant sounds. Our brains like the consistent ring! Note: Just because the consonant is the same, doesn’t mean it sounds the same, so make sure the sounds align. Happy and holistic are alliterated. Happy and honest are not.
Tell stories to make your points. Our brains love stories and we remember more through storytelling. Also use storytelling techniques, like allusion, metaphors and similes because they all add color and context.
For speechwriting, write like you talk. For example, use contractions (I’m) instead of I am. Prompt deliberate pauses. Don’t use big words you wouldn’t normally use but, if you do, make sure you know the definition and all cultural translations. Ask questions to regain audience attention and use repetition. A well-written speech sometimes reads a little clunky. So it’s important to read your speech aloud so you can hear voice in it. If writing for someone else, your voice shouldn’t come through. Learn to write in their voice by listening closely to their style, word choice, pauses, and any stories or people they often quote.
Always, always, always re-read your drafts. Check for grammar, sentence structure, story clarity, and voice. Also be sure to ask yourself if what you have written will achieve whatever outcome you identified.