12 Most Self-Destructive Ways to Break the Spell in Your Marketing Writing
John Irving once told a group of aspiring writers about a time he was on an airplane and saw a woman across the aisle raptly reading his novel, The World According to Garp. “Suddenly she slammed the book closed with a disgusted look on her face and shoved it into the air sickness bag in the seat pocket in front of her,” I recall him saying. “I slouched in my seat and tried to hide my face. I’m not sure exactly which passage did that to her, but somehow, I had broken the spell.”
When someone is visiting your website or reading an email you’ve sent to your list, the last thing you want to do in your writing is break their spell. Instead of slamming a paperback shut, the broken spell would get them clicking out of your site or deleting your email message. You want them to keep reading, enthralled with the mental images of hope, possession, entertainment or knowledge you are placing in their head, culminating in a phone call, a signup to your list or a paid order.
Here are 12 kinds of flubs that can dislodge customers and business contacts from their reading trance. Avoid them.
1. First person unidentified
When an email, blog or website uses “I” yet never says who is writing, readers start hunting for the identity and disengage when they don’t find it. The use of “I” always requires an individual’s name — and a full name at that. The company identity doesn’t help, because organizations do not have experiences, beliefs and so on. Avoid using just your first name with customers, which confuses them because you’re not their friend.
2. First person intrusions
Equally disconcerting to readers is a page that is written in third person (he/she/it/they) or second person (you), but has a stray opinion from an “I.” The effect is like watching a conventional play on stage, relaxed and engrossed, only to have an actor look at the audience, change his voice and say he never liked that last line. Be consistent in how you write.
If the place name is Northampton and you write North Hampton, a reader who knows the place can’t help but notice and think, “Whoever wrote this is either an outsider or an idiot.” The spell is gone. I remember once reading a story set in Boston that referred to “Marlboro Street.” Having lived in that neighborhood, I realized the author didn’t know how deeply ingrained old-style spellings like “Marlborough Street” are in New England. “Maybe she hadn’t even ever been there,” I thought. Reader disturbance occurs for less-charged typos as well, such as “wook” for “wood” or “desh” for “desk.” Proofreading keeps people absorbing your message, rather than wondering about you.
4. Misused words
Likewise, if you are discussing something familiar to the reader and insert a wrong word, it’s jarring to them. If accounting is Greek to you and you write “bottom line” where you should have said “cash flow,” the mistake registers instantaneously with people from the world of business numbers. In my weekly newsletter, I once used the word “inertia,” meaning that something in motion would lose energy and gradually stop. Close to a dozen scientifically attuned customers took the time to let me know I should have written “entropy.” Use the dictionary to keep readers in their trance.
5. SEO-driven wording
Readers have an instinctive feel for the difference between native human speech and something produced by a computerized translation program or someone who doesn’t have their language down yet. When you’re trying too hard to insert keyword phrases into web copy where they wouldn’t naturally belong, or wouldn’t normally be repeated, your sentences take on a robotic quality that perturbs readers. For instance: “Hardwood floors increase the value of your home. Imagine the pleasure of you and your guests when you install hardwood floors. Nothing adds a warm, homey feeling to a room like hardwood floors.” Even the most slimy salesperson wouldn’t talk or write like that.
6. See-how-smart-I-am language
In my first draft of this piece, I wrote “Even the most unctuous salesperson…” above. Even though “unctuous” is a deliciously vivid word, I changed it to “slimy,” because words that many people encounter only when studying for college entrance exams tend to stop them. As Elmore Leonard put it, “I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ‘she asseverated,’ and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.” Avoid words like “Machiavellian,” “peremptory,” “punctilious” or “moribund” in promotional writing.
When the desire to buy is rising up in readers’ minds, the thought, “How much?” often accompanies it. Your price must be located where readers’ eyes or mouse scrolls look for it, or frustration breaks the spell. In a long sales page or sales email, readers look for the price toward the end. Don’t make people click to a second page to learn the price. It takes them out of their daze, changing their mode of awareness, so that you risk losing them altogether.
8. Belaboring the point
Attention is precious. When readers are cruising along in what you wrote and you force them to stay in one thought too long, they flee. That’s why learning to edit yourself pays off. When you look through what you wrote and see that you just keep insisting on something or make the same point three times, find the strongest phrasing and delete the rest.
9. Gratuitous, damaging asides
Self-disclosure has its place, but avoid dropping in personal information that readers may judge you on just because you thought of it while you were writing. Let’s say you’re making a point about lawyers. You don’t have to mention that you were visiting Fink, Frome & Fisher for advice on your second bankruptcy. I’ve seen marketers unnecessarily bring up lying, cheating, deviant behavior and suicide attempts that they didn’t realize might be showstoppers for some customers and prospects.
“At GoneKwik®, we specialize in ridding your home of mice, roaches and other Cursed Critters™. With our limited-time $79 Kwikety Split Special®, the Cursed Critters™ are GoneForGud™ and GoneKwik®. Call GoneKwik® today!” Notice anything distracting there? Apple has more than 250 trademarks and the best intellectual property attorneys money can buy, and they don’t clutter up their website promotions with trademark signs.
11. Stories left hanging
I learned this principle years ago from a magazine editor who was telling me what needed to be fixed in an article I’d submitted about intuition. “You quote somebody jogging through Central Park who had a feeling that danger lurked around the bend. And then you just go on to your next point. But the readers are still with that jogger, hoping she was okay. What happened?” Unless you are deliberately trying to create suspense, close out your anecdotes. Don’t leave readers wondering about the outcome of an anecdote.
12. A list that gets lost
When you say there are four keys to success in scrapbooking, the reader expects four easy-to-spot points. If you write “first,” “second,” and then make the reader hunt for the third and fourth keys, you’ve broken the spell. It’s just as bad to announce four keys and then actually present either three or five.
Still not convinced these sorts of intrusions, omissions and mistakes truly do make a difference in knocking readers and shoppers out of sync with you? In Wellesley, Massachusetts, a man wearing aviator sunglasses handed bank teller Janee Gay Berdan a scribbled note that read, “Give me your 10s and 20s and no die pack.” It didn’t register on Berdan that he was trying to hold up the bank, because the misspelling of “die pack” instead of “dye pack” captured and held her attention. Annoyed instead of fearful, she reread the note, then crumpled it up and told the guy, “I’m not giving you any money. Now get the hell out of here.” He fled the bank.
Featured image courtesy of Julian Povey licensed via Creative Commons.