Necessity is the mother of invention. We’ve all experienced times in our lives when we accomplished something phenomenal because there was no choice. In my life, one of these times was writing for audiences I didn’t know.
…with a deadline of one hour from now.
…on a computer that wasn’t working right.
…during my sleepiest time of day (3:00 p.m.).
When I started writing one of these assignments, I was sure I would not be able to do it. How was I supposed to learn the voice of a new audience in such a short time and write something that would connect with them and inspire them to action–namely, buying more widgets? Ridiculous!
Then, in a split second, my life flashed before my eyes. If I didn’t get this writing done, the boss would like that other writer better and I wouldn’t get invited to happy hour. I would lose my job to a smarter, cleverer writer and end up living on the street.
When I began thinking like that, I would just get mad and buckle down and figure out how to do it. And I usually ended up doing a pretty good job. I hadn’t known I had it in me, but there it was. Proof that I was not an idiot or a fake.
As a result of this particular writing trial by fire (over and over and over and over), I inadvertently gained skills I didn’t know I needed. I began to relax into the role. I learned how to quickly adapt to any voice, any subject, any industry or product. I once wrote a speech for a famous actress who spoke at a Mutual of Omaha incentive conference that she said sounded more like her than her.
Now, it’s practically all I do. I’m a uniquely adaptive freelancer often called in to write during marketing emergencies (maternity leaves, new product ramp-ups, complicated topics, boring jobs no one wants).
It was years before I thought of this kind of writing as a skill, but now I realize it most definitely is, and any marketing writer can learn to do it. It takes some practice. And you need to know you probably won’t be as good at it as I am unless you practice for a couple of decades. (I wouldn’t want you to have a reason not to call me!)
But you can definitely learn to do it. Here are the basics:
Marketing Writing: Shortcuts to Audience Voice
Read the stuff they read
In about two seconds, using Google or another reputable search engine (let’s at least give the others a chance), you can find associations, trade publications and white papers related to your audience based in their industry, profession or other formal definition of who they are and where they hang out.
These sources are likely to be right on message, because they’ve already done the hard work: years (or decades) of studying the technical language and voice of this unique group and writing for them. Look for clues to attitude, approach, perspective, thought processes, personality, issues, and types of topics. Also look for specific word choices and categories of word choices. In these immersed publications, you can get an instant feel for their world, some of which you’ll absorb through intuition. Once you understand it even on the most basic level, it is almost automatically going to come through in your writing. If you really put effort into it and imagine yourself in their shoes, you’ll come even closer to sounding like you know what you are talking about.
Work with a subject matter expert (SME)
Especially with technical subjects, accurate knowledge and lingo associated with a specific industry is difficult to pick up in an hour. But if you work with someone who knows that world inside and out, you can pick their brain and pretend it’s yours for the sake of the writing. You can ask them to write a first draft about the topic and then polish it Up. Or YOU can write a first draft, and then ask them to correct it. When I do this, I often use the next technique…
Make things up and use them as placeholders
If I understand the basics of a topic, I often just want to get the logical flow of ideas onto the paper before I lose my mental grasp on the writing. So, I use placeholders—sometimes pretty crazy ones—to take the place of an idea I know is there, but I don’t know exactly how to say it. Then, later, I do the research to get it right or have my SME fill in the blanks.
Example: Let’s say I’m writing about the due diligence process required before a company can report unclaimed property. I know companies must publish property owner names and other information before they can report the property, but I don’t exactly know where they need to publish it. Before going back to my source to research, I simply want to get the framework of the discussion in place in my draft. So, I might write, “As a part of unclaimed property due diligence, in most jurisdictions, holders must publish owner names and last known addresses in at least 50 million issues of the Book of the Dead.” Later, when I or my client are editing the article, the crazy placeholders make it obvious we need to do the research and correct the facts.
Sometimes I make a guess and include facts in the writing that I believe might be real. Many times, I’m actually right! But, if I make a realistic guess and it’s not right, I realize it could go unnoticed and then a mistake would be published, embarrassing me, my boss and my client. So, when I do this, I mark the passage and make sure my client knows I guessed—and I ask them to take responsibility for the correctness of all facts in the piece.
Other tricks I use to quickly get into the heads of an audience I don’t know:
- Go where they are physically or online, observe what they do and just listen to them talk.
- Find a person in the audience and in the space of 15 to 20 minutes ask that person a million questions about what’s important to them, what makes them tick and how they spend their time.
- Attend tradeshows and conferences and observe everything from age, style of dress, job and demeanor to which sessions are most popular, what people are complaining about and how cliques are formed.
- Watch a video of a well-known person in the field. Pay attention to and take notes about attitude, voice inflection, speed of talk, grammatical construction, buzz words, technical words.
- Take a tour of a factory, office or store in the industry. Write down words, issues, concerns, categories, equipment specs, jokes, employee profiles, history, tools, problems, victories, part names, hated rivals, secret tricks of the trade, clever sayings, weird looking machines, coincidences, and … you get the idea.
I want to say something about the frame of mind you should have when you do this type of writing. As writers, we often put boundaries around our thinking to help us begin forming the structure of a blog, article or website. But this absorption skill requires the opposite: releasing boundaries, opening up to the world you are absorbing and letting things flow in. Put your intuition into overdrive and embrace the world you are trying to learn and write for. Don’t become critical of that world. Pretend you are a dynamic, committed, enthusiastic part of it, and then listen to what you are feeling, seeing and learning. And take lots of notes.
Next time you are assigned to write a piece for an audience you don’t know, don’t panic. Don’t start checking out street corners and alleyways that would make good open-air recrooms. Just dig in and become a detective. Let necessity beat you into a better writer.