What’s the most important thing you could ever own? The most valuable? Most meaningful? Most useful in the day-to-day and in the moments that matter most? How do you make others pay attention?
I’d say: Your voice.
Words have power. A lot of power.
Just think how much they can change everything:
He’s not going to make it.
It’s a girl.
I love you.
Through words, we share ideas, information and memories. Words can work to calm a child (I use them and a little “magic dust” every night to keep the “monsters” away!) or put the world collectively on edge.
Words have long been our most powerful tool, and yet they are so often underutilized—perhaps not even considered.
You don’t have to feel like a “writer” to use language as a tool. You already write every day. You are a writer because you write.
It’s when we add a little intention that our communication becomes effective, informative and persuasive—and leaves no room for misunderstanding. With that in mind, here’s five simple tricks to make your writing more magnetic:
1. Clarify your message.
You need to know why you’re saying what you’re saying before you shape your message. What’s your end goal? Or what’s the problem you’re offering an answer to? What does your audience currently believe? What’s the true solution, the how?
The key to this is to know your AIM—Who is your Audience? What is your Intent? What is your Message?
In whatever you’re communicating, before you begin, determine your AIM—your audience, intent and message (as coined by Mary Munter and Lynn Russel, Guide to Presentations).
When you know the goal of the communication, the “so what,” you’ll be able to write with clarity and save yourself a lot of trouble editing.
Can you boil your AIM down to one sentence—like a roadmap for your communication? When you first sit down to write the email or before you head into the meeting, jot this sentence down and start here: I am speaking/writing to [Audience] and I want them to know [Message] in order to [Intent].
Then keep your communication in line with that AIM.
2. Communicate to one.
As you set your AIM (see above), follow the “one idea” rule.
In essence, every piece of communication should express only one central idea. It’s up to you to narrow it down. Then include evidence that supports the point you want to make. Address counterpoints to your argument, if needed, but only include what’s relevant. Anything else only distracts from your message.
At the same time, imagine you are communicating to just one person.
Don’t write to everyone who may be reading your email, write to the one person who opened your email and is reading it solo on his or her screen. We often think we’re talking to the masses but forget much of our communication today is experienced individually.
It can help to write your first draft directly to one specific person (ie. Dear, Lindsey…).
3. Default to story.
You’ve probably heard about the importance of using story to share your ideas. Do you know why?
Have you ever opened Instagram, for example, seen someone recounting an experience and thought, how cool, let’s do that too? That’s story.
In her book, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, Lisa Cron explains how the regions of the brain that process the sights, sounds, tastes and movement of real life are activated when we’re engrossed in a compelling narrative. When a story enthralls us, we become pulled inside of it. We feel what the protagonist feels and experience it as if it were happening to us.
That’s Narrative Transportation.
Jennifer Aaker, professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, says that people remember information when it is weaved into narratives up to 22 times more than facts alone.
Where to start?
Use “The Story Spine” formula created by professional playwright and improviser Kenn Adams:
Once upon a time there was [blank]. Every day, [blank]. One day [blank]. Because of that, [blank]. Until finally [bank].
On the Creative Confidence Podcast, for example, guest Caricia Catalani shared her story about why she does the work that she does using the formula. Listen to the interview here and see my paraphrased breakdown of Caricia’s use of The Story Spine formula:
Once upon a time there was …
“I grew up in rural Oregon…we have an incredible array of fruit trees.”
“I used to climb fruit trees every day in the summer. My hands would be stained sticky, cherry red.”
One day …
“One summer, it was a particularly cold summer. The ripest cherries were at the top of the tree and I couldn’t reach them. So my mom climbed up to the top of the tree and I watched her slip and fall from the top of the tree. She fell like a rock. I can remember the sound of her hitting the ground, this thud and crackle. That thud and crackle changed my life.”
Because of that …
“She had a profound back injury. Her doctor prescribed her pain pills. Year after year she needed more and more pain pills to manage and cope with the pain. She became more and more dependent on opioids to manage her daily life.
Until finally …
“In 2010, she died of an opioid overdose. She wasn’t, in my book, an addict or a user; to me, she was just my mom. Since then about 600,000 others have died of opioid overdoses. A million people today struggle with addiction.
So I went to work for Pear Therapeutics, focusing on addiction medicine because the U.S. has 14,000 recovery centers in the whole country and it’s just not enough for this problem. So we launch and design products that are digital tools that can be more accessible to people and that are effective clinically…and are shame-free. We’re part of a movement that anyone can join to fight shame and build support for people looking for hope. That’s my story of why I made this transition in my work.”
As you shape your story, refer to your AIM. Keep that clear purpose in mind and continually ask yourself: Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? What greater purpose does this serve? What does it teach?
As acclaimed Pixar director Pete Docter said: “What you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to write about an event in your life that made you feel some particular way. And what you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to get the audience to have that same feeling.”
That’s what they’ll remember.
4. Use power words.
Instead of using one of those boring words we see all the time—awesome, huge, best—look for words that can pique someone’s curiosity and evoke emotion and action. Instead of a word that has lost its impact, meaning the audience will glaze right over them, look for a word that will grab and keep their attention.
For example, instead of “hard,” you might say: grueling, demanding or grisly.
Instead of “great”: fail-proof, transformational, invaluable, astonishing or remarkable.
First, write a draft of what you want to communicate—get the words down on the page. Then go back through it and look at everything, from readability to grammar, and as you do, highlight any potentially boring word. Try to spiff up at least a few of them. Sometimes a better word will just come to you. More likely, you’ll want to use a free tool like Word Hippo to discover alternatives.
5. Cut a third.
As Strunk and White said, “Use definite, specific, concrete language. Omit needless words.” In essence, make every word count. Select your details with care.
Watch this 4-minute TED appearance by Mark Bezos, a volunteer firefighter. This is a great example of how to close with care, but here I want to focus on how selective Bezos is in the details he shared and the ones he left out.
In his 4-minute story, we know the homeowner at the fire scene was outside, under an umbrella and barefoot. We don’t know the street name or style of the home on fire. We don’t know her name. We don’t know how many other firefighters were there or how they went about putting out the fire.
We have just what we need for the story’s point to be made. It’s a great example of what renowned writer Anne Lamott calls the “one-inch frame.” Rather than trying to capture everything, she only aims to write down as much as she can see as if she were looking through a one-inch picture frame, which feels so much more manageable than describing everything you see.
When we offer too many details, the reader can get lost or bored. When we don’t provide enough details, the reader can also get lost in a lack of context and connection.
To help you do this: A good rule of thumb is to finish your first draft, find the total word count and go back and cut out a third of them. It’ll force you to be more concise, select your details and stick to your AIM, which will result in more concise and clear communication.
Bonus: Avoid very.
You’re not alone—when you want something to sound extra good (or bad), you tack on “very.” The problem is very is a qualifier…ie. filler. And try as you might to intensify your message with it, very doesn’t add anything to your writing. Instead, it weakens your writing.
Basically, it’s lazy.
Instead, use the tips above to replace very ___ with a more powerful word.
So “very serious” becomes solemn. Or “very beautiful,” exquisite. Or “very neat,” immaculate. Or “very painful,” excruciating.
Or as Mark Twain famously instructed: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
If we haven’t had the chance to *virtually* meet yet, hi! I’m Christin—professional editor and content strategist (aka word wingwoman) here to simplify content for creatives. If you want to show up consistently online, this NEW 5-day email series will show you how to plan your content for next quarter (and feel less overwhelmed doing it). It’s 100% free—you’ll be making better content (with less actual content) in no time! Get on the list for CONTENT CAMP.