Anyone who has been in marketing eventually is advised to “write like an eighth grader.” People who offer this advice may cite legitimate literacy studies showing that the “average American” reads at the level of a seventh- or eighth-grader. If that is true (especially since more than 90 percent of adult Americans 25 years or older have graduated from high school), I’d like to have a word with our education system.
Maybe this is unfair, but when I hear people say, “write like an eighth-grader,” it sounds a lot to me like “dumb it down.” Yes, I fully agree that marketers should express themselves simply and directly. As a consumer or B2B buyer, I wouldn’t have it any other way! Who has time for a lot of smoke and mirrors or hyperbole? We’re all busy and just want to solve our problems or enable opportunities.
Technology can be very difficult to understand, let alone explain—healthcare technology even more so. And don’t get me started about life sciences and advanced medicine. But it’s our job to make sure we’re getting our clients’ messages across in a crowded, noisy market.
Take this blog post. I am not writing this at an eighth-grade level because my target audience is marketers and healthcare professionals, and I’m supremely confident that most of the people in those jobs can handle a flashy four-syllable word or two.
Going back further, I’ve been writing about enterprise technology and healthcare technology for many years. My primary target audience has been CXOs, the people who make buying decisions or can influence buying decisions. CXOs tends to be well-educated and articulate. If they were placed back in middle school today, I’m convinced most would get gold stars for their outstanding reading ability. I believe in you, CXOs!
So while “write like an eighth-grader” is a pithy and memorable phrase that will get you lots of likes and fond references to Strunk and White on LinkedIn, understanding your audience and writing to their level is much better advice. If you do this effectively, you can connect with existing and potential customers on a human level, show you understand their problems and needs, and persuade them that you have the right solution. And that’s how sales are made and brands are built.
Resist SEO tyranny
Speaking of connecting on a human level, digital marketers also are constantly told they must “write for SEO” (search engine optimization)—almost always, incidentally, by SEO experts. (Just sayin’!) This process may require clumsily shoehorning highly rated “keywords” into the first 100 words of your text, writing “compelling” meta descriptions, inserting links in the text (but not too many), and other best practices that can change depending on Google’s latest search engine tweaks.
When I was freelancer, I worked for a content company whose platform literally wouldn’t allow you to submit an article unless it met about a dozen SEO criteria. The pain and shame of mutilating my copy to meet the exacting standards of a string of code in C++ forever will haunt me.
I don’t know much about SEO, but I do know a lot of smart people believe in its ability to help improve Google search rankings and raise a company’s visibility. But I worry that an excessive emphasis on SEO eventually can be counterproductive because the writer ends up writing to an algorithm. Not only does that feel restrictive, but you run the risk of sounding like everyone else writing SEO-driven copy.
SEO is a tool. “Write like an eighth-grader” is a concept. Don’t let either get in the way of you communicating on a human level with your target audience. Yes, you should be concise and direct, but there’s nothing wrong with showing a little personality or using humor when appropriate. These techniques might not register with an algorithm, but they will help your company or client connect with plenty of people on a human level. And that’s worth a lot.
This article originally appeared on the Amendola Communications blog; reprinted with permission.