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Words Matter, Like, Kind of a Lot
Posted on February 11th 2014
Why is that a terrible title? Obviously, it's totally unprofessional. We all know not to swear in a job interview ("my last boss was a ?$@*!"), respond with slang to our grandparents' jokes ("LOL, Nana!"), or use business-related terms in describing our weekends with friends ("I'm not sure how much ROI I'll get on those skis, but it was good to get some face-time with the strategic partners in recreation at least once this quarter.") This is instinctive for most of us; we know that there's a time and a place for specific types of language. Otherwise, at best, we confuse our audience, and at worst, we offend it.
This is true -- but less universally understood -- online. Today, I'd like to go through some basic guidelines for using words on your web site. Even the most graphical web sites have words on them -- so if you have a web site, this is for you.
If you look at the menu bars for most web sites, you'll see that the names of major web site sections are usually one to three words long. That's partially an issue of page real estate -- they take up less space -- but also one attached to today's main theme: our short attention span. We will spend fewer than 10 seconds scanning your home page to decide where we want to click next. Therefore, if you are a book publisher:
is far better than
Think in terms of the minimum number of words you can get away with using and still impart the meaning you intend. If you sell books online and offline, you might need to specify "for sale online." If not -- does "Buy Books" say what you need to say?
People expect to read online in chunks of text far smaller than they'll read anywhere else. A page of long paragraphs is likely to scare them away entirely. Forget everything your high school English teacher said about concepts living in one paragraph -- you may now break them up.
You can even pull out one sentence, if you like, to add emphasis.
PR folks spend lots of time thinking about the psychology of paragraph length. Generally, it's recommended to keep your online paragraphs to one or two sentences, and your informational pages such that your reader only needs to touch their scrollbar once. Exceptions are blog posts, for which most people will scroll just a little more. Right? You're still with me, after all.
Do you know who is coming to your web site? You can read hundreds of articles about how important it is to know your audience, but once you know who they are, be sure to use the words they know. If your site is largely for an audience of your peers, then by all means, talk in jargon. If your site is designed to attract people who don't know how to do what you do, then your jargon will only scare them away.
Let's try this both ways. First, jargon:
I bring to the table a business model based on actionable solutions. With my help, you'll be on the road to operationalizing next steps, giving you traction so that you can create value today. My work is instantiated by years of high-level experience in mission-critical positions at world class organizations.
What? Yeah, I'm not sure of what I just said, either. What I think I meant is:
I can help your business grow and make more money. By the end of our first meeting, we'll have defined immediate steps you can take today! I've been working with fantastic organizations like yours for years -- and I've had some great success.
So much better.
Read It Aloud
It's an old writing trick, but a good one. Especially online, people are looking for a conversational tone. If you can't feel the emphasis where you want it, or if something sounds awkward aloud, it will be just as vague and awkward to your online readers. Sometimes, you'll hear something that surprises you -- and not in a good way, like this book I found recently at a used book sale. Go ahead: read the title aloud. Hungry?
What were they thinking?!
Know When to Stop
This is the hardest part: you can't write everything you are thinking on your web site. No one will read it, you'll waste your time, and you might overwhelm them into browsing away elsewhere. My advice: quit while you're ahead!