How Not to Sound Condescending in Educational Articles, Get the Message Across, and Make Writing More Powerful

I ran into these two tweets the other day:

I was immediately like:

OMG this guy is totally right! Do my articles come off as condescending and as patronizing like that too? Gosh I hope not. How do I make sure I don’t patronize my readers and still get my message across?

As someone who writes educational content for a living or, to be honest - who only recently started to write for a living - not being able to teach people important stuff is kind of a biggie. I will be honest with you: my biggest fear is being ignored. People who feel like I’m patronizing them would surely ignore me.

This is not about me being afraid to offend people. I’m sure I’m perfectly capable of offending some people just by being who I am. I’m an atheist gay-friendly vegan pirate. There, I just made half of the world’s population raise their eyebrows at me. She’s what?!? Really, I don’t care about that.

I’m also not concerned with constructive criticism. I welcome it, although it’s not always easy to hear the truth. But learning from other people’s mistakes is so much sweeter than learning from my own. That’s why I decided that those two tweets would teach me something. I pretended they were constructive criticism directed at me personally, kept it in my RAM for a few days and then forgot about it.

But not for long. Today I was writing a new article for my newsletter about the business of web development about making a web agency irreplaceable. (Want to read about that? Subscribe to Simpfinity newsletter and the pigeons will instantly email you a link to the archive, where all the published articles are kept.)

Lessons from a complete stranger on Twitter resurfaced as soon as I felt that I was telling people that they were making a mistake, doing something wrong or didn’t know something.

I stopped writing, confused and irritated.

From what I know from other writers, I can’t teach people if I don’t make the content about them personally. People need to identify with my writing and find a piece of themselves in what I wrote. Since most of my writing is about making web development businesses more profitable and more organized by avoiding the mistakes I made, I mostly write about that - mistakes.

I didn’t know how to resolve this conflict. My assumption is that others make the same mistakes as I do and that writing about how I solved my problems would help people.

Well, it does. But when a reader receives the first newsletter edition from an unknown person and this person goes on to tell him everything that could be wrong with him and his business, he doesn’t feel like continuing to read any more. That’s what Paul from Twitter must have felt when he received the first email from that email lead service.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ― Maya Angelou, quote on Goodreads

It’s hard to forget about that first impression.

Words Are Incredibly Powerful. I Changed Just One Thing in my Writing and It Made The Whole Difference

It’s amazing how experiences and stuff that we read daily influence our behavior and our thoughts. Two weeks before running into the two tweets from Paul, I bought this book Write Harder by another complete stranger Uri Bram. In his book he was talking about how the way writers address readers completely changes how readers feel about what is being discussed.

Hmm. Pronouns.

Can it be that simple?

It turns out it can. Compare these two sentences:

You were wrong.

I was wrong.

The first sentence is a kick in the face. The reader’s face. Nobody likes to be punched in the face. If I tell my reader that she is wrong, her guard is instantly up and I can’t reach her. A person having a bad day could be, like, who the hell is she to tell me I’m wrong. She doesn’t even know me. Unsubscribe!

The second sentence is part of a story. Humans can’t resist stories. We’re like cats going nuts for laser pointers. If I tell you what happened to me, you’d be all like, Hmm, I wonder what happens next. Tell me more. After all, it’s not like these mistakes are mine. I know what she’s talking about because I’ve been there too. I wonder how she resolved her issue. This could turn out helpful for me. Where do I subscribe?

And there it was, my solution to not patronizing my readers and still being able to teach them stuff:

  1. Every time I talk about the negative stuff, such as mistakes, how painful or wrong or bad something is, I write in the first person - either as I or as we, and I always define who that we is. I make the bad stuff happen to me in my stories. Sometimes I use an undefined neutral third person, them. I’m making a neutral third person feel bad about what is happening. That way I don’t patronize the reader and I don’t make her feel bad.
  2. Every time I talk about the positive stuff, such as benefits, expected results, how things will turn out, praises, I write to you - the second person. I make all the good stuff in my writing happen to you. You will get good results. You will avoid problems. You will get better clients. You will earn more. You will be happier in your professional life. You don’t have to feel any pain.

What I Just Told You Goes Against Everything They’ve Taught Me About Sales

If you’re in sales, you probably know about the pain vs. gain paradigm. People respond more to experiences of avoiding pain than they respond to promises of gaining pleasure. That’s what copywriting for sales and business is sometimes all about: stabbing people in the back as deep and as hard as possible, twisting the knife some more so that people really feel the pain, and then dangling a solution in front of them so that people would buy the solution.

That’s how humans work. That’s why sales is focused on eliciting pain in 75% of the cases. People just don’t change until it hurts real bad. And let’s not blame sales as a profession or sales geeks for how the world works because most sales geeks are honest and good people. If there is something to ‘blame’, it’s human nature.

Now, as a sales geek, I don’t trust anyone who claims that influence is of no interest to them. I do want to motivate and influence my readers and I’d be a liar if I claimed otherwise.

The thing is: I want my influence to feel good to you.

I respect you. I know you are an intelligent human being who did not get an Internet connection to be scolded by a virtual avatar (because that’s what we are to each other online: a bunch of talking heads on a computer network).

Out of respect for you and all my readers, I will assume that you can put two and two together and connect what I write and how I write with your experience, in such a way that can help you if and when you need help.

I’ll be like those dots that Steve Jobs was talking about:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” - Steve Jobs, quote on Goodreads

So here I am, throwing my dots of wisdom your way, hoping you would make a meaningful connection between them when the time is right for you. I will do my absolute best not to insult your intelligence or belittle you.

Here is an example from my latest newsletter where I paid special attention to how I’m addressing readers:

“But I’m not good enough / I’m too small to offer all those services. There’s this agency X who is ten times my size and they do everything better than I could possibly offer.”

I have that voice in my head too. That agency X has it too. The Oatmeal guy - who, like, draws the funniest and the most creative comic in the world - has it too.

This is how I approach this issue: there will always be companies and people doing a better job than me. Even if I was Seth Godin or Jony Ive, there are still people on the planet who do a better job than those two freaks (and when I say freaks, I mean that in the most respectful way).

But my clients haven’t hired those other agencies and quite frankly, what makes me think my clients would prefer them over me, them over you? They already chose you. They like you. They like that they can afford you, a talented geek that you are. Your skills and experience are several orders of magnitude more advanced than anything your clients are capable of imagining, producing and delivering. Not only do the clients lack the time to work on their online businesses, they even lack the drive and the passion to become great Internet marketers. That passion is what clients admire in us web geeks. That passion is for sale and you can make good money cashing in on that passion.

First I start with a quote from an unidentified person. I could have written the quote as a question like this:

Do you feel like you are not good enough or too small to offer all those services?

Readers feel the change in their emotions almost instantly. The word you in that sentence is directed at the reader in an attempt to connect with her on an emotional level. It works splendidly - if I wanted the reader to feel bad about herself. Most writers do this to their readers unconsciously, unknowingly, or at least with good intentions to lead their readers to a satisfying solution.

In the next paragraph I carefully steer all the negative feelings to me, the first person:

I have that voice in my head too. There will always be companies and people doing a better job than me.

And then, when there is time to talk about the positive stuff, I want to gradually turn the focus to you, the reader:

…what makes me think my clients would prefer them over me, them over you? They already chose you. They like you. Your skills and experience are several orders of magnitude more advanced than anything your clients are capable of imagining, producing and delivering.

Notice how me steps down to give way to you? This needs to happen because all the good and the positive and the hopeful I want to talk about is never about me. It’s always about you. If I don’t find a way to reach you, I can never help you, and that way I can never help myself. It’s just like Zig Ziglar said:

“You can have everything in life that you want if you just give enough other people what they want.” ― Zig Ziglar

I have no idea where all these quotes are coming from today. It must be all those dots.

By associating only positive feelings with the word you in my writing, I am hoping to touch that part inside you that wants to receive guidance, but is too busy or too afraid to ask for it. I give you the dots. You remember the dots. The dots will connect in your future, when you will need them the most. I am certain of that. That’s how I connected the dots from Paul from Twitter and from Uri who wrote that book about pronouns in writing. That’s influence at its best.

The Power of Stories

My focus on making you feel good about what you read from me comes with an unexpected reward, both for you and for me. The story is the reward.

When I write about me, my writing will feel to you as a story. Whatever I write will be more interesting to you and you will stick around for more because you’re obviously getting value from me. That’s a plus for you.

What I get is increased influence on my readers. Stories are contagious. Any message that I want to get across to my readers will stick longer and harder to their inner walls. A well-told story bypasses all human shields and puts all doubts on pause. My job as a writer is to get the right message across, a message that helps you get what you want.

By writing so, you and me both win.

P.S.

Notice how pronouns are used in this article. Not one of them is a coincidence.

Discuss this article with me on Google+.

Creative Commons Image Credit: you me

B2B Website Content Writing Guide by Visnja Zeljeznjak, logit.net

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