Choosing the right words in communication for your particular audience is so important. Getting word usage correct can help companies create content that stands out and has a chance to perform.
We discussed word usage specifically on two episodes of The Business Storytelling Show. One was with Rob Reinalda, who wrote: “Why editors drink.” The other was with Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty. She addresses word usage often on her podcast and in her grammar book.
Choosing the right words in communication comes back to the appropriate word usage. So let’s dive into that a bit more.
What is word usage?
The term word usage refers to the practice of using the best possible words for a specific situation, channel story, etc. That includes using the most descriptive word that people relate to, putting the words in the best possible order, and using the right amount of words.
Word usage might also include how content is displayed. For example, we do know that most people skim online content. So long paragraphs shouldn’t be used. But the following should:
- Bulleted lists
- Sub headlines
- Bolded words
- Active words
- Correct usage
- Other content that breaks up text – like relevant podcasts. That makes it easier to skim the words for the reader.
Choosing the right words in communication
Indeed, it’s important to follow correct and currently accepted grammar rules. But, to some people’s disdain, grammar rules can evolve. And some so-called rules aren’t rules at all.
For example, starting a sentence with “and” isn’t allowed. Or ending a sentence with a preposition. Grammarly, which I use to grade my copy, flags this all the time, but not as a genuine mistake. Instead, Grammarly says, “some readers may object to this.” Well, somebody not liking it is very different from it being wrong. Either way, using words in the best possible way also keeps the audience in mind. So we likely shouldn’t do it if a specific usage turns them off.
Rob of Word Czar Media explained that using the best words comes back to focusing and knowing your message.
- What am I trying to say?
- Who is my audience?
- What am I saying that’s different from others?
- Are there specific channels that are better for this message? (Should it be a blog article, podcast, Slack update, etc.)
He calls it the “economy of language.” Use the right words, but don’t use more words than you have to.
“Using 18 words to say what could be said in seven words, they are just wasting the reader’s time,” he said.
In this book, he extensively discusses the topics of redundancy and bloating in writing. Some content creators feel the need to produce, produce, produce. I do, too, to an extent. After all, content that isn’t made can’t perform. And then, we have the whole debate of how longer content potentially performs better than shorter content. Some people take that to mean that content needs to be longer, even when they don’t have that much to say about the topic.
Nouns over verbs
Jonah Berger, in “Magic Words,” explained that using nouns drives more action than using verbs. For example, saying “please be my helper” is more persuasive than saying “please help me.”
Rob mentioned that staffing – especially in newspapers – has been an issue in editing and writing. Some stories were edited two to three times when I worked as a journalist. With fewer editors doing more work, that’s not likely to happen.
We’ve seen the same in corporate content, as discussed in my strategic writing article. Many content creators don’t even have anyone reading or reviewing their content before it publishes.
On the flip side, sometimes, way more people are involved than used to be the case. I used the example of sports broadcasters. Back when I was growing up, there was a handful of them. They were widely known, and there was a certain level of quality to them. Today, there are way more sports broadcasters with the explosion of regional sports networks and other sports channels in recent years.
That doesn’t mean regional sports broadcasters can’t be good. For example, YES Network’s Michael Kay is one of the best to listen to for baseball games. Sam Rosen of MSG is similar when it comes to hockey games. But, the point remains that more sports channels mean we need more sports broadcasters. And 20 or 30 years ago, some of those with jobs today wouldn’t have gotten jobs then.
That doesn’t mean more broadcasters have to be worse, but there’s the potential. Then, of course, we can all bring up our game!
The process of choosing the right words in communication
That brings me to process, and we may even call it culture. Some misuse of words does come back to culture and processes. For example, if the process dictates that a gazillion people have to edit and approve content before it sees the light of day, that could present a problem.
We don’t want some of those involved to edit, especially the subject matter experts. In actuality, we want them to review the content for factual mistakes. Does what we created make sense as it relates to your subject matter area? We shouldn’t be asking them to line edit. An editor should be doing that.
When it comes to putting content and people through approval hell – especially when it doesn’t make the content better – that process can also insert mistakes.
I like to follow a process like this:
- First, start with the strategy: What are we doing and why?
- Determine the workflow and the roles.
- Understand the personas
- An outline is next
- Start production. However, that may look. I’m currently a fan of interviewing experts on a live-streamed podcast and then producing written content from that interview.
- Use the right technology
- Review process
Use Trello templates or a similar project management tool to have the process outlined. I especially love template cards because they allow me to check things off as I’m doing them. I sometimes add tasks that take seconds but that I’m prone to forget about. For example, updating the feature image on a blog post.
To keep learning and trying different content assets is another way to get word usage right. Listen to podcasts on content strategy, marketing, and grammar – like the Grammar Girl podcast. Read books on the topic. Read books and other related content to see what works for other writers.
The words we choose matter. They can help us connect with our audience, be clear and be respectful of their time. That’s why we should spend the energy on making it a success.