Engaging your audience one word at a time

Words are like clothes. If we choose wisely we look clever and stylish. A bad choice can make us look like a dolt.

A cat is fighting a dog.
There is an altercation between a feline and a canine.
A hound and a kitty are brawling.
There is a melee involving a mutt and a mouser.

Words are more than labels that show meaning. They carry with them a sound, a history, connections to other words and to particular people. They have baggage. These things make an altercation between a feline and a canine sound pompous while a hound and a kitty are brawling may sound a little stagey or glib.

Simple words are more engaging [pic credit]

Number 1 is the simplest way of expressing the idea (at least it uses the least space) yet most writers prefer one of the others because the first sounds too simple. It sounds like it came from a children’s book.

The writer tends to deal with words a sentence at a time whereas the reader sees the thing in the round. What seems clever to the writer starts to become cloying and difficult for the reader when they face it sentence after sentence.

The general rule, therefore, is to use the simplest words as much as you can.

However, sometimes the more complicated words convey subtle shades of meaning. Sometimes they create an effect in our writing that is pleasing, or draws attention to a point we wish to make. Sometimes our choice of words creates a rhythm which makes our writing flow.

The general rule to keep things simple still applies. Because a clever sentence that sets sail on a turbulent sea of cleverness will quickly be lost (frankly, most readers will stay at home if the sea looks too rough). A clever sentence dropped into the calm waters of simplicity really makes a splash.

Use only a few words longer than 6 letters — no more than 4 in a sentence and never more than 2 together in a clump. Use words with an anglo-saxon rather than French or Latin root. Use words that sound crisp and hard. Avoid words with prefixes or suffixes.

A clever sentence dropped into the calm waters of simplicity really makes a splash

These are all textbook ways to make your writing simpler and more efficient. They also make it more engaging*.

Tea has traditionally been an issue for airlines, since it normally has less flavour during flight due to a combination of factors, such as reduced air pressure and humidity.

This is an example where picking simpler words would also make the writing more engaging (also a shorter, simpler sentence structure would help — more on that in future episodes). None of the words is particularly complex but we have 9 with more than 6 letters. The smart writer would take this as a warning.

Tea has always been an issue for airlines because it tastes bad due to low pressure and humidity.

The number of long words is down to 4, but the sentence still seems to lack something. Try this instead:

Passengers hate most airline tea because it is tasteless.

This works better because it fits the story-telling format we talked about in a previous episode. But the words are more engaging too. Readers respond to the verb hate, for instance, whereas they are likely to switch off to the phrase has been an issue.

Using simpler language is only part of the battle. We should be constantly thinking about using words that will elicit a response from our readers. Words that will make our writing engaging.

As well as picking short anglo-saxon words without prefixes or suffixes, the trick is to being engaging is to find words that:
  • Have a specific meaning (house rather than accommodation)
  • That the reader learnt at a young age (dog rather than canine)
  • Are easy to visualise (jump rather than ascend)
  • Relate to physical objects and real events (plan rather than strategise, poor rather than recession)
  • Create or describe an emotional response (hate rather than have an issue)

Exercise: see if you can find more engaging ways of expressing the following:

  1. Consumer familiarity with new interface technologies.
  2. Traditional bricks and mortar operating channels suffered an extensive decline in sales after the earthquake.
  3. They established a transactional facility on the Swedish site.
  4. It is influenced by the increasing participation rate of women in the labour force.
  5. The prevalence of blanket promotions has diluted their ability to differentiate a venue (refers to restaurants).
  6. The key demographic of sites such as Instagram is predominantly younger than those of the more text based social media.
How I would rewrite the exercise examples.

* Engaging is a poor word choice 

Different people take it to mean different things. Some are dubious about its meaning at all. Yet I have used it in the headline to this piece because I face a dilemma which many writers face — it has become a label to which people respond whether they understand its meaning or not. Yes, one thinks, “engaging the audience,” that sounds like something I should be doing.

Here are some of the things engaging could mean:

Engaging = interesting, involving
Engaging = joining in battle
Engaging = responding to or sharing a piece of writing
Engaging = the meshing of gears or starting a mechanical device

The variety of possible meanings makes it a dangerous word for a writer. But the cross-over in meanings has given it a certain power that makes it attractive. Yes engaging writing could just be the same as interesting writing. But that fact that mechanical gears also engage means it carries a metaphorical undertone. Engaging writing is more than just interesting — it causes the cogs in our readers’ brains to start whirring.

In the online world, the word engagement goes one step further. Now battle is the metaphor. The reader is taking sides, and sharing or commenting on a piece of writing. We have to recognise that some give engagement this precise meaning but it is only a way of measuring how interesting (engaging) the reader found the piece.

Take care where words become labels without clear meaning (jargon, some might call it). If you can avoid jargon your writing will flow better and it will be easier to understand. But if you need to use it, make sure you have explained the context.