In the hundreds of hours I’ve devoted to waiting on hold for people, I’ve listened to many messages that are nothing short of torturous. I’m not talking about reminders that I’m being kept on hold because my business is incredibly important – the problem usually shows up in the sales messages that pop up every twenty seconds or so.
Now, you probably think I’m going to condemn people for capturing the opportunity to sell to a captive audience. Not at all. I think on-hold messaging is an admirable way to turn an often-unavoidable inconvenience into a marketing opportunity.
But few of those messages are as effective as they could be, and the reason is usually very simple: the people who write them are writing for the wrong medium.
It isn’t that they don’t know how to write; in fact, many of the messages are very well-written. But they’re written to be read, rather than read aloud. People who are accustomed to writing for the eye often don’t realize that writing for the ear demands an entirely different approach.
Confused? Pay attention to the commercials you hear when you’re listening to the radio. You’ll notice that some capture your full attention and do a great job of delivering their messages, while others only manage to frustrate your brain. The frustrating ones force you to work harder at listening, and even with that stronger focus, it isn’t easy to grasp what’s being delivered.
The spots that are easy to follow are those that have been written by people who understand how we humans hear and listen. The others are most likely adaptations of copy that had been written for print advertising, brochures, or press releases. They may have worked well for the eyes, but didn’t survive the translation to the ears.
So does writing for the ears take some mysterious skills known only to a few gurus? Not at all. By remembering – and practicing – a few simple guidelines, you’ll make your on-hold messages, sales presentations, and other spoken communication far more compelling and effective.
Write to one person. Even if you envision an audience of thousands, choose one person and write to him (or her). If you find that difficult, imagine that your mother is going to be listening, and write your copy to her. When you write with a single listener in mind, your copy will be more personal and engaging.
Write about that person. Too many companies talk only about themselves in messages. Yes, you’re probably selling something, but it will be far more interesting to the listener if your message focuses on his or her world. Instead of saying “we make great veeblefetzers,” let the listener know that “you’ll save time and money with our veeblefetzers.”
Don’t sweat the grammar. You’re not writing term papers, and your sophomore English teacher won’t be peering over your shoulder. The more conversational your copy, the easier it will be for the listener to retain your message. It’s okay to use contractions. Fragments, too.
Stick to short words. In print, you can linger over words with multiple syllables until you determine their meaning. You don’t have that luxury with the spoken word. Shorter words are also usually more well-known, so they tend to be more communicative.
Short sentences, too. Again, when you read, you can take the time to comprehend a complex sentence structure. When you’re listening, you can’t go back to re-hear the first part of a sentence. Four short sentences will usually convey a lot more than two long ones.
Keep numbers simple. Since your listener can’t see numbers, there’s no point to getting detailed. Instead of “we stock 39,832 widgets,” try “we have nearly 40 thousand widgets in stock.”
Suppress sibilance. Put too many words with “s” or “sh” sounds in your copy, and listeners may think they’re hearing from a snake. Professional announcers can usually control sibilance, but it can trip up ordinary speakers, so try to avoid too much of it.
Read it aloud. If you choose to ignore all the other recommendations, don’t skip this one. By reading your copy out loud, you’ll be able to tell whether it will be friendly to the listeners’ ears. If you find yourself running out of breath in mid-sentence, or stumbling over the words you’ve chosen, rewrite it. After all, if you already know what it says and are having trouble saying it, how will it sound to someone hearing it for the first time?