Why You Need To Write For Your Audience, Not The Grammar Police

Why You Need To Write For Your Audience, Not The Grammar Police
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The great David Ogilvy once said:

“I don’t know the rules of grammar… If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular.”

As brilliant as that statement is, I think this shorter nugget from Mr. Ogilvy makes the point just as powerfully:

“Write the way you talk. Naturally.”

I wrote radio commercials for 13 years. Radio provided me with a great content writing foundation for three reasons.

  • It taught me how to be clear and concise. I had to make my point in 60, 30, 15 or 10 seconds.
  • It taught me how to connect with an audience on an emotional level.
  • It taught me how to write the way people talk, not necessarily the way I learned in language class.

Whenever I wrote a radio commercial script, I would read it out loud. Every time. Yes, I had to time the script, but I also wanted it to sound like what someone might say in an actual conversation.

If any line in the script didn’t sound natural, I rewrote it.

Today, I take the same approach when I’m writing a blog, website content, Facebook post or any other kind of content. Even a press release. I still read everything out loud.

If content doesn’t have a natural, conversational tone, it doesn’t sound human. It loses some of its authenticity. And it sounds awkward.

People can relate to content that’s written naturally because it sounds like you’re having a one-on-one conversation with them. That’s how they communicate every day.

Enter the grammar police. They would say this post, if we’re going by the letter of the law, is loaded with grammatical incorrectness. A train wreck.

They’re probably right. And I don’t care.

Now don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean I think it’s okay to butcher the English language. There’s a difference between sounding natural and making mistakes because you don’t understand things like punctuation or subject-verb agreement.

I also think certain types of content, like a blog post, allow you to take more liberties than other content, like a feature article or a brochure.

What I’m saying, for example, is that it’s okay to break up one long sentence into three shorter sentences, even if one or two of those shorter sentences don’t use proper sentence structure. Scroll up to find a few examples of this.

People take breaths in natural conversations. Using a period (or a hyphen or a dot-dot-dot) is a great way to allow readers to breathe and absorb what they just read – even if it makes the grammar police twitch.

The phrase “in which” immediately comes to mind when I think of language that’s grammatically correct but rarely heard in actual conversation.

“This is the town in which I grew up” or “This is the town where I grew up” – which is it?

According to the grammar police, “in which” is more formal and correct. So use it next time you write a term paper. “Where” sounds more natural.

Some people say a more sophisticated audience requires a more professional, buttoned up approach to content writing. I agree with that position to a degree because, like the title of this post says, you need to write for your audience.

But you can sound professional, smart and authoritative while using a very conversational, relatable writing style, regardless of the subject matter or how hoity-toity you think your audience is. Just remember, those so-called sophisticated readers are real people.

The way you communicate shouldn’t be dictated by a journalism stylebook or your eighth-grade English textbook. And you shouldn’t rewrite your content because your word processing program puts a red or green squiggly line underneath a few words or lines.

Your content should be dictated by your audience – the people who you want to like, share and remember your content. The people who you’re trying to convince to do business with you.

You don’t have to break the rules of grammar, but don’t be afraid to break them if it will make your content sound more natural.

How many grammatical errors can you find in this post? If these errors were corrected, would this post be easier or more difficult to read?

Scott McKelvey
Scott helps business owners enhance their brand, build relationships and increase revenue by developing marketing messages that focus on the needs of their clients. Scott writes content for all things marketing, from websites and blogs to web videos and brochures. As Creative Director for New Jersey’s largest radio stations and TargetSpot, the nation’s largest internet radio advertising network, Scott has helped local, regional and national brands maximize ROI by combining powerful messaging with strategic geographic and demographic targeting. Scott's philosophy is simple: Show your target audience how your product can solve a real problem or fill a real need in their lives and you'll build a base of loyal customers. Visit Scott's site for more about his writing philosophy and experience.
Scott McKelvey
Scott McKelvey