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

By July 15, 2013June 29th, 2015Writing & Content Marketing
Why You Need To Write For Your Audience, Not The Grammar Police

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?

Join the discussion 15 Comments

  • Hi Scott,
    I couldn’t agree with you more! I follow a good many blogs and find that the ones where the writer seems to “speak” naturally are much more entertaining and interesting than the ones that sound like an essay. Thanks for sharing!

    • Scott_McKelvey says:

      Hi George – A blog that sounds too stiff almost automatically sounds like a sales pitch, doesn’t it? Either that or it sounds like a text book. Neither is very appealing to me! Thanks – Scott

  • Lynn Serafinn says:

    Nice one, Scott. I do think blogging is an art unto itself, and something the is a hybrid between good conversation and good essay writing. Happy to share this post. Actually, I’m writing a book on successful blogging that will come out later this year. Perhaps, with your permission, I could include this article in the section on personal writing style (with a link back to the original, of course). Drop me a line via Twitter if that’s of interest to you. . Thanks!

    • Scott_McKelvey says:

      Hi Lynn – I agree that it is definitely an art to be able to sound natural without sounding unprofessional, which is why you can make such powerful connections when you find that balance. I’ll be in touch about your book! Thanks- Scott

  • Alex Masica says:

    Thanks for writing this, Scott. Having grown up devouring the grammar laws of the English language during high school and college, I often find it hard to step back and look at reality and write the way people speak versus making sure everything follows every grammar rule. But in reality, the most successful bloggers and content marketers know that it’s more important to connect with your audience on their level. I’ll definitely be sharing this.

    • Scott_McKelvey says:

      Hi Alex – I was the same way. My first writing job was as a journalist, so I had to follow AP Style. Then I transitioned to radio, which turned everything upside down but taught me valuable lessons that have served me well. You’re absolutely right – making the connection supersedes everything. Thanks – Scott

  • twigpe says:

    I began learning Oral & Written Communication from my parents & grandmother, as a child, and it has continued for over 70 years. I probably discovered the “mute” button, listening to one of Scott’s commercials and still do not accept “black-english” as legitimente.

  • Andi-Roo says:

    My better posts are always the ones I read aloud to my hubz, as (a) they flow much more naturally, and (b) I catch errors I missed in my silent reading.

    For the most part, I agree with the point you’re trying to make here. I think it can’t be said enough, though, that it’s important to KNOW the rules before one goes around breaking them. I’ve passed over many blogs I can’t stomach because of poor writing.

    I don’t mind so-called “errors” which reflect an author’s style {or voice}. My own bloggy-blog is an example of material riddled with goofs. But the majority are done on purpose. I am, generally speaking, well aware of the “mistakes” I make. Because, as you said, blogs in particular should come across conversational in tone.

    But really… there is never an excuse for a misplaced apostrophe or a lack thereof. These are the kind of mistakes I cannot abide on the regular. I’m sure I’ve committed this sin in my own writing, but I sure as heck don’t do it on purpose, and I’m always grateful {and embarrassed} if it gets pointed out. I ain’t perfect, by far… but I do try and offer the perfect combination of silly and serious.

    Knowing the rules helps in knowing when it’s best to follow versus break ’em.

    • Scott_McKelvey says:

      Hi Andi – Definitely a valid point. Like I said, it’s one thing to use a little creative license. It’s quite another to butcher the English language out of ignorance. The former helps you sound natural, while the latter makes you look stupid 🙂

  • Roger Percival says:

    Great post. Thank you. Must agree with you, better to talk to customers as customers and not automatons.

    • Scott_McKelvey says:

      Thanks, Roger – Your readers are real people, regardless of occupation, income or education level. Speak to them like you’re a real person, too!

  • Steph says:

    I don’t agree with hiding behind a blog to make excuses for grammatical ignorance. Sounding natural is one thing… sounding like you don’t know when to use I or me, or how to conjugate verbs is another thing. Just because you’re writing a blog is no excuse for laziness… which is what a lot of grammatical ignorance is.

    If you write for consumers you owe them the courtesy of learning how to write.

    • Scott_McKelvey says:

      Hi Steph,

      I’m not sure how you can hide behind a blog if you attach your name to it, but I think we pretty much agree. For the most part, poor grammar annoys the hell out of me. I just think we need to sound natural, like you said.

      To pull a quote from this post: “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 would add one word to the end of your last sentence: “If you write for consumers you owe them the courtesy of learning how to write naturally.”


  • Sylviane Nuccio says:

    Great point Scott,

    I’m glad to see that you’re saying something that I mentioned in my upcoming free writing tutorial 🙂

    For blogs, I think that short sentences are perfect and I use this all the time. Indeed, not necessarily something that our grammar teacher would encourage according the grammar law 🙂 but great for bloggers or any online writing platform.

    Happy New Years!

    • Scott_McKelvey says:

      Hi Sylviane – We do tend to think alike, don’t we? 🙂 Well, if the grammar police enforced the rules, I would have been in jail a long time ago. Happy New Year!