7 tricks for writing internal copy they’ll actually read

Find people-focused stories. Remember Mr. Spock. Imagine you’re paying for all those words. The result will be writing that your audience loves.

How to write more interesting internal copy

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

When you write for an internal audience, think of yourself as reaching out to a network that extends far beyond your initial readers, says writer Sharon Hurley Hall.

In “Employees: The most important audience you’ll ever write for,” says Hurley Hall, who mentors writers on her Get Paid to Write Online blog, lays out tips for communicating internally.

“Your internal audience is only the first stage of your company’s communication,” she says, “because the people that you’re communicating with internally may also be transmitting some of that communication to external audiences and stakeholders.”

This includes executives talking to industry leaders, staffers talking to contractors, and salespeople reaching out to prospects.

Here a few of Hurley Hall’s best suggestions for writing for your audience, internally and externally:

1. Consult the organizational chart.

Especially in a large company or nonprofit, it’s easy to lose sight of how varied one’s audiences are. Use an organizational chart to survey your employees, and think about all the people in your company that might read your communication.

Then think beyond them. LinkedIn can give you a glimpse of contacts, showing you how wide your reach potentially is.

Any piece of information has different implications for each audience.

  • Strategic: Your executives are probably thinking about the greater strategic imperatives of your information.
  • Your employees probably want to know what it means for their day-to-day work.
  • Tactical: This includes people who are putting a program together and who might want to tweak it to ensure it goes well, based on your information.

2. Survey your flock.

One company, Hurley Hall says, used to host competitions on Facebooks. These weren’t achieving the desired results, so it sent out a simple survey. This revealed that its customers tended not to be on Facebook and weren’t interested in competitions. Rather, what they wanted were discount coupons.

“The easiest way to find out what your audience needs is to ask them,” Hurley Hall says.

3. Capture stories.

This doesn’t take much. All it requires is a set of ears—i.e., be alert when people share their experiences—and a notebook or dictation device, such as a digital recorder or smartphone. Techniques like these help NASA and the World Bank tell their stories internally.

4. Write in inverted pyramid.

“The inverted pyramid is your best friend for telling any story,” Hurley Hall says. Citing the “Star Trek” character Mr. Spock, who is quick to shoot holes in any illogical argument, she says form of writing puts logic first.

“If you work out the logic, you won’t have to deal with Spock syndrome or a confused audience,” she says.

The brilliant thing about the journalistic structure is that you work from top down, starting with the most important idea. Furthermore, it helps you group ideas logically, because you apply the inverted pyramid not only to the entire story, but to each paragraph.

“Within each paragraph and each section, the most important information comes first,” she says, “so even people who are skimming the content or only barely listening will still get the basic information that you need them to have.”

5. Imagine you have to pay for each word.

To come up with your main idea, consider a metaphor from the telegraph age. “Imagine you have to send a telegram and you have to pay $1 for every word you send,” Hurley Hall says. “What’s the least amount of words you can convey your big idea in?”

If you prefer a social media metaphor, imagine you have to send a tweet in 100 characters or fewer. If you can’t identify your big idea in a message that short, then there’s no way that your audience will understand what you’re telling them, she says.

6. Steal attention-grabbing techniques from reporters.

Everything from a car crash to a committee meeting involves people. Stress the human element of your story first.

  • Does your communication discuss a decision debate, make a prediction about your industry or suggest a new policy? All these can be sources of controversy.
  • “Is your company dominating the market?” Hurley Hall says. “Are you battling for market share with a key competitor, and winning?”
  • Suppose your company has done research that reveals surprising facts about how many men dye their hair. Surprises grab people’s attention.
  • Show how your product can help regarding issues that concern people.

Remember, you are not guaranteed a careful read just because people work for your company.

“You’re telling that story to market it to your internal audience,” Hurley Hall says.

7. Keep It Simple, Sweetheart.

Bear in mind the acronym KISS, or Keep It Simple, Sweetheart, she says. Standards differ for British and American audiences. With British readers, you can write meandering sentences and polysyllabic words. American (or online) audiences demand short sentences that get to the point quickly.

Also, avoid passive voice. If you can insert “by zombies” after a sentence, it’s passive.

Passive: He was invited by zombies to her party.

Active: Zombies invited him to her party.

Passive: It was determined by zombies that the report was inconclusive.

Active: Zombies determined that the report was inconclusive.

Adds Hurley Hall, “I’d like to urge you to get rid of the ghouls in your communication.”

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