The Written Word vs The Spoken Word
If you’re reading this, then you need to communicate something to somebody, or, most likely, a group or groups of people. Maybe you have a product to sell, or a service to provide, a report you need read and understood by multiple stakeholders, or an article for publication in a journal.
Whatever the case and your particular circumstance, the key to communicating successfully is engagement.
The ability to effectively engage with our chosen audience is something we should all be striving to master, and accomplishing that will inevitably bring greater success in any endeavour.
Why is it so important to “engage”?
Not all communication is engaging, and if it’s not, your audience are more likely to switch off.
You may be a business reaching out to customers or clients; a state body or non-government organisation disseminating a report to multiple stakeholders; or an academic seeking to publish an article describing your latest research.
Connecting with your audience, engaging them, and involving them in your work, will pay dividends no matter where you’re coming from or what field you’re working in.
As a business you will generate and sustain interest in your products and services, which will inevitably convert into a solid increase in sales. As an organisation, you will enable a greater proportion of your relevant stakeholders to grasp the key points in your report, increasing uptake and action taken on foot of your recommendations. As an academic, readership and appreciation of your article will increase, potentially leading to new, improved connections and lines of research.
OK then – so how do we engage with our audience?
The Spoken Word
In any of the roles outlined above, that engagement can and may take place face to face: in a video call, on the shop floor, during a consultation, in a meeting, at a conference. With our voice we can bestow power upon words and affect the way they are interpreted through emphasis, inflection, emotion, the way they are delivered. They will be accompanied by our body language and facial expressions; a shrug, a smile, a frown, shared laughter. For most of us, communicating face to face is a more immediate and natural way of engaging with others, and many of you readers will be very skilled in this regard, much more so than this writer. When the opportunity arises, there is no better tool.
However, increasingly, particularly in this digital age, engagement with others, socially and professionally, is taking place at an equal or greater level via the internet and the written word; social media, websites, reports, and publications.
The way we communicate in person, using our spoken voice, is very different to the way we communicate via solely the words on a page or screen.
The Written Word
Delivering a message effectively in writing, using only the words themselves, is a different skill. In the absence of the ability to bring those words to life with our voices and our bodies, they must, by themselves, without any of the very subtle inflections the human voice can imbue them with, do the job equally well.
Because it is, in fact, most often through a website that your first contact with customers or clients will occur, as a business. As an organisation, reports are necessary, though nonetheless invaluable, ways of getting information to a multitude of different actors who need it. In the academic sphere, journals are the backbone of a worldwide network linking academics and their research to each other, fuelling further research that spans countries and disciplines.
It’s not easy to ignore a person in a face to face encounter; there are all sorts of societal norms and prescribed behaviours pressuring us not to do so. But when reading at our leisure, we can easily scroll quickly through a web page, report, or article, or stop reading altogether and turn to something else.
In a purely written context, it becomes vitally important that we choose the right words, and put them together in the best way we can, to not only communicate the relevant information, but connect with and engage our audience.
OK – but how??
While a certain skill with writing helps, it is equally important that we, as the writer and communicator in this context, understand the audience we are writing directly to.
Who are our audience, really? What do they want, or need? What will they most appreciate? Are they attracted to a good deal, or the best quality, or something a bit different? What approach is most appropriate? Would a bit of humour or self-deprecation go down well, or would they prefer gravity? What type of language will they appreciate or best understand? Straight talking or flowery? Simple or technical?
These are some of the many questions that we need to ask and find the answers to in order to better understand our audience. If we know our business, we should have some understanding of who our clients or customers are; likewise, as an organisation, we should know who our stakeholders are.
Once that is clear in our minds, we can take any information that we want to communicate, and frame it in a way that we think will best resonate with them – our unique audience.
Putting individual words together to work well in a sentence, building those sentences into a paragraph, weaving those paragraphs into a narrative that, taken as a whole, becomes meaningful and relevant to the reader, is the task we must take on and conquer to engage, and keep, our audience.
On a personal note…
I have transcribed many of my own interviews, carried out in the course of research I have been lucky enough to be a part of, as well as those conducted by others, and one thing that strikes me immediately on proofing a transcript is that it never reflects, in its directly transcribed form, the actual feeling of a conversation. The transcript can’t convey the way a sentence was said, whether it was with gravitas or humour, in urgency or hesitancy, or with a hint of sadness, or regret, or hope. They are words, undoctored, on the page.
The relevance of this observation to this post, is that it highlights quite starkly the difference between the way we use words in speech and the way we might express things on the page. Neither translates well across mediums. Communication in writing will unlikely be in sentences that we would naturally find ourselves vocalising in conversation, but, on the page, silent, they take on their own power and meaning.
I would like to think that you, reader, have reached the end of this post without scrolling or skimming (too much). The reality is, we can’t captivate everyone. But, hopefully, by considering our audience, choosing our words carefully, and crafting them into a beautiful and interesting whole, we can capture the attention of enough to make a difference.