As writers, we dance a tango with the reader’s attention and interest.
A couple weeks ago I wrote about connecting with the reader’s curiosity (What makes you curious?) But once you have someone’s interest, you must maintain it. This is where your writing chops make a difference.
Nothing kills the reader’s curiosity as quickly as a stodgy, pedantic style.
Nonfiction writers don’t always have the benefit of an ongoing story to keep readers hooked. Mastering an engaging tone and style is critical.
Conversation Without Physical Presence
As writers, we’re not there in person to see if the reader is getting bored. We cannot use gestures, facial expressions, or vocal inflection to make the material more interesting. All we have at our disposal is the words on paper (or on the screen.)
But words are powerful.
A lively or interesting style is one of the nonfiction writer’s most powerful assets. Your challenge: Make the written tone and style match the spoken tone of voice you would like to convey.
I’m a fan of using a conversational voice in business writing, because conversation is a natural human skill. To achieve a conversational tone and style, write as you might speak, then edit it to represent the best version of yourself.
In general, the conversational tone and style is direct. Sentences are relatively short. Don’t use words that are difficult to pronounce, as they may be difficult to read as well. To double-check your work, try reading it out loud. If you stumble, then the reader might as well.
Being conversational is only half the battle. We have all experienced boring conversations. Your writing must do more.
Humanity, Humility, and Humor
I recommend that you enliven your tone and style by scattering in the three H’s of writing style: humanity, humility, and humor.
Humanity: Bots may be writing text, but readers are always human. Even when writing about abstract topics (unemployment, technology, policy), remember that they involve real people.
You might address the reader directly (like I just did), or bring yourself into the text (as I just did again!) Tell a short personal story appropriate, but always remember that you are there to serve the reader’s interests and needs, not your own.
Humility: Nonfiction authors in particular must balance demonstrating authority and connecting with readers. Humility is the key. No one wants to have a conversation with a condescending bore. Even when explaining, never make the reader feel stupid.
The audience may not know what you know, but that shouldn’t diminish your respect for them. You are there to serve the reader, not to earn their admiration.
Humor is the third, most difficult part of the tone and style equation to master. Tread lightly – aim for a smile rather than a guffaw. Business writers can find inspiration in Kathy Klotz Guest’s entertaining book Stop Boring Me!
Humor doesn’t always translate well across cultural boundaries, so use it with care. Gentle, self-deprecating humor is generally safest – you won’t offend anyone by poking fun at yourself. But don’t undercut your authority in the process.
The three H’s are like seasonings in a dish– too much of one or the other can overpower the key ingredient (the subject you’re writing about). Sprinkle them lightly to liven up your writing.