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Communications

Who’s asking who when you write questions?

Marketing copy often uses a question in the heading, or challenges the reader to ponder a problem. Obviously, the advert then provides a solution, after having empathised with the reader’s predicament.

We see this sort of set-up so often that it invades our non-marketing communications so frequently as to become a standard, but lazy, approach.

It’s not on.

When we use questions in our writing, we should be aware of who is doing the questioning. Often, we’re putting questions into the ‘voice‘ of the reader – a marketing trick; but that can’t always be appropriate, especially when we’re communicating news.

Writers write, other people have other jobs

Just because the owner of a communication thinks they can write,  because they send 200 emails a day, it doesn’t mean they know anything about English, communication, or how people take in and respond to messages.

What I’m saying is, you’re not a writer unless that’s the focus of what you do, or you’ve got past experience at least. I’m a writer and editor because that’s what I do 6 or 7 days a week*. Directors of companies are not writers; Payroll managers are not writers; Health & Safety Co-ordinators are not writers. PAs are not writers. Yet so many of these people assume they have the required skills by virtue of the fact that they’ve been writing since they were five years old.

Not true; writing is a skill, and communication takes into account a great deal more than just basic grammar and word-play.

*I’m not making any claims as to how good I am!

But I brought you here today to talk about using questions in your writing.

Identity crisis

Here’s a dreadful example, but it’s not obvious to the author why it’s so bad.

What does the CRM tell me?

What is the process for dealing with customer complaints?
How many complaints are escalated each month?

I want to ask you, who do you think is speaking when these three questions are asked?

Let’s pretend that there are two people in this communication loop, the author (communicator) and the reader / audience member (receiver).

The subheading is a question, and it’s a ‘me‘ question, so, although the whole content above this subheading is from the author, and in the author’s voice, this subheading has been written in the reader’s voice. How patronising. How assumptive. How indirect.

The two questions beneath are also in the reader’s voice, and yet the answers that come next are back in the author’s voice.

This the crux of my complaint, these questions are in the reader’s voice for no very good reason, and so the author is implying that s/he knows what the reader cares about, and even what they’re thinking.

The fix

The above snippet should, for example, have been written as so:

What CRM Offers You

How do you currently handle customer complaints? The CRM database provides the specific process in a visual manner, and shows the current status of each issue.
Escalations and graphical data on previous month’s incidents are available to all administrators.

I’ve made the subheading direct and clear, it’s now positive and self-explanatory.

I’ve still used a question! But you can see that it’s a direct question to the reader, from the author, it’s in the author’s voice and says ‘you‘ to put the question to the reader. Such questions are fine if the style fits your communication needs, they don’t patronise, they don’t assume to be the reader.

We don’t need marketing ploys in our direct communication to our constituents; I’m speaking from an Internal Communications point of view especially.

I’m not saying ‘don’t use questions’, I’m saying don’t pretend to be your reader without careful consideration as to why such a confusing ploy is beneficial to the reader and your communication.

Questions can be asked, just do so in your own voice for the sake of your communication’s consistency. You don’t expect tense to change throughout an article, so don’t go changing who’s talking either, without good reason (like if you’re selling snake oil and hair tonic).

[Wedge]

P.S. I wonder what Sonia over at Remarkable Communication thinks of my ‘voice’ concerns?

About Wedge

I’m Wedge, and this is my website! I’ve worked within internal communications since 2004, managing intranets and digital comms. Now I’m a freelance comms and intranet specialist - I help organisations plan and improve their intranets. I work with other agencies, and write a lot of blog and magazine articles. I founded the Intranet Now conference. You can catch up with me on Twitter - I’m @Wedge.