Your Customers Are Smart. Here’s How to Avoid Talking Down to Them
The Three Cs of Copywriting: Clarity, Concision, and Creativity.
One of the first ‘best practices’ tidbits you learn when you get into copywriting is that clarity is key. Concision is a close second, since you only have so much time before a bored reader will tune out. And creativity is way at the top as well. Your copy doesn’t have to be great literature, but you want to hook your readers and get them emotionally invested in what you have to say.
The clarity part is very well-intentioned, and generally accurate, but can sometimes contribute to writing in over-simplified terms that makes important groups of readers feel talked-down to, which is a big swing-and-a-miss. In the copywriting world, you’ll repeatedly see the statistic that the average American adult is capable of reading only at a seventh or eighth grade level, and the advice that all copywriting should write for that level of literacy.
What this common recommendation neglects is that businesses are rarely writing detailed copy for just the general adult population across a nation of more than 250 million people. Usually, a good marketing plan will have a much more specific demographic in mind when creating copy. So, if you’ve gotten a good creative brief on your latest writing assignment, you should have some knowledge of your intended reader’s gender, income, and—most importantly—level of education, which should give you an idea of the customer’s reading level.
Your Customers Are Smart: Keep Copy Targeted to Their Intelligence
If you’re writing for a highly educated or well-to-do audience, you’re going to lose them immediately if they sense you’re talking down to them. Educated people value and are proud of their intellect, so you’ll catch more flies, so to speak, with a strategy that appeals to their intelligence.
Avoid: Explaining very basic concepts to a knowledgeable crowd.
Do this instead: When writing to readers who already know the field/industry, assume they have a basic knowledge and get right to the more complicated stuff.
Avoid: Repeating or restating concepts you’ve already covered once.
Do this instead: Be clear enough the first time so that the reader won’t need a refresher later in the same document.
Avoid: Offering platitudes and false assurances (‘there’s nothing to worry about, everything will be amazing!”)
Do this instead: Promise only what you can actually deliver; acknowledge possible issues, then explain why whatever you’re writing about is still worth it.
Avoid: Speaking in generalities.
Do this instead: Be specific whenever possible, and include examples.
Avoid: Using phrases like “some experts” or “most people.”
Do this instead: Cite real, reputable sources for your claims.
Avoid: Glossing over potential problems.
Do this instead: Give your reader both sides of a controversial story, and trust that they can look at the data on both sides.
Avoid: Cutesy language or tone.
Instead: Imagine you’re writing to a colleague you like and respect—professional or straightforward with a little bit of a fun kick sometimes.