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The much-loved British broadcaster and radio legend died on Sunday aged 77 after five decades in radio and TV. When he retired in 2009 from his BBC Radio 2 breakfast show, his simple goodbye ‘Thank you for being my friend’ spoke volumes about his skill as a communicator.

Despite addressing millions of fans in that farewell, he made each listener feel as if he was talking to them and them alone. He did that by using the magic word you in the second-person singular, and by keeping friend singular, too.

He could have said ‘Thank you all for being my friends’, but that would have betrayed an ‘audience’ mindset. Keeping things singularly personal showed his true mindset: he wanted to speak to each individual. Radio allowed him to achieve ‘mass personalisation’, to establish an intimacy over the airwaves with each of us. As a result, he made us feel special and part of his Radio 2 family.

This simple shift in mindset applies to written communications, too.

Avoid the multiple personality disorder

When addressing multiple readers in a communication — whether an email or an article —inexperienced writers tend to use you in a plural phrase, eg ‘some of you’ or ‘all of you’, as if their readers were huddled around one copy of the document or suffering from multiple personality disorder. When I see phrases like that, I look behind me to see who else is in the room reading over my shoulder.

As David Ogilvy, the great copywriter and founder of ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, said: “Do not address your readers as if they were gathered together in a stadium. When people read your words, they are alone.”

The word audience is another symptom of this disorder.

When I run writing workshops, I often hear ‘I’m writing for my audience’. There are five problems with this word:

  1. ‘Audience’ suggests people are listening (the Latin root of the word audiare), but — despite the fact there is an auditory aspect to writing — our readers read our words.
  2. ‘Audience’ is too broad. It lumps all our readers into the same bucket, implying they’re all the same, which of course they’re not. It also suggests we’re broadcasting our message in the hope some of it lands, rather than personalising it to individual readers or reader-types. It’s the difference between ‘broadcast’ and ‘narrowcast’.
  3. Audiences tend to be passive. Picture an audience in a theatre or cinema: they sit passively, taking in the spectacle; traffic tends to be 1-way. Good writing should feel more like a conversation than a lecture.
  4. Audiences don’t take decisions; individual readers do.
  5. Finally, when you read something do you feel like an ‘audience’? No, of course you don’t. You feel like you: a unique, special, distinct individual and you want to be addressed that way.

When you adopt an ‘audience’ mindset, your connection with the reader is weak. When you have a ‘reader’ mindset (aka being ‘reader-centric’), your connection with the reader is strong. The stronger the connection, the more receptive they’ll be to your message. And that means — if you’re trying to persuade them to do something — they’re likelier to do what you want them to do.

If you have any doubts about the power of personalisation, consider this: if you happened to spot your own name — the ultimate personal word — in a piece of writing, would it make you more or less likely to read it? The answer is obvious.

The more your writing makes an intimate and personal connection with your reader, the more persuasive it will be. That’s why ‘Write for your reader’ is Technique #1 in my RHETORICA® toolkit of 21 persuasive writing techniques. It’s a meta principle, because it supports and informs the other 20 techniques.

You’re writing for an audience of one — your reader. As a natural communicator, Terry Wogan understood that perfectly.

Scott’s book on persuasive writing — RHETORICA: persuasive writing for the 21st century — is due out in April, but you can get a sneak peek at his 18 March open course in central London (). And if you’d like a 15-minute consultation with Scott, to discuss how to improve your comms and get three insights into how to improve your writing, click here to book a slot: 

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