Probably the most important part of getting your writing right is to really know what makes your customers (or any other audience) tick. Customer-analysis techniques are great for getting hard facts and data. But if you want to write so you touch their hearts, you need to back up the formal information with something a bit more emotional.

Very often what gives you the emotional, hit-it-right-on-the-nose tools you need for successful writing are small nuances. All it takes is some little, subtle, even nonverbally communicated quirk picked up from members of a target audience—and bingo: there's your eureka moment, and the key to a great copy or content message.

And to pick up on those nuances, you just can't beat direct dialog.

Should You Say Who You Really Are?

There's a lot to be said for using the “mystery shopper” approach, whether offline or online. Although arguably it's dishonest to conceal your identity, the problem is people won't always be honest with you if you tell them who you really are.

Take rank-and-file employees in large organizations, for example. If they think you're “management,” many will just tell you what they think you want to hear. Similarly, if you look and behave like a researcher, consumers you talk to in stores and shopping malls will put up barriers.

You're far more likely to get the true opinions from staffers if they think you're the person who's come in to fix the water cooler—or from shoppers if you're pushing a loaded cart and chat with them while waiting to go through the checkout.

Honesty Is Easier Online

In the online environment, it really isn't right to infiltrate user groups, discussion lists or blogs posing as someone you're not. Here, though, the invisibility of everyday online communications can help get you the results you want without lying.

I've often found that this very invisibility helps people say what they really think, because they don't feel put on the spot in the same way as face-to-face, and they can retain some anonymity. (They also know you can't reach them with a baseball bat.)

But because online dialog doesn't include much in the way of nonverbal communication, you need to be good at reading between the lines.

Gain Confidence to Get Dialog Going

An important key to success, online and offline, is gaining people's confidence and making them feel relaxed talking to you. The best bet is to get them to talk about themselves. And not their corporate or company or consumer selves, either—the real self.

Try picking up on some relatively small and uncontroversial topic to get things going.

Face to face, ask them about a golf trophy on their shelf, an interesting piece of (their) jewelry, their kids, dog or, in the absence of anything else, the weather.

Online, pick up on a point they've made and ask them more about it. Be natural, use humor, but avoid too many online clichés and keypad-speak (I h8 tht BS, dnt U?).

There are very, very few people in the industrialized world who will not warm to someone who they believe is genuinely interested in them, their life and their opinions.

But be warned: if you're only pretending to be interested in them, they'll know. You have to be interested. Really. And if you are, you'll get the results you want.

How to Ask the Right Questions

Once you get the dialog rolling, you need to employ some of the basic techniques used by good corporate/business TV interviewers (not journalists, as their interviews are often adversarial.) And as I've done a good few thousand corporate/business TV interviews in my time, you might find my hard-earned tips helpful:

  • Although you're not researching for the TV evening news, it's still useful to base your questions on the news reporters' list: “who, what, where, when, how and why.”

  • Never ask a question that can be answered with a “yes” or a “no,” because usually that's where the answer will stop. You need more. But to press people to expand on a point when they haven't volunteered it can make them feel cornered.

  • Phrase your questions so they invite a full and rounded answer. Ask for opinions. People love to give their opinions. Not, “Which toilet tissue do you buy?”; but, “Which toilet tissue do you think is the most popular, and why?”

  • Don't be too personal, as sometimes that can seem aggressive and put your interviewee off. Don't say, “Why have you stopped buying Mario's Pizzas?”; but say, “Why do you think people aren't buying many Mario's Pizzas these days?”

  • When asking a question, ask one—don't add thoughts unless they qualify the original question.

  • After you've asked a question, shut up. Let the person speak. Don't interrupt or attempt to steer what they're saying. If you're in a live online chat, allow plenty of time for a response to come back. Some people type very, very slowly.

  • If they falter or hesitate on an important point, don't press them. Ask them something else. Then return to your original point later on, asking the question in a different way so they don't realize it's the same point.

  • Whatever you ask, always, always be polite. These people are doing you a big favor.

  • And when you've finished, thank them. They've helped you do your job better.

Like I said, the greatest advantage of direct dialog with your audience is that you get to pick up on those all-important small nuances. Very likely those nuances will change, enrich, sharpen or otherwise develop and mature your feelings about the project.

Trust and value those feelings, because usually they're what enable you to write a brilliant, successful piece of copy or content—not the hard facts or (lies, damned lies, and) statistics¹.

¹ Attributed, I believe, to both Mark Twain and Benjamin Disraeli.

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Suzan St Maur ( writes extensively on marketing and business communications and is the author of the widely acclaimed Powerwriting.