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Plain English: an effective communication tool for social media success

Communicating effectively in writing can be a challenge at the best of times.  You may feel confident incorporating technical or legal terms in a reader-friendly way or handling company buzz words and acronyms.  But, introduce social media into the communication mix and the formality of business writing flies straight out the window – following Twitter’s chirpy little logo!

The dynamic social media arena has spun all traditional concepts of communicating and marketing into a whirlwind of immediacy: say it fast, say it now and say it to as many people as possible.  The key challenge many businesses face is the way in which they phrase their message to meet the expectations of this new, often unknown audience.

As savvy business people know, social media is a powerful force in driving prospective clients and consumers to their websites.  Yet a perception exists that it’s the domain of the younger generation, with images of Olympic speed, phone-tapping fingers interacting in a vibrant virtual environment.  This may stem from a fundamental misuse of language, with text speak permeating social media.  Personally, I h8 that.  Yet its function can be hugely beneficial in conveying a message constrained by a rigid character limit – such as in a tweet.  But this doesn’t mean we should sacrifice the clarity of the message, and straightforward plain English maintains a professional image of the author and the company they represent.

plain English for social media success

Plain English

Plain English is not about dumbing down or diminishing the richness of our beautiful language.  Rather, it refines wording to suit its intended audience.  Shorter sentences, everyday words and phrases and use of the active voice combine to make text more easily understood by the people we expect to read it.  Yet writing in this manner takes effort.  As Mark Twain proclaimed, ‘I would have written you a shorter letter if only I had more time…’  Actually, this quote has been credited to various illustrious authors and politicians, highlighting the fact that plain English requires a good deal of thought.  Self-editing is not an easy task, and it’s rarely something we budget into our working hours.

The key to writing effectively is to consider your audience.  This is all very well if you know who you’re writing for, but with social media, the audience is oblique.  A sturdy social media marketing plan may establish who you intend to target, but the simple fact is that anyone can choose to follow you on Twitter or like you on Facebook.  So do you cater for the masses or tailor your message specifically for those you wish to engage with?

Think one step ahead.  The social point of the media is for your known audience to share your information to the wider world.  This increases your visibility, making your branding more widely recognised and your business offering more accessible.  So where are these people, and how can we engage with them?

Twitter

Let’s take Twitter as the benchmark for social media activity, being the most dynamic and swift medium for conveying on-the-spot news.  As tweeters race to deliver updates, there may be little time to mentally shorten the message yet keep it grammatically correct.  So here the linguistic problem begins: with only 140 characters including spaces and punctuation, how can anyone get a message across in ‘correct’ English?  The answer is that, often, they don’t.  In weighing it up, shooting a fast message across cyberspace may be preferable to delaying it for considered linguistic or grammatical thought.  And fair play, if it suits the recipients.

However, in business, sacrificing grammar and punctuation in favour of speed is a dangerous tactic.  An effectively worded tweet or Facebook post can drive traffic directly to a specific website page, allowing consumers immediate access to the product or service being offered.  With the potential to gain thousands of followers, and therefore a healthy percentage of clients, would you be prepared to show sloppiness in your public writing?

plain English for social media success

Facebook

Many businesses have a Facebook page, and its professional relevance depends to some degree on how you choose to use it.  Some simply maintain a presence, while others maximise it as a tool for directing traffic to their website.

Posting regular, engaging content is the surest way to increase visibility, as ‘likes,’ ‘shares’ and comments propel the business page through a network of new ‘fans.’  There is no word limit here, so it’s easier to convey a clear message.  Again, consider your audience – who’s reading, who’s sharing, who are they sharing with?

LinkedIn

While a typo in a tweet or Facebook post is forgivable, grammatical mistakes and poor spelling are not acceptable in the more considered world of LinkedIn.  This professional social media platform focuses on you rather than your business.  A company profile can do wonders for marketing your industry, and followers may follow, but LinkedIn primarily connects people with people.  In the same way you would take care over the presentation of a CV or tender document, so should you lovingly create a LinkedIn profile that reflects and represents you with accuracy.  Language should be clear and to the point; fabrication and fibbing should be avoided at all costs.

Expectations lie with a professionally written profile, so one that extends through waffle or is jargon-filled misses the point.  Take your tagline, for example.  A key feature of LinkedIn is your ability to connect with people who may be beneficial to you, in business or otherwise.  Each time you link to a new person, their network of ‘connections’ can see how you describe yourself.  Therefore, a jargon-rich tagline that fails to demonstrate what you can offer proves detrimental to marketing yourself effectively.  Who is more likely to pick up new accountancy clients via LinkedIn: the ‘accountant and tax specialist’ or the ‘excise tariff controller?’

Making it simple

Tailoring language is an acquired art, but the following techniques will help you reduce your character count, maintain a tidy social media profile and keep you on the plain English track.

Keep sentences short

Sentences that extend beyond ten or twelve words can begin to lose impact.

  • Break lengthy sentences into two separate ones.
  • Remove superfluous words.
  • Punctuation such as bullet points or a colon can shorten your message while retaining its impact.

Choose everyday words and phrases

Social media is no place for old fashioned, bureaucratic wording.  Keep your language simple and effective:

  • Endeavour – try
  • Initiate – start
  • Purchase – buy

Avoid nominalisations

Turning verbs into nouns increases your word count and makes your message less powerful.  ‘Decide’ to write clearly – don’t ‘make a decision’ to do so.

Use the active voice

Reduce the character count of passive phrases by almost a quarter by using the active voice.  ‘The attached document must be completed,’ becomes ‘complete the attached document.’

Social media is such a powerful tool for business.  Whichever platforms you decide are professionally relevant to you, use them in the best way to attract an audience that will engage and promote you.  Say it in plain English to make sure everyone clearly understands the message you want to convey.  Each ‘retweet,’ ‘share’ or comment contributes to your organisation being seen by extra people – treat them kindly.  Be polite, respectful and friendly – remember: it’s a social thing!

More about plain English

More about social media

This article originally appeared in Managing Information (volume 20, issue 3, June 2013).