The role of listening in creating content: 3 techniques for communicating better

Show me a beginning student’s writing, and I can tell you how much they have read while in grade school. People who read a a lot tend to use language better – they use a larger variety of words, use them correctly and have a more intuitive sense for the sometimes arcane rules about how you put those words together.

They have practice listening to texts. That sounds awfully formal, but all it means is being exposed to the ways in which people communicate. Then, they are ready to think about tone.

Tone is huge in any kind of writing you might get paid for. I really like the definition in Wikipedia’s article on tone: Tone “encompasses the attitudes toward the subject and toward the audience.” That’s huge. The way you put the words together tells your reader

  • What you think about your topic
  • and

  • What you think about them

I’ve been reading Erin Kissane’s content strategy book
(recommended!), and she talks about the marketing technique of personas – where you create profiles for different people you want to welcome your content. This usually includes lifestyle factors and how they might buy your product or service. (really, it’s somewhat more detailed than that).
I’d suggest that you add some listening to their text to that. In the past, media creators followed heuristics like 8th-grade reading level to make generally appealing content. Today, you can be more targeted. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Look for tone in the information they consume. In your persona, you have found out what they read. What does it sound like?
  2. Look at the information they create formally. If you are developing a relationship with a blogger, for example, what sub-topics does he or she write about the most? What is the professional tone? Is there a general tone for the community around that topic?
  3. Look at the information they create informally. When in a community in social media or in a comments section, how does this persona talk with others? What kind of language? What topic areas are common?

A word of caution: listening for tone is really valuable when deciding how to craft engaging messages. Be cautious about trying to imitate it. Unless you are listening for a long time or are a member of that community, it is easy to get small things wrong and sound fake and forced. You see this quite a bit in magazine articles, public health messages and marketing targeted at urban youth. And fake and forced can be really counterproductive.

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