The Teenager Method: How to Guarantee Customers Understand Your Content
...by Treating Them Like Teenage Readers
Sometimes I talk to myself. Yes, I walk around my desk, muttering to myself like another personality's trying to emerge. I might even leave the office and walk spirals up & down the sidewalk.
Why am I doing this? It improves the content I write.
How does that work? it comes down to a principle I worked out some years back. It's an extension of an old, old writing truism: "Write like you talk."
Thing is - and I say this without ego - I can speak better than some of my target audiences. Credit to good education, lots of reading, lots of writing, and lots of speech practice. Throw in a couple public speaking and acting classes, and you get an erudite speaker who knows how to speak profoundly.
The problem is, that doesn't translate well to website content.
When I write like I talk, it's precise, complex...and it comes across as talking down to the reader. I don't want to do that, but that's what readers reported early in my copywriting career.
Should I "dumb down" the content? No way - that would insult the readers more! Plus they likely wouldn't absorb all the points I make.
I needed a middle-ground solution. A way to write well, write clearly, and write so readers could easily understand.
Keep Content's Readability to a Middle-School Level for Maximum Impact
I found the solution by cross-breeding the original truism with a second one: "Write so an 8th-grader can understand you."
You can see this as a standard in reading test apps. Here are two examples of such apps.
The Hemingway Reading Level Tester, with this post's content measured.
The Fleisch Reading Ease scoring levels.
Sentence structure, idea flow, clear word choices...all add up to content that reads at about an early teenager's level.
So, with this as a guiding light, we can see why I talk to myself. I'm hashing the ideas out verbally.
Content Writing with the Teenager Method - The 2-Minute How-To
Let's say I want a webpage explaining the advantages of a new financial planning app.
Research tells me the customer is NOT technical, but has some knowledge of the problem this system solves. I have to marry the two.
So I now have to work out a way to address the subject that someone who doesn't know about it - like a teenager - can grasp right away. This is the method I use:
- Read through existing material. Take notes on key points, words that stand out, etc.
- Grab a notepad and jot out ideas. No censorship, no self-editing. I'm just throwing out all the connections my brain makes from the material.
- Then pick up the notepad, get up from chair, and start talking. Pretend I'm facing the customer and trying to explain how the system works.
- I want to tell them about the way X system solves Y problem. How the system's inner workings connect A to B. What happens when you don't have the system in place. Is there another option? Does the 'old way' still work? If it does, why is X system better? What would you have to lose by not using X system?
At this point I'm starting and stopping my words repeatedly. Broken sentences, half-formed ideas ditched mid-syllable, incoherent ramblings.
(My co-workers already think I'm nuts, so I don't get weird stares. Usually.)
After all that? Believe it or not, it works. I eventually arrive at a level of clarity that allows me to dash off a content outline. All points covered, easy-to-read flow, a good starting point and a good end point.
Readers Must Understand Your Content, or It Fails. This Method Helps.
This is not to insult teenagers. I was one; so were you. The Teenager is simply the visual that works best here. Someone who may be ignorant of the subject, and/or does not have the time to learn about it.
If my content explains it so they can grasp the subject without any prior knowledge, I've done my job. And thanks to this method, I do it very often.