Why You Need to Change Your Writing Style

Is anybody reading your emails, messages and social media posts? The ugly truth is: probably not.

The world is changing. Content fatigue is up, and attention spans are down.

If you’ve settled on a writing style for email, messaging and social networks that worked in 2015, it’s probably obsolete. Trends in culture and technology have changed the criteria for what makes language effective.

Words matter. Writing is important. How we communicate in written language shapes what kind of leaders we are, how much influence we have, and how effective we are as professionals and as human beings.

The new way to write high-impact email, messages and social posts can be distilled into a list of rules, which I’ll share at the end of this column.

Myths About Millennials

The conventional wisdom is that younger people are Internet-obsessed slackers who watch videos and play video games all day. In fact, the opposite is true. The younger adults are, the more they read.

A recent Pew study found a direct correlation between age and a preference to read the news, rather than watch it on TV. In general, younger people read the news, while older people watch the news on TV. Younger people also do more texting, more social media engagement (including reading posts and writing comments) and—wait for it!—more email.

Another myth is that Millennials don’t use email and instead prefer messaging. Millennials use email more than any other generation—or, at least, they check email more often. Among all age groups, Millennials check email more times a day, usually from a phone, and within more circumstances. (About half check email in the bathroom, for example.)

This approach to email—checking often from a phone—is on the rise. And it should inspire us to reconsider our email writing and communication style.

Another big change: In the past year or two, the number of social networks and messaging platforms has grown radically. Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, Google Allo, WhatsApp, Tango, Wechat, Telegram are among the many platforms. With each new app, the number of apps each person uses grows.

Everyone is burned out on reading, in part because people are switching between media faster. Each tweet is a new context. Swapping between email and Snapchat and Allo and Facebook adds a new burden to the brain and a reduction in attention span.

All this reading is competing against other attention-grabbing phenomena. Facebook and Twitter now alert you constantly about live-streaming video. Our streams are packed with viral videos, memes, clickbait headlines and more.

Everything you write competes not only with everything everybody else writes, but also with the universe of online distractions.

Your Online Readership Has Changed

Every good writer considers the reader, and, in the past few years, your online readership has changed. For starters, they won’t “get” cultural references and idioms the way your older readers do.

Traditionally, making cultural references was a way to shorten and enliven language. These typically came from education and pop culture. When university content was drawn from the Western canon almost exclusively and when TV had three channels, it was easy to refer to things everybody could understand. Refer to Shakespeare or Gilligan’s Island and everybody knew what you were talking about.

Now education is far broader and news is more global. And those three TV channels have exploded into millions (if you include online sources of video content).

So when a 45-year-old individual makes a Seinfeld reference, a 23-year-old person may have no idea what he or she is talking about. And when that 23-year-old mentions PewDiePie, the 45-year-old might never have heard of him. (If you’ve never heard of PewDiePie, you should know that he has more YouTube subscribers than Seinfeld had viewers during the first eight seasons.)