In your writing, focus on the ‘you,’ not the ‘I’

Writers can engage or alienate readers through the voice they use to discuss a given topic. Try this approach for offering guidance, insights and even professional anecdotes.

You probably already know this—but they don’t.

Intrigued? Feeling good? Want to read on, see how enlightened you are?

Of course you do.

That’s the power of addressing readers in the second person: you.

Readers are a self-interested lot, that’s why as a writer you must key on the WIIFM factor (“What’s in it for me?”) from the reader’s vantage point.

That last sentence, not incidentally, shows the value in using a third-person reference (they, or in this case, readers) when offering an even slightly unflattering observation. Consider the difference between that above sentence and “You readers are a self-interested lot…”

The latter is off-putting, wouldn’t you agree? (You’re back on board now, having been included in the agreement. Cozy, isn’t it?)

Why angle your writing?

This is not about manipulating readers but rather engaging them by shining the light on them.

Notice that not once—until this sentence—have I used the first person: I. That’s purposeful.

A writer needn’t, and perhaps shouldn’t, focus on himself or herself. The byline is there for identification; let it convey that you are rendering your own viewpoint or experience.

Why do some writers feel compelled to offer, for example, these first-person references?

When I speak at conferences, attendees ask me …

In my experience …

I tell clients of mine …

My previous blog post said …

I think …

I suggest the following …

Here’s my take …

First-person-singular framing is usually superfluous for a business blog or other professional writing; it can also seem self-serving. Even if you’re discussing a prior success with a particular client or project, it’s easy enough to de-emphasize yourself and focus instead on the process:

Identifying the client’s specific goals and tailoring metrics to them primed the campaign for success.

You might want to say our client’s specific goals to get in a plug for your agency, but a little goes a long way. Respect your readers’ ability to glean such information.

‘I Me Mine’

In 1970, The Beatles were on the verge of breaking up, and egos were superseding—and undermining—the extraordinary collaboration that had skyrocketed them to fame, fortune and dizzying creative heights.

The final track the group recorded (for the “Let It Be” album) was George Harrison’s “I Me Mine,” lamenting the narcissism that had consumed the once-Fab Four.

All through the day
I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
All through the night
I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
Now they’re frightened of leaving it,
Everyone’s weaving it,
Coming on strong all the time.
All through’ the day I me mine…

Such self-indulgence is a pitfall worth sidestepping.

So, yes, the me component of “What’s in it for me?” is fine from the reader’s standpoint, but we writers would do well to cede the first-person-singular spotlight. (The first-person-plural “we” is an embrace between author and audience, and as you can see, that literary inclusion has its own merits.)

We are serving our readers, imparting our knowledge, advice or insights.

Remember, too, that an implicit you begins imperative sentences. What’s an imperative sentence? Well, one began this paragraph: You were instructed to remember something. It’s a directive, an order of sorts, from writer to reader. Do such-and-such, or: You, do such-and-such.

That pointed instruction is a staple of essays offering tips and other guidance—but you probably already knew that.

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