To Engage Users, Stop Writing in First Person

To Engage Users, Stop Writing in First Person
Have this post read to you in a natural voice:

Don’t you just love talking about yourself? 

Everybody does. In fact, according to research carried out by Harvard researchers Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell, in a study that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, about 40% of our everyday speech is geared towards telling others about our favorite topic.

To conduct the study, Tamir and Mitchell made use of an MRI scanner to observe the parts of the brain that came alive when people talked about themselves. Participants in the study were asked to talk about their preferences for pizza and their personality traits.

The researchers realized that whenever participants talked about themselves there was increased level of activity in the same regions of the brain that are associated with the rewards we get from money, food, and sex.

Suffice it to say that you are your own favorite topic.

Businesses Also Love Talking about Themselves—And That’s a Problem

Apart from us humans, business also appear to love talking about themselves. You can’t say they have the same reward centers as humans, but the fact that humans lie at the back of every company certainly counts as a fact for messaging like this:

  • Our services are the best in all of...
  • We pride ourselves on being...
  • Our software makes us perfect for...

And so on and so forth.

It makes for good reading when you are the one writing it. But businesses that send out such egocentric messaging fail to consider one crucial problem:

Their readers aka other real life people do not want to talk about you.

They would rather activate their pleasure centers by talking about their favorite topic: themselves.

Personal Pronouns Are Bad for Engagement

This is no surprise. In spite of the insistence of businesses to write in terms of ‘We’, ‘I’, ‘Us’ and ‘Me’, people have known for decades that this is actually bad practice.

In 1934, Ralph Tyler and Edgar Dale conducted a study that showed that first person pronouns like the ones mentioned above reduce readability.

In that famous study, the researchers had adults read passages about personal health taken from magazines, textbooks, newspapers, and children’s health books, and then gave them multiple-choice tests about the material they had just read.

What the Tyler and Dale found is that the more second-person pronouns (read: YOU) that existed in the passages, the higher the readability increased.

First person pronouns and third person pronouns, on the other hand, do the opposite and reduce readability.

It’s been 80 plus years since that study and yet we still fire up our computers to write length, self-gratifying passages about us and our stuff.

So what should we be doing instead?

Switch Things Up and Watch Engagement Grow

You can radically improve your messaging by incorporating any of these tactics when writing:

  • Change from ‘We’ to ‘You’. Simple as that.
  • Put the reader first. Focus on their favorite subject, not yours.
  • Change the we-you ratio. Make it 20:80—you should be talking about the reader four times as much as you talk about your company and products.
  • Your reader should be the hero of your storytelling, not your business and products. Highlight what your business can do for the reader instead of talking about how awesome your operations are.

Implement these, and pretty soon you should see an uptick in the way readers engage with your content, and your business in general.