The importance of written communication is illustrated in our sheer exposure to it. Scrolling through your newsfeed, walking down the high street, scanning supermarket shelves, commuting to work, reading the newspaper, messaging your friends, sending emails. For almost every second of every day we’re sending and receiving written communications from friends, family and strangers.
What’s more, our brain is making a split-second decision for us every time we come across them. We subconsciously reject thousands of pieces of written communication every day, and even when we do stop to read something we often just scan through it and move on to the next thing.
So, why did you read that Facebook update? Why couldn’t you remember the name of that café you just walked past? And why do writers always do things in threes? To answer these questions we need to understand how the human brain works. But first, a recap...
What's unique about written communication?
When we decide to communicate verbally rather than orally, we lose certain facets of our communication style. We can’t gesticulate, we can’t use body language, we can’t use intonation, we can’t raise our voice. So that immediately places far more focus on the words themselves.
It’s difficult to convey and arouse emotions using the written word, and as time has gone on we have found different ways to plug these gaps in our written communication. We use capital letters to imitate shouting, emojis to communicate certain emotions and, increasingly, GIFs to convey the things that words can’t do justice to. Some things, such as sarcasm, remain frustratingly out of our written reach - as anyone who has ever been embroiled in an online war of words can likely attest to.
This all means that modern written communication has morphed into something entirely unique. Our informal online interactions are a mix of knowing acronyms (IKR?), tiny yellow-faced icons and brief, looped clips from popular culture. Our formal online interactions, on the other hand, are a mix of bizarre language (warmest regards), meaningless jargon (sunsetting) and archaic pronouns (to whom it may concern).
Why does this matter? Well, we’re doing all of this to try and stir up emotion through our written language. We do it to get our words noticed. And those who do it best are ultimately the strongest written communicators.
What makes written communication effective?
Strong pieces of writing share some common characteristics. They follow a logical flow throughout and segue naturally into new topics. Good writers write concisely and do not pad out content with unnecessary fluff. Yet perhaps most importantly, good writing arouses emotions in the reader.
As we touched upon, the key to being a strong written communicator is understanding how the human brain functions. Effective written communication arouses emotions in the brain - interest, alarm, urgency, humour - to persuade the reader to engage. Here are some examples of the techniques that writers use to achieve this.
The Rule of Three
As an example, writers will often group phrases together in threes, which is referred to as The Rule of Three. It plays off the idea that the human brain is naturally drawn towards three, which is the smallest number required to establish a pattern. And your brain likes patterns. Three words also suggests a beginning, a middle and an end - a natural story arc. Your brain likes that too.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Just Do It. The Three Musketeers. The Three Little Pigs. I’m Lovin’ It. Blood, sweat and tears. Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Hey, Ho, Let’s Go.
Once you’re aware of the rule of three then it can’t be unseen. But that’s just one example. Writers use many techniques to convince your brain to read their words instead of someone else’s.
Limited time offers
Marketers often use a sense of urgency to grab your attention - and putting a specific timeframe on it can be even more effective. Here is an example from Domestika, a website offering creative online courses.
This countdown creates a sense of urgency to persuade the reader to act. If you see that there is 75% off in a shop, then although you might be interested it doesn’t mean you have the urge to act immediately. Instructing shoppers that the deal expires in the next 12 hours does just that.
Steering away from marketing and advertising, we can also understand effective written communication by jumping into the world of literature. Let’s quickly dissect the opening line of One Hundred Years in Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez.
''Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.''
This line does so many things to grab the reader’s attention. It is set in the present, yet in the future it is stated that our character will face the firing squad. Therefore a beginning, middle and end is immediately established. Our brain is faced with so many questions.
What happens in those intervening years? Why is he facing a firing squad? What is the relevance of ‘that distant afternoon’? Why on earth was he taken ‘to discover ice’? It’s a strange opening line that poses so many questions, and a perfect example of great writing.
This technique can also be used to pose a question directly to the reader. In this example from an ad campaign from the 1950s, the use of a question in the title is an expert way of attracting the reader’s attention and convincing them to read on.
The importance of written communication is clear. We’re exposed to an avalanche of it every single day, and the only way to cut through that noise is with high-quality writing. As the old adage goes, the cream will always rise to the top.