Monday, September 10, 2018

Which "Person" Sells Best? Choosing the Right Pronouns for Your Marketing Content

"Which person should I be? Am I 'I' or 'we?' Or should we be 'they?' And are my clients 'you' or 'them?'"

No, this isn't a transcript from a nuthouse. I have this kind of conversation with clients all the time. It's actually a very sensible and important conversation, too, because we're discussing what kind of "person" works best for which situations.

By "person," I mean grammatical person, in the sense of first-person, second-person, or third-person pronouns. We use these pronouns a zillion times a day in everyday writing and speech, usually without giving them a second thought, and yet these simple little words contain tremendous power. 

Pronouns shift perception. You can make me, your reader, see you as an individual, as a team, or as a large, impersonal corporation by merely swapping out a word. You can address me directly or have me see things through your eyes. Powerful gadgets, pronouns. But with great power comes great responsibility, and all pronouns are not created equal depending on the task you want them to perform in your marketing content. That's when I get into mind-bending conversations with my clients about "we," "I," and "they." So which person makes the strongest impact? It depends:

  • First person singular: First person allows you to present yourself as an individual. If you're a sole proprietor serving as a trusted advisor for your clients, talking them directly as "I" can build trust and open an imaginary (and later, hopefully, real) dialogue between you and your reader. Many small businesses live or die by their owner's image and personality, using "I" as a powerful tool for getting that image across.
  • First person plural: A.k.a. the "Royal We." If you're speaking for a team, "we" presents a collective image of that team. Companies of any size can use "we" to give the impression of a unified group effort dedicated to fulfilling the customer's needs. Even sole proprietors sometimes describe themselves as "we" or "us" to puff themselves up a bit, because in some professions being the only guy at the helm makes you look non-competitive or unsuccessful. Small businesses may shift between "I" and "we" to speak as the boss occasionally while still giving the impression of teamwork.
  • Third person: In some cases a larger company, or a small company that wants to appear large, can opt for more formality by referring to the company employees as "they," with formal bio blurbs describing individuals in terms of "he" or "she." This works well for items such as a bio or mission statement in a fancy-pants panel program or formal business plan. It can also make for a person in a relatively sober-minded profession such as medicine or law. But I've warned clients against it on occasion, because it also puts up a kind of wall between writer and reader instead of creating the comforting bond some businesses need to establish.
  • Second person: "You." Talking from the reader's perspective shows that you understand their feelings and needs -- and remember, from their point of view it's all about them anyway. "You" enables readers to imagine about how the product or service impacts their quality of life. "You can have it all! Change your life today!" Et cetera.

Once you've know what impression you want to make in your readers, you'll know which "person" to use for different marketing pieces and audiences. But if you're still feeling uncertain, you always make use of one other person -- a professional copywriter!