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Speech, Detroit, Web Design, and Writing In Response to What They’re Thinking

There are a surprising number of ‘talks’ around Detroit, and I’m not just talking about the cultural stereotypes (ebonics vs. latinics or whatever you want to call it) — I’m talking about groups that interact with each other on the street, but have fairly different ways of talking to each other when they’re in their home turf. I find myself doing the same thing — the words I use when I’m at home with my wife are words that don’t even exist (or have totally different meanings) out in the public sphere. And there are many different layers of this ‘pseudo-slang’, too: people talk differently at home, at work, with their old high school buddies, at church, and so on and so on.

Unlike Detroit, the web design world — the Internet — is one of those places where all of that seems to go out the window. It takes too much effort to put your particular ‘accent’ into words. (Text-ese and L33tspeak notwithstanding.) But if you want to get your message across on the Internet, you still have to put in some work: you still have to find a way to say what you want to say that works well with the way people listen. Or, on the Internet, write the way people read.

Calls to Action
Let’s take a very specific example: the Call To Action Button. You can see these everywhere; they’re usually red or yellow (with the text in the other color), and they usually say “Click Here to _____”, or “_____ Now”. But do those kinds of ‘instructions’ actually work with the way people think?

Not really. When people are going through your website and they realize that they want to do something with it, they’re going through — consciously or otherwise — a kind of internal dialogue. They’re saying “I want to “, where hopefully is “sign up” or “buy that”. If you want to take advantage of the way that your surfers are thinking, you want to give them that verb, very clearly, in button form, and put the verb first.

“Compare Prices”
“Rent a Movie”
“Get More Details”
“Watch the Video”
“Sign Up”
“Get One Now”

Your button should say exactly what the surfer would say if you could ask him “What do you want to do next?” and s/he answered “I would like to…”.

General Principles
Expanding that back out a bit, it’s not all that difficult if you can step back from your work (or get someone else to come in with fresh eyes) to roughly predict what your surfer will be thinking at any point in time. While we might all talk differently and even think differently in different social settings, as web designers we have to remember that the Internet is in fact ‘just’ another social setting and it invokes the same kinds of thought and response in people as ‘church’ does or ‘talking to your grandma’ does. People on the internet become their ‘Internet selves’ — and if you can figure out how people’s ‘internet selves’ read, you can write with that in mind and get into their heads before you even know what your market segment looks like.

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