Simplicity is sophistication

Apple commercials came on in 1977, declaring “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Wouldn’t you know, our culture bought into it.

Growing up, the dream for many of us was to be in a connected house. Coffee makers would program themselves to turn on at a specific time. Refrigerators were going to have televisions in them. We were even able to turn the lights on and off with a clap.

Less is the new more

Everything now is geared toward simplicity. Writing for our audiences on the web? Well, for many of us creating content at colleges and universities, the words on our websites aren’t always so straightforward. With so many stakeholders and audiences to please, we are still more afraid that parents will find errors in our grammar than that our message is understood. We imagine that the dense (and sometimes opaque) language we use, not the stories we tell, defines the quality of our institution.

But our prospective students aren’t poring over print materials for hours at a time. We know this. They rely on powerful stories shared with them through Facebook. They devour excited tweets of current students to show them what it’s like to be on campus. They imagine leaving all they’ve ever known based on photos on Instagram to assure them they’ll find their own nooks and crannies on our campuses.

We’ve come a long way from 1977. Technology has changed at an astronomical rate. But the slogan holds true today more than ever. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

So how can we simplify our content? Read on, young Padawan.

#1: Clarify

Know what you want to say before you even write anything down. Yes, it sounds counter-intuitive. I’ve had some of my best thoughts in the shower and lost them before I could get them down. But here’s the thing — you can’t write the perfect words if you don’t even know what you want to say.

#2: Be yourself, but think of others too

Write what’s true to you: your culture, your ideas, etc. But be aware that others may not know what you mean. Be mindful of how you talk about traditions that aren’t going to be well-known to your prospective students.

For example, if I said “M&Cs” to you, you’d look at me like I have three heads. But at Mount Holyoke, M&Cs (milk and cookies) are a long standing tradition. Prospective students don’t know what M&Cs are either. If we pasted them all over the homepage without context, wouldn’t you feel as if Mount Holyoke was an exclusive club, and you weren’t allowed?

#3: Talk it out

When you read what you’ve written aloud, you’ll catch the mistakes. All the places where the wording sounds off or where you stumble will become clear. To avoid the harsh gazes from your cubicle mates, you could try Google Translate. Just type (or copy and paste) your text, pick “English to English” and listen carefully with headphones. You’ll shudder with amazement at what you can catch.

#4. Paint pictures

Did your English teacher ever tell you to show, not tell? We repeated it in our class as if it were a mantra. Which it should be, if you’re writing for the web. If you were telling a story to a friend, you’d describe the little details that brought the scene to life. Your audience deserves to be there with you too.

#5. Get a second opinion

Have someone read your piece and ask them where they got bored or stopped reading. What paragraphs did they skim? Was there a place where they got confused? And the big kahuna: What did they understand?

Find a member of your audience: a prospective student, a current student, a parent or an alum. They can give you insights you can’t get anywhere else.

#6. Writing is rewriting

There’s no such thing as writing without rewriting. Let me say that again. There’s no such thing as writing without rewriting. Revisions are an important part of the process. Be merciless. Take out words that don’t belong. Clean up spots where you stumble out loud. Because, chances are, if you stumbled or found a passage confusing, your readers are going to as well.

#7. Be a little more human

Cold language cannot grant you more warm leads. Trying to sound too impressive leads to being less approachable.

We claim we’re selling education, but more specifically, we’re selling futures. We’re selling to parents that their kids will be successful when they leave our campuses. We’re selling to students that they’ll make lifelong friends and career connections that will serve them over their lifetimes. We’re selling a sense of community with alumni who fondly recall their time on campus when they come back for reunions.

What we’re selling is experience. And we do so by writing web content in a way that’s friendly. It’s a warm hug, a steaming mug of tea and a smile. We’re inviting our audiences in, telling them stories and hoping they’ll join us on campus.

We can’t engage our audiences if we write like we’re writing a paper for our high school English class. We need to be able to write like we’re holding a conversation with a good friend. Otherwise, we’ll miss out on the opportunity to connect.

Now it’s time for homework

You didn’t think you were going to get any, now did you? Go sit somewhere active on campus and listen. Listen to what the students are saying, what they’re talking about and how they’re talking about it. Maybe you’ll even cringe. But you’ll become much better at speaking to them.

… which makes them want to join in!