Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Give the Second Person a Rest

When I first started writing college admissions communications, no one addressed "you" the reader. It was all about "we" the institution. I spent a lot of time convincing institutions it was not only okay but would be more effective to break the fourth wall and talk directly to students. Now I wonder if we've gone too far.

A high school senior recently handed me a bag stuffed full of college search brochures he'd been sent. I spread them out on my office floor. Almost every one was some version of "Picture yourself here." "Fill-in-the-blank university and you." "X university is coming to you." "Your future." "You are bright." "You are extraordinary."

In this sea of publications, the second person no longer sounded warm and personal. Rather, the use of "you" hit me as cliched at best and presumptuous or cynical at worst. Out of the entire bag of brochures only one coverline made the institution itself stand out as a place confident enough to tell me what it cares about.

I've always counseled clients to answer the question, "What's in it for your prospect?" We try to answer this question powerfully and originally but head on. Indeed, I've just completed two admission campaigns that incorporate "your" in the tagline. These campaigns have been working, I believe, because their two- and three-word titles name what's essential about the institution and call it "yours." But I'll think twice the next time I use "you."

"Remember your reader!" One of my favorite writing teachers used to say. In other words make your reader care. Most great writers know how to make you care not by addressing you directly but by telling you a great story. I believe brand storytellers can do the same.

But then, you knew that.

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