If you need to get your reader’s attention, using the second person pronoun ‘you’ is a great place to start. It’s one of the most powerful and persuasive tools you have as a writer.
Compare these two examples:
For customers who need help setting up a mortgage, Wafflington Finance are here to talk them through it.
Do you need help setting up a mortgage? At Wafflington Finance we’re here to talk you through it.
The second example is much more effective. It prompts the reader to identify their need for the service and to imagine how it could help them in their own life.
Here are a couple of reasons why you might be avoiding ‘you’ (and why you shouldn’t):
1) Using ‘you’ feels informal
Perhaps if you’re used to more formal writing, addressing the reader as ‘you’ might take a bit of getting used to.
Now obviously, it’s not always appropriate to use ‘you’. If you are writing a piece of legal documentation or an academic essay, the second person pronoun might not really fit with the tone of the rest of the piece.
However, some writers have a tendency to be more formal than they need to be:
Visitors are asked to give their tickets to the guide at the door, who will show them to their seats.
It usually sounds much friendlier if you address the reader directly:
Please give your ticket to the guide at the door. They will show you to your seat.
This is still perfectly professional and appropriate, but it engages with the reader directly and is therefore more effective in getting the message across.
2) Using ‘you’ means being precise
Another reason you might be avoiding ‘you’ is because it means you have to be clearer. This is a good thing for the reader, but if you, the writer, aren’t exactly sure what you’re saying or don’t really want to say it, it’s tempting to avoid it.
For example, this writer has conveniently avoided giving any precise directions:
It has come to our attention that an incorrect delivery has been received. Unfortunately, our team are unable to collect the item, so the item should be posted to our customer services team. The correct item should be received within six weeks.
The writer is trying to gloss over the fact that the company has made a mistake and the customer will need to help fix it. They’ve been deliberately vague about who needs to post the item to the customer services team, for example.
In reality, it will be much more helpful for the customer to have clear instructions:
We’re sorry to hear that you have received the wrong item. Unfortunately, our team are unable to collect the item, so please post the item to our customer services team. You should receive the correct item within six weeks.
Using ‘you’ forces the writer to be upfront about the impact on the reader. Whether you’re giving information or instructions, it’s best to be as clear and direct as possible, even if this means acknowledging some awkward facts.
Come back on Thursday for some ‘second person pronoun’ fun in the Write for Real People Workshop…