An aphorism ascribed to former West German chancellor Willy Brandt says: “You may buy from me in your own language, but sell to me in mine.” This saying encapsulates a central principle in communication—the seller must put himself in the shoes of the buyer; the writer must see through the reader’s eyes. In communication studies, this is known as the you-attitude.
In elementary terms, the you-approach involves the use of pronouns that do not project the writer, but focus on the reader. Avoid first person pronouns such as I, we and our; prefer the second person, and use you and your liberally.
In a broader sense, the term you-attitude signifies a style of writing in which the communication is reader-centred. The writer has these questions in mind: Who are my readers? How did this transaction begin? What do they expect to gain from it? In other words, what’s in it for them? What questions will they want to raise? Audience awareness, as it is called, is one of the keys to successful communication.
Further refining the definition of the you-attitude, we can look at the tone conveyed by the language used, and at the way the content is presented. A sentence such as “We are pleased to offer you a 10% discount on cash purchases” has a patronising tone, and the readers are unmoved. Rouse their interest by rewriting the sentence: “You can get a 10% discount on cash purchases.” Here is another example. We-approach: “We wish to inform you that we have despatched your new worktable today.” You-approach: “You will receive your new worktable tomorrow.”
The you-attitude recognizes that communication takes place between real persons, not between robots. The language, therefore, is personal, simple and direct. It is free from highfalutin clichés. It restricts the use of the passive voice which tends to distance the reader from the writer.
The first question that a reader might ask on receiving your message will be “What’s in it for me?” The writers should, therefore, point to the benefit that the reader gets from acting upon the message. “Reader benefit” is a widely used, though inelegant, term in discussions of communication. Even when there is no visible benefit, the message can show interest in and concern for the reader’s needs. Instead of “We are pleased to inform you that we have installed an ATM at the airport”, you write: “You can now access our ATM services even while travelling.”
Next to language, the content of the message has to be tailored to the reader. Here are some steps you can take.
Let the readers connect with the message by linking it to previous correspondence; give them a reference point to know the context.
Many writers dwell elaborately on the product, or on their service, or on themselves. Instead, you can appeal to the readers’ self-interest and clearly show how they will benefit.
Anticipate questions that the readers are likely to have, and provide clear answers.
Do not write anything that can hurt your reader’s ego. Don’t act bossy, using phrases such as “You must . . .” or using imperatives such as “Read our leaflet carefully. . .” The readers will be offended if you write “You failed to . . .” or “You have made a mistake . . .”
At some point, you may have to write a letter with negative content or with bad news. Frame your sentences in such a way that they hurt least. If possible, preface bad news with positive words. If the reader has made a mistake, don’t sound accusatory. Avoid using phrases such as “You complain that”, “you claim that”, and “you ignored”. Avoid “you” when you have to criticize the reader.
Don’t sound condescending when pointing out any error on the part of the reader. As you begin writing next time, remember the reader at the other end.
VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column
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