Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys

We just retuned from a 10 day vacation visiting my wife’s college roommate, Edie, and her family in Redstone Colorado. We had a great time, and did all the stuff you’d expect on a trip out west: rafting, hiking, horseback riding, and saying “wow” a lot at all the beautiful scenery.

The highlight for me however, occurred on Day 7, when we attended a rodeo.

Now for those of you who have never met me, I don’t want my high interest in seeing a rodeo to in any way suggest that I’m the kind of person who gets involved first hand. Of all the words that one might use to describe me, “rugged” is not one of them, and any lingering questions about whether or not I was one of the participants were quickly put to bed, the moment I emerged from a bright red rented mini van with a video camera slung over my shoulder.

That said, I thought I was fitting in pretty well with the crowd. That is until one of the local cowpokes sidled up (or whatever) to us and asked,“Are any of your kids interested in the cow scramble or mutton busting today?” Sensing my complete confusion at the offer, he attempted to put my mind at ease by assuring me, “Don’t worry, there’s no rough stock involved.”

Let me stop right there and tell you quite frankly that at that point, I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. So I quickly decided that he was naming a couple of cowboy snack foods for us to try, and not wanting to seem unfriendly, I said, “Sure!”

Much to my shock, it turns out that the “cow scramble” is a competition where all the kids chase (living) steer around the rodeo field, attempting to be one of the lucky few to pull a ribbon off of their tails.

As if watching my three sandal-wearing kids race around a field for 10 minutes chasing steer weren’t terrifying enough for this coast-hugging city slicker Dad, “Mutton Busting” was a thousand times worse. This insane event consists of donning head gear and a chest protector and being dropped on a sheep, whose sole purpose in life at that point is to throw off any child foolish enough to participate (in this case, my 7 year old daughter Emily).

As it turned out, I’m happy to say that they survived both events unharmed (Emily posted 3.8 seconds of mutton time in fact, good enough for second place).

So what’s this got to do with E-Newsletters??!! Hang on partner, I’m getting to it. My confusion at the rodeo was the result of differences in language usage. Although I understood every word that friendly cowboy used (“cow,” “scramble,” etc.), I still had no idea what he was talking about.

By the same token, when it comes to E-Newsletters, the most common communication barrier that I see occurs when writers ignore how much readers know or don’t know about a given subject, and sprinkle their articles with all kinds of industry jargon, acronyms and technology.

Two recommendations for avoiding this trap:

1. Take the time to clearly define your audience. Are they consumers or businesspeople? How much do they know about your industry? How old are they? Are they comfortable with technology? Are they male or female? Are they people who like a lot of detail? All of these questions should play into how you write. A newsletter for teenage skateboard enthusiasts in Toronto should be using very different language than a health newsletter targeted at female seniors in Tucson.

2. Run it by someone who fits the target profile. If you know a lot more than your readers about the subject at hand, you’ll find it hard from the inside looking out to identify what’s confusing and what isn’t. The simplest solution is to find somebody who fits the profile and use him or her as your filter prior to sending your newsletter out.

Bottom Line: How you say it is (at least) as important as what you say. Make sure your message is getting through by using language that your audience understands and can relate to. Yee-hah!

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