The Power of the First-Person Perspective

Self-portrait

First-person content has so much potential. How can we unlock it?

A lot has been said about “clickbait” content from sites like Upworthy, whose headlines tug on (some say exploit) emotions and curiosity to lure readers to their content. While I don’t feel as strongly about these headlines as many do, one type of headline that particularly grates on me is the faux first-person headline. For example:

A News Team Follows Potential Models For One Week. My Face Is Now Stuck In Disgust Mode.

I’ve Tried To Understand Health Care For Years. After 7 Minutes With This Guy, I Totally Get It Now.

He Gave A Very Inspiring Speech About 10 Lessons On How To Live A Good Life. I Loved #3 The Most.

After reading these headlines, all I have are doubt and questions. Were you really that disgusted? Did you really have such trouble understanding how health care worked? Are you sure it wasn’t #5?

To me, these uses of the first-person feel exploitative. While you can argue that any Upworthy or BuzzFeed headline could be described as such, I find these particular irksome.It seems disingenuous to me that BuzzFeed’s writers, who famously churn through at least 25 headlines per blog post, are representing their true, personal reactions to the content they are hawking.

I believe the use of first-person is a privilege. It connotes a truth, an intimacy, an authentic perspective, and thus a power unlike any other. It is innately personal — in some instances confessional. These characteristics help content created in the first-person (singular or plural) establish a personal connection with the reader.

We often embrace the “we” in our content in order to achieve an inclusive, conversational tone — if a voice and tone style guide was like “Wheel of Fortune,” the entry about “we” would be equivalent of getting R S T L N and E in the bonus round. But why does it work this way? And how can we take the concept of the first-person perspective even further?

Why ‘I’?

Using a first-person perspective in your written content makes an emotional appeal that helps forge a relationship between you and your reader.

Valuable characteristics of first-person content:

Ownership:

It is much harder to be wishy-washy and passive in your statements when staking a claim to them with a “we” or “I.” Imbuing your content with ownership via the first-person makes it more authoritative, which helps build trust with your readers.

Presence:

Bringing the first-person perspective into your text anchors it in the moment. This helps the reader feel like a participant in an active experience and not the discoverer of some ancient text. That sense of presence helps the content feel more relatable.

Authenticity:

Ownership and presence lend themselves to a sense of authenticity. With implied authorship, whatever is written is more believable than otherwise “sourceless” content, even if we don’t have a name associated with the voice.

Reflection:

People generally (not always, sadly) think before they speak. So when you read something in the first-person, there is a tacit implication of reflection and recollection. The use of the first person conveys that some personal thought and consideration was put into these words, with lends it credence.

Obviously, not all content is suitable for a first-person perspective. Consider who your audience is and what it is you are hoping they will learn or do. Will a first-person perspective make that outcome more likely? Will it result in the content being more accessible or comprehensible?

The University of San Francisco style guide makes a compelling case for the first-person:

In general, we recommend using first-person narratives as much as possible. Prospective students want to get as accurate a sense as possible of the true nature of the USF community, and direct exposure to that community is the best way to achieve that goal. Blogs, good photography with descriptive captions, and video can help to give this impression.

…Content doesnʼt have to be literally unfiltered to have this impact. But we should be careful not to over-manage first person narratives, as todayʼs audience is sensitive to packaged and manufactured content and can see through “canned” or marketing-driven material of that sort.

USF convincingly argues for reducing or, whenever possible, eliminating the institutional filter between its audience and the subjects of its content.

In a 2010 post on the Brain Traffic blog, Angie King says that some organizations shy away from “I,” “we,” and “us” due to being overly cautious or old-fashioned, reluctant to step away from formal business communication practices. She argues:

But guidelines that limit the use of personal pronouns should be reconsidered now that we’re in the digital age. These days, content needs to speak to users clearly and directly. It needs to compete for their attention.

“Personal pronouns reflect the way real people write and speak,” adds King, which stands to reinforce clarity and comprehension. She says that use of the third-person may lend itself to awkward, clunky sentence constructions.

Relatedly, you may have read articles in The New York Times or other publications where “this correspondent” or “this reporter” tries some dish or experiences some local custom. Awkward, right? Why can’t he or she simply claim authorship with the first person?

First-Person: Some Perspectives

There are several ways that the first-person can shape our content, beyond the mere substitution of “we” for “the university.” Here are some examples.

Video

We’ve come a long way since the “The Blair Witch Project.” As Michael Dooley wrote on the blog Business 2 Community last fall, the first-person perspective is a growing trend in commercials and other video ads:

A growing trend in video ads, especially for tech products, is the use of a first-person camera angle to allow the viewer to feel the experience. … The first-person camera angle captures the attention of the audience, but they will also remember the music choice and the sparing use of simple text.

Apple’s recent ad campaigns have employed this approach:

One tool that’s helped this work for video is the GoPro camera. Check out this unique perspective on athletics at Seattle University, filmed by the athletes themselves:

You’ll frequently find this approach in user-generated content, such as this film shot and edited by a student at Mumbai College in India, offering the commuter student perspective.

Photography

“Selfies” (self-taken portraits, if you live under a rock) have been around for a long time, though they are experiencing a smartphone-powered, Instagram-enabled renaissance. (Hooray for front-facing cameras!)

Still, this past Commencement season, some colleges bristled at the prospect of a parade of selfies slowing down processions and dragging out already long ceremonies. But as one student observed to Reuters, “It’s an emotional day. It’s definitely something you want to capture.”

Selfies are a kind of first-person photography, turning the lens back on one’s self and one’s own experiences, to incorporate your own presence and reaction into the experience of the moment. Commencement skittishness aside, lots of institutions are embracing the selfie, and that includes selfie contests, even one contest with a $10,000 scholarship prize.
And not all universities got their hoods in a bunch about selfies at Commencement — particularly the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse.

Personal Narratives

Perhaps the most obvious vehicle for the first-person is a personal narrative. First-person accounts can be incredibly powerful ways of conveying a story or a point of view, moreso than an account written up by a third-party. What a first-person account may lack in eloquence, it makes up for in unvarnished yet brand-aligned storytelling. Student blogs, like these published out of Duke’s undergraduate admissions office, are a great example of this. Tools like Storify can help you create a composite first-person account of an event, like Commencement, via tweets, photos, and other social media posts.

The Oberlin Stories project is another good example of such well-executed first-person storytelling, and I have no doubt that part of its success is owed to providing some guidelines as to what makes for a successful submission.

But soliciting first-person accounts is tricky business. While many of our students, alumni, faculty, and staff may have amazing experiences to recount, their writing may be more academic in nature, or they may default to simply recounting a list of events rather than reflecting more personally on an experience. A good edit — one that retains the author’s voice while humanizing the content — is essential in these circumstances.

While longform personal accounts can work well, don’t overlook the power of a simple quote, whether it’s for a program testimonial, a question-and-answer article, or a Facebook page like those inspired by Humans of New York, such as Humans of Cornell University. As always with quotes, complete and accurate attribution is key.

The quotes you receive will only be as good as your interview, so review our interview tips before sitting down with your subject. In my experience, the best interviews (and thus the best quotes) come from phone or in-person interviews.

Email interviews, while sometimes a necessity, often result in stilted, more formal sounding quotes lacking the human element that gives the first-person perspective the most credence. And remember that not every quote, however compelling or eloquent, stands alone well. It may need context in the form of some parenthetical insertions or introductory text to help it succeed.

Audio

National Public Radio’s StoryCorps series has brought back the art (and the power) of the oral history, capturing people’s personal experiences in their own voice. Much like an unedited interview transcript, a candid photograph, or a video, audio captures so much inflection, tone, and emotion that enhances the meaning and value of what is being said.

One of my favorite uses of audio narrative in higher ed is Middlebury’s Murmur, “a collection of personal audio stories from around campus.” It is one thing to hear the words as members of the Middlebury community reflect on their favorite campus spots and moments; it’s another thing entirely to hear the feelings in which they wreathe those words.

First, and Foremost

Do you have examples of first-person content at your institution? If not, how might you make use of it?

Photo by k100dave / Flickr Creative Commons

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About Georgy Cohen

Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive in Cambridge, Mass.. Prior to OHO, she worked with a range of higher ed institutions, including stints at Tufts University and Suffolk University and as an independent consultant, on content strategy and digital communication initiatives. Keep going »

Comments

  1. Late yesterday afternoon, a few of us in the office were talking about the use of the first-person voice for a commercial — in this case the voice is an interior monologue. I think the first-person voice has a place in content marketing and brand journalism, and you share some excellent examples of their use (exploitative Upworthy/Buzzfeed examples notwithstanding).

    I’ve noticed a move from the omniscient third-person to first-person narrative over time, in everything from marketing and journalism (remember the “new” journalism of the ’60s and ’70s?) to literature (most obvious) to religious music. I read a book a few years ago about how evangelical Christianity had moved from embracing historic hymns that focused on God and spoke of God in the third person to the more contemporary Christian music that emphasizes the “me” in relation to the deity.

    I still have enough of the old-school journalist in me to cringe at some of the first-person attempts. Sometimes the good, old-fashioned, third-person voice is appropriate, one thinks.

  2. This reader loved this. Kidding. I loved it. Sharing. I cringe when I see web content that says “the student will” … Maybe that language is appropriate for a handbook or a contract, but in good ‘ol content, I prefer the “we” or “you” approach.

    When I was in admissions for a career school many years ago, I was trained on some effective closing techniques by Zig Ziglar (OK, via videos my then-director had, not the man himself!). One of these was the “paint the picture close.” I’ve always kept that in mind as my career transitioned into the written word.

    My comment kind of veered off into personal pronouns in general, not the “I” approach. But, Georgy, great post and I love how you pulled in different types of media and added the “this reporter” approach. I had to use that frequently when I wrote for an alt-weekly. I like when reporters come off the page as characters in their own stories. It still might not work for certain hard news, but I love that there’s looser rules. I think literary journalism is a great place to learn how to use first-person to tell a story. I think of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The story of HeLa cells was the goal, but Skloot’s adventure in research became the anchor of the story. I can’t imagine the book would have been as successful had we not been along on the adventure with HER, but rather reading about cells.

  3. Are we talking about two distinct issues here?

    1) That it can be really creepy/weird when a first-person voice comes from the Brand itself, e.g. your Buzzfeed examples? (Note: we’ve had a couple instances on social media where it actually worked – a singular personal voice “I” vs. “Lewis”, but the use cases are quite rare where the situation lends itself well to this)

    2) That it can be really powerful when the Brand speaks directly and individually to the reader, e.g. “you” the prospect/student (2nd-person) instead of, to Donna’s point, “here at X, students will”?

    Or maybe I’m just confusing my “persons”.

  4. Eric,

    I agree that a “thing” saying “I” can be weird. But if it’s known that a person is behind the account, such as a post being signed with a ^DT for instance, could work. Otherwise, I like the first-person plural, “we.” :)

  5. Institutions and business using the first-person perspective is very advantageous because it makes their customers more engaged or somewhere they belong to if they are using these products especially if it is globally known. It makes one feel like they are on top of something and unique from everyone else.

  6. That’s 2 clever by half and 2×2 clever 4 me. Thasnk!

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