2020 was a pretty wild ride, to say the least. By December, it’s probably safe to say we were all hoping to catch a break in the new year. Unfortunately, the universe had different plans for us, because 2021 turned out to be just as unpredictable as its nightmarish predecessor.
We found out UFOs exist, watched a billionaire space race, and saw Texas freeze over while the Pacific Northwest melted. TikTok produced the fever dream that was Ratatouille the musical, Reddit crashed the stock market for fun, and because nothing is sacred, Daft Punk broke up too.
Amidst the mayhem, Gen-Z thrived; born into a world of disruption, they’ve proven that they’re just as chaotic as the past two years have been. The one key thing to learn here from the unpredictability of both the universe and Gen-Z is that no matter how much you study them, no matter how much you think you know, you will never, ever be able to confidently predict what they’ll do next.
Don’t get discouraged if you’re already feeling left behind—not even Gen-Z knows what Gen-Z has in store, but it’s even harder when you’re on the outside. Given you’ve clicked on this article, we assume you probably are.
Take it from me—I’m a content writer with Inspirit, an interactive, educational platform targeted directly at their Gen-Z. My entire job is to write for them, and even I struggle figuring out where to go sometimes—and I’m only one year outside their generational bounds!
What I’ve learned is that in order to write for Gen-Z, you have to think like Gen-Z; and in order to think like Gen Z, you have to know Gen-Z. So, before you start typing away, let’s go back to where everything began for our most indecipherable generation—the advent of the internet.
Who are you writing for?
As the first true digital natives growing up in a rapidly-evolving world, Gen-Z is hardwired to adapt and process information at an unprecedented speed compared to earlier generations. The average Gen-Zer bounces between five screens at a time and has an attention span of only eight seconds—six seconds shorter than the average millennial, and one second shorter than a goldfish.
This time frame may seem short, but it doesn’t mean they’re only capable of paying attention for eight seconds; rather, it means it takes them eight seconds to judge whether or not a piece of content is worth their time–an important distinction that’s often misconstrued when talking about Gen-Z.
Gen-Z is on track to become the most educated generation to date, and why wouldn’t they be? More than three-quarters of Gen-Z report receiving their first smartphone before the age of 18, and many much younger. Your writer, belonging to the micro-generation between Y and Z, often termed “Zillennial”, received hers at the ripe age of 9. Today, 98% of Gen Z report having a cell phone, which they check over 80 times per day on average. A world of knowledge at their fingertips has exposed them to topics other generations hadn’t even heard of at their age. “Just google it” was the mantra of their childhoods, and every answer was a few taps away.
Gen-Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation we’ve seen to date, with 25% of the population Hispanic, 14% Black, and 6% Asian. The internet has allowed them to connect with people of different circumstances in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a largely in-person world. As a result, they’ve become enormously empathetic, radically inclusive, and just as progressive as the millennials who preceded them.
For all the good it’s done, a hyper-connected cyber world has also led to an isolated reality. Only 45% of Gen-Z says their mental health is very good or excellent, in contrast to Millennials (56%), Gen-Xers (51%), and Boomers (70%). Social media has played a starring role in this gap. One study reported that of its 4,500 Gen-Z pollsters, 86% said social media has a direct impact on their happiness, 85% on their self-esteem and self-image, 83% on anxiety, 81% on loneliness, and 79% on depression. Nearly half of Gen-Z spends 10 hours on their phone each day—and most of it’s on social media.
Many older generations like to say that maybe these kids wouldn’t be so depressed if they’d just get off their cell phones and read a book, but social media may be one of the few escapes they have from an even harsher reality.
Gen-Z was born into a world where the hits started and didn’t stop coming. From 9/11 to the War on Terror, the 2008 global recession, rampant school shootings, endless political turmoil, the climate crisis, a pandemic, and another global recession—they’ve never known an era of peace. Now, take those traumas and compound them times 1000 as they’re thrown in their faces in an endless loop on the internet. It’s no wonder Gen-Z is cynical.
Institutions such as schools and governments have been unreliable in keeping Gen-Z safe in the face of these tragedies, and their failures have not gone unnoticed. A study conducted in June of 2020 found that only 39% of Gen-Z reported trusting the U.S. Government—a five-point drop from the already low percentage of the year prior. 56% said they trusted the public educational system, 53% said they trusted the Supreme Court, and 40% said they trusted the news media—overall, not the most impressive numbers. What this tells you is that Gen-Z’s trust is earned, not given, and it’s hard to get back once it’s gone.
88% of Gen-Z says they care deeply about social issues, so you’re going to have to care about them too (or at least know enough to talk about them). The top social causes Gen-Z is passionate about in 2022 include racism, the COVID-19 pandemic, gender equality, abortion, poverty, healthcare reform, sexual harassment, and LGBTQIA+ rights. They prefer a creative take that doesn’t hit them over the head; entertaining information is always better than boring information, especially with topics as heavy as these.
How should you write?
What are you supposed to do when you don’t even have time to count to 10 before your target audience has moved on to something new? Long story short, make the long story short (and don’t be like this 3000-word blog post).
Your writing should be an elevator pitch on steroids.
Remember, you only have eight seconds to make your point, so if you can’t get across within the character count of a tweet, you probably won’t get the chance to get it across at all. Quillbot’s paraphraser is a great tool to help you out here, especially if you’re super long-winded and never know what to cut (like me, clearly).
Gen-Z doesn’t want to talk to a company or a brand, they want to talk to you. Often written off as unintelligent and overemotional, they have a deep desire to not only be heard by other generations but also to be understood. Listen to what they have to say and translate it into your writing, but don’t mistake imitation for relatability. You shouldn’t try to write like a teenager if you aren’t one (we’ll talk about that more later with slang and emojis). Instead, try writing like you’re having a conversation with a friend. Use simplified language, natural flow, and bring a sense of humanness to it all. In an already isolating virtual world distanced further by the pandemic, all Gen-Z is looking for is a little bit of connection.
No one likes a liar, especially the world’s most cynical generation. So make sure you tell the truth, and tell it all. If you admit you’re not perfect, you’re more likely to be seen as trustworthy, and therefore more likely to be heard. It’s exactly like building trust in the real world: you give a little to get a little back.
Treat your writing like a dialogue, not a monologue. Study their culture and listen to it, and if you make a promise, live up to it, because at least 75% will be checking the receipts to see if you did.
Like we said before, Gen-Z is socially conscious, so you have to be too. They’re not overly sensitive snowflakes or whatever other ad hominem attacks you may have heard used against them before. They understand the weight of their words and the unspoken messages those words send. If you can’t get on board with this, put the pen down now. Some general tips for what you should avoid are:
- Gendered language (water/waitress → server)
- Stereotypes (woman doctor → doctor)
- Victimization (suffers from ailment → has ailment)
- Implications toward sexual orientation (husband/wife → partner)
- Generalizations of ethnicity and race (she is Asian → she is Japanese, Thai, Chinese, etc)
When in doubt, focus on the person first. Don’t say “the homeless,” say “persons who are unhoused.” Instead of saying “schizo,” say “person with a mental health disorder.” Charged terms are everywhere, and they’re so ingrained into society that you might not even notice when you’re using one, so don’t get mad at yourself if you do. Accept the feedback, make the change, and prioritize focusing on your own education and prejudices so they don’t have to do it for you.
Gen-Z’s collective brain is like a pinball machine, and it’s hard to keep up. Every time you find something that works, it’ll likely be obsolete before you get the chance to use it twice. But don’t mistake for an enemy what’s actually your ally. You don’t have to fit into the same, overused templates that have been successfully churning out products for the generations prior in order to reach your audience. In fact, you have a better chance if you don’t. 75% of Gen-Z says original content is important to them, so be original! Fresh takes, uplifting unique voices, and the celebration of those who break the mold are a huge part of what this generation is all about.
Fair warning, Gen-Z is not one to spare feelings when it comes to their assessment of content. They can (and will) rip you to shreds for something as minor as a misplaced emoji in a way so vicious it’ll bring you back to the humiliation of being a middle schooler who accidentally called the teacher “Mom.” Though you can’t always avoid the things they’ll use against you, here are a few general tips on what to steer clear of.
First, don’t involve memes.
You probably wouldn’t do it right anyway (no offense), and the meme cycle moves so fast that there’s no longevity to the writing. This applies to Gen-Z slang as well. It cannot be stressed enough how many Gen-Zers would prefer the advent of the apocalypse than to hear an adult say the word yeet. If you take anything away from this article at all, please let it be that.
Second, watch your punctuation.
While “I can do that...” might mean “I’m willing to do that” to you, it means “I don’t want to do that and it’s annoying that you even put me in this position by asking” to them. Ellipses are either ominous or passive-aggressive, and full stops are aggressive. “K”, an acknowledgment, becomes a declaration of war when a period is included at the end.
Third, it’s always best to avoid emojis—they move just as fast as the meme cycle.
But if you’re brave enough to try, use them to express emotion—not to match what you’re saying. For example, you might want to say: “I love coffee so much ☕️”, but “I love coffee so much 😩” would hit harder with Gen-Z. It’s still recommended to avoid their use because you might think “I love coffee so much 🤤” is an appropriate use of emoji based on the previous example, but what you’ve really just done is imply to Gen-Z something of a more sexual nature than you probably intended about your morning caffeine boost.
Should you write at all?
Yes, you came here specifically to learn about how to write for Gen-Z, but the times are changing. The pen might be mightier than the sword, but it’s not mightier than the Gen-Z attention span. If you’re writing to inform, you might want to think about condensing your message into an infographic. If you’re writing to entertain, consider taking words out of the equation entirely and opt for a video format. This might seem like a weird take coming from an article that’s specifically about writing, but you should hear it out—the evidence is pretty compelling.
Marketers everywhere are pushing infographics in lieu of plain text to reach Gen-Z and for good reason. The majority of the information transmitted to our brains is visual, and we decode it faster than any other type of data—an appealing concept for a generation defined by their ability to absorb and process information at lightning speed.
It takes about 20x longer to process a single word than an entire image, which is part of why infographics work so well. The other part is that they take advantage of an automated experience called pre-attentive processing, which is basically how your brain organizes visual information before you give it your full attention. Designers can utilize different properties like color, form, spatial position, and movement to tell your brain where to look first, turning an already simplified course of information into a guided tour.
I, for one, am a devout believer in the power of visuals. For years I studied chemistry, both at the secondary and tertiary levels of education, but the concept of alpha decay didn’t fully click for me until I experienced the process in 3D. All it took was one singular visual experience to do what hundreds of thousands of dollars of college education couldn’t. But you don’t have to take my word for it.
One study showed that after 3 days, the average person retained 10-20% of written or spoken information—but 65% of visuals. Facebook photos generate 53% more likes than any other type of content, and publishers who use infographics have an increase in traffic by 12% compared to those who don’t. Though you might not be too keen on the idea, the amount of information you can get across in eight seconds with an infographic is far greater than what you can with plain text. When it comes to Gen-Z, a little brevity goes a long way.
Tangent: If you decide to look into the power of infographics on your own, you’ll probably come across a popular statistic claiming that the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than it does text. While that sounds pretty impressive, and certainly supports our point, we feel it’s our duty to let you know that it’s probably unfounded. The statistic can indeed be found in a 1997 report from the 3M Corporation, but nowhere in the paper does a direct source appear for the statistic. In 2012, Adam Levine at the Cogdog blog performed an exhaustive search for the original research, but to no avail. Not even 3M could tell him where it came from. He even put a $60 bounty on its head that remains unclaimed to this day; so if you’re an internet sleuth looking for extra cash, give it a go—maybe you’ll be the one to finally crack the case.
Infographics are a great solution for now, but photo-based platforms are getting left behind by Gen-Z, even Instagram. According to a 2021 survey conducted by Forrester, only 57% of Gen-Zers use Instagram on a weekly basis compared to 61% in 2020. In contrast, TikTok’s numbers have risen from 50% to 63% in the same time frame. So what’s the appeal?
One of the main reasons TikTok is becoming more popular than other platforms amongst younger generations is because of its short-form content. Users can scroll through an endless stream of videos in quick bursts, which aligns perfectly with the Gen-Z attention span and the speed at which their minds work. The science behind it comes from how humans communicate. 55% of communication is nonverbal, 38% is vocal, and only 7% is written, so if a picture’s worth a thousand words, a video must be worth a million.
The greatest asset TikTok has is that it’s the hub for targeting Gen-Z. Twitter may have 47% of Gen-Z on board, but roughly 80% of their user base is Millennial. Same goes for Instagram, with about 60% of their platform dominated by the older generation. (Don’t even touch facebook—only 14% of Gen-Z use it daily, and that’s the least of its problems right now.) TikTok, on the other hand, is 60% Gen-Z. Putting out content is like shooting fish in a barrel because the algorithm is so exact that you won’t even have to seek them out—it’ll bring them right to you, tailored exactly to your subject-specific niche. Of course, neither infographics nor TikToks are useful if your content isn’t good, so keep the lessons above in mind while you write.
If you’re more confused at the end of this article than you were at the beginning, we can’t blame you. Gen-Z is as complicated as the world they grew up in, and in the end, there’s no ‘right way’ to write for them. If Ratatouille the musical has taught us anything though, it’s that you shouldn’t be afraid to err on the side of the ridiculous. You probably don’t have to go as far as turning a Pixar movie into a bizarre broadway show, but try taking a few steps outside your comfort zone. It can’t hurt to try, and you might get a bigger payoff than you think.