The average individual is confronted with 3500 commercial messages a day. Billboards, streetpole ads, text messages, email, TV, radio, magazines, newspapers - and that's before he or she even gets to work, where there's a mound of communication waiting.
It's not surprising, then, that 5% of people aim your communication directly into the dustbin, without reading it. It's less surprising that 79% scan your text, choosing keywords, sentences and paragraphs of interest and merrily skimming over the rest.
And the smallest shock of all is that a meagre 16% of people every word you've written. But who wants to talk to only 16% of the audience? Especially when they have nothing better to do but read unsolicited stuff; the poor, un-socialised, lonely suckers.
Why do people scan?
Why do so many people scan? Well, think about it. It's uncomfortable for the eyes to read reams of text. Also, the reading experience fosters a certain amount of impatience. And finally, most readers are ‘busy and important' - they want to get to the facts.
So your challenge is to shimmy under that radar with clean, clear and scannable text:
Use the three killer scanning tricks
- Start almost every paragraph with a heading. Everyone reads them. Condense your most important point down to a heading of seven words, max.
- Bulleted and numbered lists absolutely grab attention, so condense important items into lists of short, catchy points.
- Use italics for emphasis. They're effective because they help users to hear the emphasis you intended. Italics also make your copy look more conversational.
- Write to satisfy readers' basic needs
"What's in it for me?"
The average reader wants to know "What's in it for me?" not "What's in it for you?" You've got an idea, concept or message to communicate, but readers will only buy into it if it does something for them.
Think about documents you've written in the past. Do they typically contain more “I”, "we” and “our” statements (‘ego copy') than "you" and "your" statements (‘reader copy')?
When translating ‘ego copy' into ‘reader copy', the trick is to take each line and turn it into a line that speaks to the reader's interest. For example:
“We've been in business for ten years.” ? “You can be sure of professional service, on time and to your satisfaction, because we've been doing this for ten years now.”
It's not inside, it's on top!
Keep in mind that the position of positive and negative information is very important. Good news should appear in positions of high emphasis - at the beginnings and ends of letters and paragraphs - while bad news should appear in secondary positions: in the centre of letters and paragraphs.
Remember that pronouns like ‘you' create closeness, so they can be assets when you have good news: “Your contributions to our child welfare programme are greatly appreciated”. But they should be avoided when you have bad news and want to soften the tone: “The payment is overdue”.
Finally, get into the habit of using positive and definite wording instead of negative or vague wording. Say: “We believe in value for money.” not “We don't believe in high prices.” Why? Because readers respond better to positive ideas than negative ones, while words like “don't”, “seldom”, “rarely” or “stop” can cause unfavourable reactions.
Your reader is like a monkey
He or she can only peel one banana at a time. What this means is: use one well-developed idea per paragraph! Why? Because the absence of white space means that the reader has no ‘visual breathing room'. It's also hard to tell where one train of thought ends and another begins.
So here's a guide to proper paragraphing:
Ensure that each paragraph starts with a topic sentence and then expands on that topic. Make paragraphs proportional to the document; ie short paragraphs for short documents and long paragraphs for long documents. Finally, ensure that your paragraphs look balanced. Click on ‘Print Preview' to see the bigger picture.
Punctuation advice that'll change your life
Punctuation marks are the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, glance at that, take a detour and stop. But punctuation involves more than rules and conventions; it helps us to communicate clearly. So:
- Avoid the temptation to capitalise words in the middle of a sentence Just To Provide Emphasis Like This. If you want to be more emphatic, consider using bold, italics, colour or larger text.
- Don't over- or under-use commas. Use a comma whenever you feel you need to pause for breath. And if a sentence looks too overloaded with commas, edit it so that it is more user-friendly.
- Users of US English should use double quotes (" "). Users of British English should choose either single quotes (' ') or double quotes and stick with them. Incidentally, British English is moving towards single quotes.
- Modern style is to use one space at the end of a sentence, not two. Also, most punctuation marks (commas, periods, question marks) are not preceded by a space.
In the end, be guided by the genius of William Strunk Jr (dead since 1946 but no less accurate because of that), who said: "Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”