How to write for skim-readers

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In this blog, we’ll look at ways to make sure your content works for people in a hurry, and how to write easy-to-navigate and digestible copy. 

First thing: please could you count 15 seconds? (humour me – I’ll wait). 

Done it? Ok. You’ve stayed on this page for longer than most people. 

According to this article from Buffer, less than half of people will stay longer than 15 seconds. 

A lot has been said about how people’s attention spans are getting shorter. But I’m not sure that’s necessarily true. People still read books and magazines and newspapers and watch dozens of hours of TV series like Game of Thrones

The difference is that people have more content to consume than ever. Also, with access to smartphones and other portable devices, they’re consuming that content in short bursts while on the go. People won’t waste time on something which isn’t interesting.

“Ok, Richard,” you might think, “so there’s a bunch of people skim-reading our charity’s content on the bus. I’m not worried about them. The people who really need us will read what we have to offer. And our charity’s supporters are really engaged, and will read everything.”

Aside from being an arrogant viewpoint, I don’t think this is true. No one reads everything. Even so, everyone will benefit from you making things as easy to read as possible. From a moral standpoint, it’s not right to expect people who need your charity’s information to put up with difficult-to-read content. 

So maybe the question isn’t “how do we write for skim-readers?”. Maybe we should be asking “how do make writing easier for everyone to read?” 

There are a few different aspects to this.

Use headings to make your writing easier to navigate

Headings and titles make articles and written information easier to navigate. Content Design London’s brilliant Readability Guidelines has a great section on headings and titles which has a lot of great advice. Some key tips from the writing perspective include:

  • Make headings specific and descriptive
  • Front load’ headings, putting the most important information first. For instance, rather than ‘Information about our charity’s research’, use ‘Our research’. 
  • Use sentence case (Rather Than Capitalising Every Word Like This Which Makes It Difficult To Read)

If you need to highlight specific pieces of information, you could use bold weight (rather than italics) to emphasise words, and using highlight boxes (or highlighted text) to emphasise sections of text.

Front-load your content

Decide what’s the most important information is and put it first. 

Say you want a recipe for carrot cake. You enter ‘carrot cake recipe’ on Google and click on the top result. What would you hope would be the first thing on the page? A recipe for a carrot cake, right? 

Instead, many online recipes provide a lot of background information, maybe a bit of the history of carrot cakes, the first time the author tasted carrot cake, lots of photos of carrot cakes… It’s all nice, but it’s often not really what the audience came for. 

In my opinion, a better way to organise a page like that would be to put the carrot cake recipe first and then the other information afterwards.

Now, imagine this for information on your charity’s website. Let’s say you’re a medical research charity, and you have a page for scientists about the research grants they could apply for. What is it that people are most likely coming to that page for? It’s probably to apply for a research grant. So make that the first thing they see.

Or, let’s say you’re a cancer charity, and you have some information about cancer symptoms, which is part of an ‘awareness day’ campaign to make people aware of the signs to look out for lung cancer. 

What’s the most important information on that page, that you want to get across more than anything else? The signs of lung cancer to look out for. So put that first. 

Summarise early

Similar to the point above. Say someone comes to one of your charity’s web pages. When people are in a hurry, they want to know whether this is the “right” webpage for them. No one wants to invest loads of time in a webpage or an article only to find out it wasn’t what they were after. 

Give people an idea of what’s on the page by summarising early. Put it as a ‘subheading’ under the main heading.

One nice example of this is the book ‘Content DNA’ by technical copywriter John Espirian. At the beginning of each chapter, he provides a very quick summary of the chapter, labelled with “get to the point”. 

Use formats for people with little time

Provide your content in a way that gives people what they want as easily as possible. Bullet points and lists are useful for this. 

People often dismiss listicles as vacuous clickbait. But they can work as a format because they give people information in an easy and digestible way. They’re also engaging – if you see an article called “11 ways you can….” you’re more likely to read all 11 ways. 

Ask yourself ‘is writing the best way to get this across?’

Take a step back – is writing even the best way to get people the information they need? Would it be easier to get the information across in an image, an infographic, or a video? Or maybe get people what they need using a web tool like a calculator? (This is a key part of something called content design.)

Appeal to self-interest

People will read something if it gives them something they want – or in other words, if it benefits them in some way. 

So when writing something (be it some information or a blog post or an article), imagine a person reading it, and pick an angle that appeals to that person’s self-interest. For example:

  • Tackle specific problems – e.g. it’s the difference between an article on tips for washing clothes and an article about “how to get ketchup stains out of your child’s white school shirt”. 
  • Achieve something for them – the difference between an article about railcards, and “how to apply for a railcard”
  • Equip them with knowledge they can use – the difference between “combatting climate change” and “5 things you could do at home to combat climate change”. 

Grab attention (and keep it)

a man in a suit holding a smartphone

You might know that your article or information page is great. But that person who’s scrolling on their phone on the bus doesn’t know that. It’s just one thing in a whole line of things they could read.

So make sure that the whole package is grabbing people’s attention from the start. I’ve written before about how to get more people to read your blog posts, and many of the tips there will also help with other content here. 

This includes:

  • Title – make it descriptive and/or exciting or intriguing. Appeal to people’s self-interest. 
  • Lede – if you’re writing an article, make sure the opening few sentences (the lede) grab people’s attention. Drop people into the middle of the action. Or start with a curious or funny line. This article has a few tips: 
  • Email subjects – The ONLY job of an email subject line is to get you to open the email. So do everything you have to do to make that happen. Here’s a great blog with 100+ email subject lines for fundraising emails (which of course apply to other emails too)
  • Featured images – another way to try and grab people’s attention while they’re scrolling through Twitter or Facebook – an image is more likely to catch someone’s eye than just another bit of text. 

How do you make your charity’s information easy to navigate and digest? Let me know – get in touch, either by email, tweet me @DrRichardBerks or follow me on LinkedIn.

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