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The New Rules of Communication :: Rule #2 — Write for People Who Scan

We don’t read the way we used to.

We don’t open an email or a document and just start reading.

We scan before or even instead of reading.

Let's talk about how this works.

People scan a document first. They scroll and skim their way down the screen deciding if they want to or need to dive in more deeply. During that scroll, they look for visual clues to the big ideas or for personal value embedded in the document. Is it worth a closer look? Are there one or two sections that tease me enough to make we want to know more? Is the layout itself inviting?

Is it short or long? Before we decide to commit time and calories to reading an email or a document or blog post (including this one,) we want to know what we are committing to. Can I absorb it in 2 minutes or is this going to take 20? Sorry, but the longer it is, the less likely people are to actually read it.

I think we got here through the perfect storm of digital evolution. First, the screen itself creates the ability to scroll quickly. Second, we’ve acclimated to the frame of a screen as the container holding information. We have small text message windows, short twitter messages, and image centric Instagram post. Third, video is replacing written text as the preferred mechanism for acquiring information. (If you’re reading this, thanks for bucking the trend, you rebel.) And, fourth, information overload hunts us down whether we like it or not. Scanning the onslaught of incoming information feels like a reasonable way to manage our own limits.

Here are a five rules to help you reach your audience in this new reality. These apply to any form of written communication, whether you need to create an email, a document, or a blog post.

#1 Hang your content on a few compelling points.

Think of this as an outline on steroids. Identify the essential core components of what people need to know. And, by core, I mean the few essentials, not the 17 nice ideas. Think of these as the large hooks onto which any and all details of your communication will be hung. Your reader should get a feel for your entire message through these big ideas alone. Then try and get a tad creative in the wording of these points. Use language that hints at the added value to be found by digging in and reading more deeply.

#2 Add visual punch to your points — without emojis!

Digital platforms are an open invitation to creative formatting. Take advantage of them. At the very least put your big points in bold or in color or in a larger font. Move your big points out to the margin and indent your content beneath them. Add extra lines before each point. Use an icon instead of a bullet. Experiment. Get creative. Your big points will serve as a visual pathway for your readers eyes to follow. But, please. Don’t use emojis — they are the Comic Sans of cheesy graphic layout.

#3 Keep your paragraphs short

Long paragraphs will turn your readers off.

Point made.

#4 Fall in love with white space.

Someone recently sent me a document they needed me to read. The subject is important and the thought they put into their work, helpful. But, the document was fingernails on my chalkboard. Nothing in me wanted to read it. It was 2-3 pages jammed with a zillion words, laid out single-spaced, edge to edge, top to bottom. It was the most us inviting document I’ve seen in years.

Digital real estate is free so use the space liberally. White space is inviting to the eyes.

White space creates an open feel and in invitation to explore. It implies there is room to think. Room for creativity. The less white space you offer, the more your document feels like a firehose of content and no one wants to put their lips on that hose. So, lighten up. Use larger margins. Add spaces between sections. The law of one page doesn’t work if you fill that page edge to edge with words in small size font.

#5 Images are more than eye catchers.

Good images help make your point. Better images cultivate curiosity. Great images actually inspire a whole story. Unforgettable images elicit more questions than you will answer.

Images draw people in, they ignite engagement. Images are not gimmick, they are part of your content.

A simple example. I love the twin pay phone image in my last post. It stimulates all kinds of thoughts and questions. Do any pay phones even exist any more? We don’t even have home phones anymore. Here is an iconic image of a bygone era that single-handedly reminds us we aren’t in Kansas anymore.

It’s possible that the new rules of communication don’t inspire you. Maybe they are frustrating. I’m sorry for that. But, I can’t do anything about it. Communication is always about our audience and what they need. We don’t live in the world of pay phones anymore. We live in a new day where communication happens in a new way.

I’m curious what the “new rules of communication” will be five or ten years from now.


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