9 ways to get your message through to skimmers

As the daily time crunch tightens and the need for knowledge grows, more and more readers use shortcuts to glean information from online content. Try these tactics to court the impatient.

Chances are, you won’t read this article. Most people won’t; most will skim it.

Everyone’s too busy and too overwhelmed with information to actually read much, especially online. Heat map studies prove that after the headline and introduction, most online readers read only the first few words of lines.

Skimming will probably increase as print publications disappear and digital outlets, Kindles and iPads flourish.

Skimming may be the new reading. Some experts lament that skimmers lack deep understanding of the text. Regardless, corporate communications, public relations and marketing writers must adjust their digital content for the vast audience of skimmers.

The following techniques help skimmers consume content quickly while still comprehending key PR and marketing messages:

1. Headlines. Condense the essence of the article here. Make your key point in the headline and first paragraph.

2. Subheads. Subheads organize content into categories and help skimmers find information. Ideally, readers can understand the gist of your message through the subheads. State the main point of each section right away, and then elaborate.

3. Lists. Lists get your points across quickly and stand out visually. However, avoid excessive use of boldface text. If too much is bold, then nothing is bold.

4. Short paragraphs. Stick to two or three short to medium sentences per paragraph, and write occasional one-sentence paragraphs for emphasis.

5. Short sentences. Within those paragraphs, write short sentences, beginning them with important, attention-grabbing words. Start with a key PR and marketing message. If skimmers encounter: “Discover a powerful tool to help you get organized. XYZ Software helps you get more done,” they’ll miss the point because of the fluff at its beginning, says copywriter Nick Usborne. Instead write: “Get more done with XYZ Software.”

6. No fluff. Skimmers—and others—skip promotional copy, buzzwords and marketing-speak. “Web browsers (the people, not the technology) have built in fluff detectors so keep your writing concise,” comments Rishi Patel, founder and creative director of Monazu. “Besides, do you really want to spend all that extra time writing stuff that doesn’t even matter?”

7. Key details. Make sure skimmers can easily find important details. Those include the date, time, location of an event, as well as product prices and specifications. “It’s seriously annoying to be interested in attending an event and not be able to find when and where it’s taking place,” says copywriter Pat Friesen.

8. Visuals and captions. Visuals such as charts, graphs, infographics and images can relay complex information quickly. Many people prefer to consume information visually. Because skimmers in particular are drawn to images, summarize key messages in captions. Videos grab and hold viewers’ attention.

9. A wrap-up. Many skimmers go quickly to the bottom of the article, Patel says. Highlight the article’s main point with a P.S., bottom line or similar wrap-up. The bottom is also a great place for a call to action such as “Sign up for a Free Trial.”

Most readers usually skim articles online. It’s essential for communication professionals to adjust their writing style to accommodate them.

A version of this post first appeared on the Glean.info blog.

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