Get read: make it short

July 18, 2011

Whether I’m assisting clients with a newsletter, Web copy or an annual report, frequently the  challenge is to help them to feel comfortable with less text. Annual reports are particularly prone to numerous long paragraphs explaining details of the many undertakings of their year. The thing is, no one is going to read it.

Whoever coined the phrase, “information snackers” to characterize today’s readers got it right. People are inundated with information at every turn and time is always at a premium.

Very few people are going to read a 40-page annual report, no matter the content. Think of how you read a newspaper or online content. Do you start at the beginning of a page and read through to the end of the publication, website or article or do you scan for headlines and keywords that interest you?

I’m not saying that there is never a time for more lengthy content but readers need to be really interested and committed to the subject matter to engage with it. By all means, make more lengthy content available for those people, but think about your writing as you would about introducing yourself at a cocktail party. You don’t begin with your life story, you introduce yourself with a few highlights such as where you live, work or by mentioning a common interest. If you connect  with the person,  you then convey more about yourself.

It’s the same with whatever you’re writing. Assume that your donors, supporters, customers or stakeholders will only read headlines and one or two paragraphs at the most on everything you write. If you can keep content that short and to the point, you’re ahead of the game. You need to get key information out quickly or you’ll lose your audience. Use large blocks of solid text that run on for several paragraphs and you take the risk that your intended audience will not read any of it.

Here are five tips to keep your content brief and readable:

  1. Start by writing key messages in bullets – This sets the stage for being brief and encourages you not to include unnecessary information. From here, you can build short paragraphs and weed out unnecessary words and phrases.
  2. Get an outsider’s opinion – Find someone who is part of your intended audience and get them to read your content critically. What info are they drawn to and what do they skip over? Cut or edit your content accordingly.
  3. Read other content similar to yours – Read the annual report or newsletter from another organization and critically examine what you read and what you skip over. Go back to your content and try to view it with the same perspective.
  4. Make it look as short as possible – Use bullets, lots of headlines and text boxes with additional info and don’t feel you need to fill every page or screen to its margins. White space gives the perception that the content is manageable and breaking up your writing as much as possible allows readers to “snack” on what’s there.
  5. Get an outside writer – A professional writer outside of your organization can help pare down information and determine what needs to stay and what can go. He/she will also be skilled at using the fewest words possible to communicate key messages.

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