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 usually read only the first few words of lines. Skimming will likely increase as print publications disappear and digital outlets, Kindles and iPads flourish.
Skimming may be the new normal, the new reading. Some experts lament that skimmers lack deep understanding of the text, but the reality is that corporate communications, public relations and marketing writers must adjust their digital content for skimmers, which these days means most people.
Writing Techniques for Skimmers
These techniques help skimmers consume content quickly – yet still comprehend the brand’s key PR and marketing messages.
Headlines. Condense the essence of the article into the headline. Make the key point in the headline and first paragraph. That standard journalism and PR writing method becomes absolutely essential to grab skimmers.
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 every subhead in the first paragraph and then elaborate. Think of it as writing the inverted pyramid method, advises freelance content marketer Emily E. Steck.
Lists. Lists get your points across quickly. Plus, lists stand out visually among paragraphs. However, beware too much bolded text. If too much is bold, then nothing is bold.
Short paragraphs. Stick to two or three short to medium sentences per paragraph. And feel free to write occasional one-sentence paragraphs for emphasis. Some PR pros write blog posts almost entirely with one-sentence paragraphs.
Eliminate 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?”
Short sentences. Write short sentences. And strive to start sentences with important, attention-grabbing words. In other 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.” Some writers recommend the Hemingway App to achieve Hemingway-like clarity.
Key details. Make sure skimmers can easily find small yet important details. That includes the date, time, location of an event and prices and specifications of products. “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.
Visuals and captions. Visuals such as charts, graphs infographics and images can relay complex information quickly. Many people prefer to consume information visually. Because readers and skimmers in particular are drawn to images, summarize key messages in captions. Videos can also hold viewers’ attention.
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.
How did we do, skimmers?
Bottom Line: Most readers usually skim articles online. It’s essential for communication professionals to adjust their writing style to accommodate them. If they don’t, many people will miss their key PR and marketing messages they hope to promote.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.