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More organizational communication is written than you may think. Decisions, tasks, and knowledge are largely reliant on writing, so being able to communicate effectively in writing remains a vital job skill—particularly now, when so many people work remotely.
Research shows that we don’t read much
How much does the average person actually read? Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen sought to answer this question from a digital standpoint. Researching how many words people read online, Nielsen found that—on average—people read only 20% of the words on a given webpage. And if they had the time to read diligently, that number increased only slightly, to 28%.1
A separate series of studies conducted by Ziming Liu, a professor in the School of Information at San José State University, yielded similar results. Liu’s research indicated that skimming was “the ‘new norm’ in reading.”2
To engage the reader, think before you write
There are several writing best practices you can use to engage readers, and the first of these is planning. You might be thinking: “I don’t have time to plan out every email!” And that’s valid. But if your message has even the slightest importance, you should think about the following before you start writing:
- The purpose: What is your focus or objective? Get clear on this, and then write it near the beginning to orient your reader.
- The message: What key points do you want your reader to take away? Include no more than five key points or you’ll risk losing your reader’s attention.
- The reader: Who is your reader? How can you connect your message to their interests and needs? Do you have a call to action? We tend to focus more on our content than we do on the reader, but they’re equally important. After all, content means little if it’s not read or understood.
Don’t skip the review and editing phase—it’s where the real writing happens
Writing is a two-part process. The first part is mechanical—taking what’s in your head and putting it into writing. The result can be messy, because we tend not to think in a straight line. The second part is reflective—reviewing and editing your content to ensure that your thoughts flow logically and your message is clear.
It can be tempting to skip this second step, especially when it comes to email. We often write emails in a stream-of-consciousness manner and then hit “send” without reviewing them first. Time is usually to blame, but so is habit. Cultivating good review habits is important. Here are two tips to help guide you in the review and editing phase, particularly when communicating by email:
- Ensure the purpose and key messages are obvious. Check to see that you’ve stated your focus/purpose up front and that you’ve communicated your key points clearly.
- Make the action highly visible. If your message contains a call to action, you can say so right at the top. This will help the reader prioritize. In the case of email, you can even put it in the subject line. Alternatively, you can put your call to action in the top 15% of the email—just don’t put it at or near the bottom where it’s likely to be overlooked.
Use headings to capture and keep your reader’s attention
Headings are prime real estate. When readers are skimming and scanning, they’re hoping for quick hits of key information. So here are two tips for getting the best use out of headings:
- Put your key points in your headings. People generally don’t like catchy or marketing-style headings (e.g., “Make more money with less effort”). They’re busy and want headings that convey real information (e.g., “Workflow automation has a positive impact on revenue”). Ultimately, if a reader can get the gist of what you’ve written from your headings alone, you’ve done a good job.
- Use headings frequently. Headings can help to hold the reader’s attention. They also serve as “entry points” on the page, enabling the reader to skim and scan more effectively. A general rule of thumb is to use a heading every one to three paragraphs.
Write in plain language
“Plain language” is all about ease of reading and comprehension. Here are some common pitfalls to avoid:
- Writing in a formal tone. This tends to make content harder to digest. Opt for a professional but conversational tone instead.
- Using complex graphs and illustrations. This can confuse the reader and obscure your message. If you have to use complicated graphic elements, be sure to accompany them with clear explanations.
- Relying on words only. Conversely, where it’s appropriate, use supporting graphics to simplify complex concepts.
- Alienating readers. Don’t use big words, jargon, or acronyms without explanation. Your reader shouldn’t have to crack a dictionary to understand you.
According to conventional wisdom, it’s best practice to write for a reading level somewhere between sixth and eighth grade. This article is written at a seventh-grade reading level, for example.
The most commonly accepted readability formula in North America is the “Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.”3 In fact, readability functions based on Flesch-Kincaid are baked into the software of many word processors,4 including Microsoft Word.5 Here are some free online tools that can assess the complexity of your writing and its reading level:
Writing, like any skill, can be learned
Your writing represents you when you’re not there in person, so it’s important to ensure that it represents you well. If that sounds daunting, the good news is that anyone can improve their writing skills with a bit of practice and a few good habits.
Sharon Habib is an associate with Kwela Leadership & Talent Management, consulting on communication and brand strategy. Also a business-writing instructor, Sharon teaches the live webinar “Write to be Read” for CPABC’s PD Program. The most recent offering was held on December 9, 2021, and the next will be held this spring.
This article was originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of CPABC in Focus.