Looking Beyond the Words to Deliver News Our Readers Can Use

By Jamie Stark
During a recent editing webinar I attended, the instructor shared this statistic: 8 in 10 people will read your headline, but only 2 will continue past the headline and read your story. Wait, what?

As I think more about what this means, I realize just how tough a job we have as government communicators. Given how quickly information is shared online and how much is readily available at the click of a button, how do we make sure that our message stands out and actually makes it to our audience?

Plain Language Techniques to Create “Grab-and-Go” Content

When we hear the phrase plain language, we think of writing that’s clear, concise and easy to understand. But, plain language also means looking beyond the words to figure out the best way to present information so that it meets our audience’s needs. In her book Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works, Ginny Redish talks about the importance of creating “grab and go content.” Our readers want to be able to “grab what they need and go on to look up their next question, do their next task, make a decision, get back to work, or do whatever comes next for them” (Redish, p.6).

Let’s face it—we’re all looking for information that we can quickly read while we’re waiting for the train or our coffee order at Starbucks. We seldom have time to read a document from start to finish; as a recent article concluded, skim reading has become “the new normal.”

Even when we may not have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to the message itself or the specific words that we use, we often do have some flexibility on how we present the information. Here are some guidelines to create content that is easily scannable:

  1. Write a headline that connects with your audience. The headline should be the hook; it’s what draws in your readers. Think about what is important to your audience (why are they visiting your site, for example). Be specific and use language that’s familiar and recognizable to your audience. You also want to be as concise as possible while keeping your headline memorable – in general, about 60 characters or 7 words make a good headline. Here’s an example:
    Take Cover from Email Storms
    Prevent “Reply All” Email Spikes

As Charlie Corbett, author of The Art of Plain Speaking: How to Write and Speak in a Way that Will Impress the People that Matter suggests: “You’ve probably got less than a second to win your reader over, so cut out the flab and stick to the facts” (p.17).

  1. Add headings to chunk information and make it scannable. Headings are like the breadcrumbs of your document. They show the logical structure and allow your readers to go directly to the section that most interests them. Headings help readers answer the question: Can you understand what kind of information is on the page for the first minute or two? According to UX Planet, “scannability is one of the essential factors of website usability today.” As readers, “we aren’t ready to invest our time and effort into exploring the website if we aren’t sure it corresponds to our needs. So, if an eye has nothing to be caught with at the first minutes of introduction, the risk is high that the user will go away.”

Headings also create white space, which is important to give your readers’ eyes a break and separate information into smaller chunks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Clear Communication Index “Information Design” section defines a “chunk” as the “amount of words or numbers that people can hold in their short-term memory and group with other words or numbers.” When you chunk similar information together, you take the burden off your reader and make information more accessible and useful. Rather than having to dig through “large blocks of text that look like wall-to-wall words” (Redish, 2019, p.146), your readers will be able to quickly and easily find the information they need. Talk about a win-win situation—You’ll be successful in getting your point across. And, your readers will appreciate that you took the time to design your document with their needs in mind.

  1. Use lists and tables to display information in a different and interesting way. Part of plain language means meeting your readers where they are. Some readers may be more visually oriented, so paragraphs of text may not be the best way to share important information. Not only do tables and lists help create that all-important white space, but they also display complex information in a visually clear way so that it is easier to understand and remember. By including these in your document, you’ll help your readers focus on the important content of your message rather than get distracted or lost in the words. For example, if you’re giving instructions, a numbered list allows you to display the steps in logical order so they are easier to follow. Think of your favorite cake recipe—it lists the baking steps in order from start to finish. If you forget one of the steps or do them out of order, your cake may not rise or could be dense instead of light and fluffy.

Tables are another option to make complex material easier to understand, especially if you’re trying to convey conditions or multiple outcomes for a particular situation. Take, for example, this if/then table (under “Eligibility”) from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on the requirements to bringing parents to live in the U.S. as permanent residents. By presenting the situation and the related consequence side by side, readers can more easily figure out which scenario pertains to them and what they need to do.

More Information

Visit plainlanguage.gov for more tips on how to organize and design your documents for reading and for online viewing. When you help your audience quickly find the information they need, you’ll transform grumpy readers into happy readers who are more receptive to your message.

References

Redish, Janice (Ginny) (2014). Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works. 2nd ed. Elsevier: Waltham, MA.

Corbett, Charlie (2019). The Art of Plain Speaking: How to Write and Speak in a Way that Will Impress the People that Matter. Routledge: London.

Jamie Stark is a writer-editor at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and has more than 15 years’ writing and editing experience in the federal government. She also serves as the Training Coordinator for the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN).