No One has Time to Read Ambiguous Messages, so Get to the Point

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Photo Credit: “Point!” © 2007 a2gemma, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

BEEP! A notification chirps from your smartphone. You pull the phone out of your pocket, wipe your fingers on your cotton jeans and swipe the smooth screen to unlock. Tapping open the email app, then …

BANG!

BOOM!

CRASH!

The emails clamor in your inbox. Each email is screaming at you. Look at me! Look at me! Read this now. Do this now. Emails are reminders of your unfinished tasks.

And your inbox is bursting. Continuously flooding with messages, the inbox is a cacophony that will never be silent.

When you acquiesce and scan the first email, trying to understand the long message on the little screen, do you wish the sender had written more words?

Probably not. You wanted the writer to be brief, concise and clear. Please get to the point, you beg.

If this is what you want, imagine what your client is thinking.

You and your client want everything you read online to be succinct.

Josh Bernoff surveyed 547 people who write at least 2 hours per week, excluding email. Bernoff’s a 30-year professional writer and author of “Writing Without Bullshit.” Results from his survey show the relationship between what we write and what we read. The people surveyed claim their writing was mostly effective, but what they’re reading was mostly ineffective.

One survey question was:

Online Content Effective versus Ineffective
How to Improve the Quality of Your Social Media NOW by Josh Bernoff. 2017 Content Marketing World

One can make the argument that we do.

Bernoff showed examples of poorly written email messages, mission statements, website pages and employment ads written by professional writers.

We as communicators say we write well and everybody else is at fault, but the survey revealed we contribute to second-rate writing online.

We may need a refresher. The same rules for writing a paper document are not the same for publishing online. They’re waayyyy different.

“We all learn to write for print, but that’s obsolete,” Bernoff said.

According to The New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo, “We live in the age of skimming.”

In an article he wrote as a former Slate writer, Manjoo urges readers to continue reading the entire story and not stop at the few first paragraphs. Readers who stop miss critical details. But he’s also aware of competing distractions.

“Really—stop quitting! But who am I kidding. I’m busy. You’re busy. There’s always something else to read, watch, play, or eat,” he said.

A data scientist at the traffic analysis firm Chartbeat, Josh Schwartz, looked at how people scroll through Slate articles. “Schwartz’s data shows that readers can’t stay focused. The more I type, the more of you tune out. And it’s not just me. It’s not just Slate. It’s everywhere online,” wrote Manjoo.

How do you counter your reader’s limited attention and focus?

1. The Iron Imperative

Iron-ImperativeWhen we follow The Iron Imperative, we assume the reader’s time is limited. We need to get to the point. Don’t waste your reader’s time. By internalizing this mindset, you will strive to say your message in clear, brief language.

2. Improve the Meaningful Words Ratio

Is every word necessary? Bernoff shared a formula to help you decide. Use the Meaning Ratio to evaluate your edits.

Meaning Ratio = meaningful words/total words

How do you determine the meaning ratio for your words? Keep words that convey the core message – useful, valuable and relevant — and delete the nonessential words.

Let’s use the ratio in writing an email, something you do several times a day.

Write a draft of your email message. Look at the draft and examine the sentences.

You want to identify what the message is about. Highlight the words that provide meaning. What facts does the reader need to take action? Those words are the core message. Find and cross out the filler words. Replace jargon with concrete words.

Your goal is to achieve a 70% or greater meaning ratio.

Look below at an email I wrote recently.

Email Before Editing

53% Meaning Ratio = 59 meaningful words/112 total words

Hi H—-,

Good to hear from you. Hope you had a great 4th of July. We did.

Thanks for contacting me.

Yes, I’m available to work on the project with you. Is this the company & website? http://www.————.com/

Here’s a snippet of my questions about the project (from a previous email) in order to create a quote for you.

First, what’s the timeline on this project? Shall I contact D—- to ask the following questions? My questions include: When’s the launch date? Quote needs to include subpages in the 4 pages of content, correct? What’s the main goal of the new website? What do they dislike about their content?

Thanks,
Shannan Seely

Now I take Bernoff’s advice and revise.

Editing the Email

Words Key:
Meaningful
Filler, unnecessary, redundant, jargon
Move text

Hi H—-,

Good to hear from you. Hope you had a great 4th of July. We did.

Thanks for contacting me.

Yes, I’m available for to work on the project with you. Is this the company & website? http://www.—-.com/

Would you or D—- answer these Here’s a snippet of my questions about the project (from a previous email) so I can in order to create a quote? for you.

  • First, What’s the timeline on this project? Shall I contact D—- to ask the following questions? My questions include:
  • When’s the launch date?
  • Quote needs to include subpages in the 4 pages of content with how many subpages, correct?
  • What’s the main goal of the new website?
  • What do they dislike about their content?

Thanks,
Shannan Seely

The revision resulted in improving the Meaning Ratio from 53% to 71%.

Email After Editing

71% Meaning Ratio = 59 meaningful words/83 total words

Hi H—-,

Good to hear from you. Thanks for contacting me. Hope you had a great 4th of July. We did.

Yes, I’m available for the project. Is this the company and website? http://www.—-.com/

Would you or D—- answer these questions so I can create a quote?

  • What’s the timeline on this project?
  • When’s the launch date?
  • 4 pages of content with how many subpages?
  • What’s the main goal of the new website?
  • What do they dislike about their content?

Thanks,
Shannan Seely

“If you want your message ignored, write the maximum words. If you want your message read and understood, write the essential words.”

When you rewrite, keep in mind you need to …

3. Write Short

“Use fewer words. Of all the ways to communicate boldly and powerfully in a noisy world, this is the most effective.” Josh Bernoff

Bernoff suggested writing short pieces to improve readability online. In other words, demonstrate brevity, defined as shortness of duration; especially: shortness or conciseness of expression.

He recommended four tips to writing short messages:

1. “Always start with a word limit.

A boundary will help your writing be concise. It works to create a mindset that you have limited time to keep the reader’s attention. What’s useful to them in this time?

2. “Always edit the first draft.

Do a first edit before you share the document with others, whether you’re sending it to a client or others for their feedback. You can edit vague words to expedite the editing process by team members.

3. “When you figure out what you mean, rewrite.

This is what I encounter with my own writing. I write and write. I’m getting the ideas out of my head and onto the screen. It’s only when the ideas are transferred from mind to screen that I start getting a sense of what I’m writing about. He suggests this happens to most of us. So don’t stop there. Now that you know what you’re trying to say, rewrite.

4. “Delete and reorganize relentlessly.

If you can remove a word and the meaningfulness remains, edit. Save the phrase for another content piece. Maybe the main points need to be rearranged.

P.S. What is this Blog Post’s Meaning Ratio?

I analyzed the Meaning Ratio for this blog post (excluding the three email examples).

The result was a 62% Meaning Ratio = 641 meaningful words/1040 total words.

I confess this result was after considerable editing. :-/ One of my challenges is determining what is and is not meaningful. Then, revising to shorter content, keeping the verses interesting, but yet not rambling.

Cutting out words is painful.

Revising is not as easy as it looks.

Okay, so my revising skills are a work in progress.

Be patient with me, dear reader. And do your readers a favor and try these tips. And if you have a tip you use to decide what words to keep and what words to delete, please let me know.

4 thoughts on “No One has Time to Read Ambiguous Messages, so Get to the Point

  1. One of your graphics reminded me of how a very large percentage of survey respondents indicate that they are above average drivers, never minding the reality that only 50% of individuals can be above average at anything. :O)

    Like

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