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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Write for Skimming

Back in January 2008, I suggested that people Stop Reading and instead Skim Dive Skim. It received some passionate replies - although not quite what I expected. Most people proved me wrong and they actually read things - see the survey results about whether people found a small bit of text embedded in the middle of my post:
  • 74% of the people saw it
  • 21% missed it
  • 5% not sure
I'm still convinced there's lack of ability to get people's attention and have them focus on any details - see Corporate Learning Long Tail and Attention Crisis or better yet read the comments in Stop Reading where they passionately discuss people not reading emails. So while you may be a reader, likely a lot of the people you are writing for are skimmers.

Writing for Skimming

To me this means that we all have to work on our ability to write for skimming. I can't say that I'm all that great at this, but here are some things I try to do.
  • Break Up Text - Write relatively shorter paragraphs with the main idea called out in text.

  • Use Headlines - Breaking up content into major sections and label those sections with headers.
  • Use Bullets - Bulleted lists makes it much easier for a skimmer to get useful information.
  • Bolding- Within copy on the page, it's good to bold words or phrases that you want to jump out. Skimmers' will pick up that text first and then may read the rest of the words around it. Don't make everything bold or it will make nothing jump out.
  • Hyperlink Text - The text that goes along with the hyperlink will also jump out to the skimmer. Change the text to fit what you are trying to say.
There's a ton more on this, but these are the basics for me. What do you do to try to write for skimming?

18 comments:

V Yonkers said...

Most important: put most important material at the beginning and end of your post. Most people skim the first few lines, then scan down, looking for "highlighted" areas (bold, bulleted, linked, or differences in color), then read the last sentence (the point of the posting usually).

I believe more and more that visuals (charts, pictures, clips) also gain the reader's attention.

James said...

I think it's nice to think in terms of visuals, bullet lists, bolding and linking, but a couple other things are important too.

Write with an active voice. How something is written can engage, and then if it's tight and bullet-ey ... all the better.

Also, beyond simply linking to something, there are simple visual treatments you can apply like indents and whitespace.

Sue Waters said...

First sentence make sure it grabs their attention. Good use of images to engage them. Make the first sentence of every paragraph count.

Like Virgina's point about the most important information at the top and bottom. I like to end with questions where possible. So start with questions to engage and finish also for same reason.

Another is not to include all the answers so that you give readers the opportunity to share their thoughts.

This post of mine is about my first five tips for writing better blog posts is my most popular post and relates to writing posts that help deal with how people read posts. One day must get around to my next five tips but what would I choose?

John Zurovchak said...

Tony,

Very timely post! I just facilitated a session on Monday in our Leadership Development Program for a course on Effective Communication. We reviewed the very points that you made in your post. I would also second Virginia's comments regarding visuals. I would argue that we need to take Dan Roam, John Medina and Garr Reynolds to heart regarding the fact that we are visual animals. I am not very good at this part of it either, but it makes sense to me that incorporating visuals into our routine communications would help people to process information more quickly and to retain it longer.

Nick Schubach said...

Did they see it or did they say they saw it. I have a theory that most people don't like to be proven wrong. (Not the fault of people per say) They will vote that they saw it even though they didn't and look back up through the text to find what they missed.

Tony Karrer said...

Wow, great comments.

@Virginia - I'll comment on first few lines below. I agree on visuals, but they take me way longer to do than text, so I end up doing them sparingly. I completely agree that often they are the first thing that people see.

@James - good point on active voice and indents and whitespace. One thing that's always been interesting is the blockquote. It really jumps off the page at you, but only sometimes is it the thing that's most important to skim.

@Sue (and Virginia) - first sentence that summarizes and grabs. I find that I'm horrible at it. I often end up rewrite it several times. And I often now give up because I don't feel I can write a good first sentence.

Can you maybe help me by writing a better first sentence for a few posts of mine? I know I'm bad at this.

@Sue - Great post. Should have read it first.

Love starting and ending with a question! I used to do that in class all the time. Start with a nasty problem that students couldn't solve easily and then get them there during the class. Not sure I know what question I should have wrote on this post.

Also, the question I put at the end is often what I'm interested in hearing back about from readers. It may not be a summary. I guess both work right?

@John - I completely agree about visuals and Dan Roam, Dave Gray, etc. are fantastic on this stuff. I'm trying to get better and especially trying to become faster. But good visuals (like writing short amounts of content) are hard.

@Nick - That's an interesting theory that I really hadn't considered. It's so unscientific that it's hard to know what's reasonable to guess would be the right number. Still, even if it's 30% who skim, that's a pretty high number (and I believe it's higher than that).

Sue Waters said...

@Tony If you watch how people like Chris Brogan blog you will see how they use starting with a question really effectively. He is also great a mixing up long posts with short posts.

My post are often way tooooo long. How I mix it up is to have the longer "how to" posts with the short "Can you share your advice." Which works well for me due to the readership size.

Interesting point about how the use of images impact on you. Which would explain why you don't use many.

PS Still say I wouldn't change anything about how you write. You engage with your community well and are one of the few bloggers that repeatedly make me want to respond to your conversations.

Downes said...

If what I'm writing is important, they don't skim it. If it's not important, they'll skim it.

Also, as Yonkers says, put the most important stuff up front, so readers can decide right away whether or not it's important.

Tony Karrer said...

Stephen - I think it depends on what you define as important and to whom. If what you write is important to the reader and it's immediately useful and needed, then, yes, likely they will read it more thoroughly. However, often you can find something very interesting, probably important at a later time but only skim it. For example, your 10 year outlook - I think of it as generally being important, but I've only had time to skim it and read a couple of paragraphs in more detail. It's on my list of things that are important to go back and read at some point.

So, again, it's definition of important.

And while you are probably the most voracious reader around, I still would put money that you have great skimming skills. Or you would simply choke to death on the volume of stuff you consume.

Gary Wise said...

Great post, Tony!

The responses are all spot on as well, and I have something to add that I did not see - addition of a bit of humor!

In a previous life, I used to work for Sprint in a product sales support role, and much of my communication to the widely dispersed sales force was via email. Critical information required by a sales person in tough competetive situations was typically embedded in email presentation format.

Your list of key methodology are essential, but I cannot underestimate the power of humor that shows up in the content as well. It helps for the author to be a little twisted in that way as well. Not sure if that's a gift or a curse, but I can validate the effectiveness of this technique by phone calls I'd get saying that of all the emails they received, mine always were read because you never knew when or where within the message something might show up that evoked a chuckle.

I'm not describing silly stuff, but an occasional content-relevant zinger that puts a smile on someone's face. I've read of many studies that tout the use of humor in the right circumstances to break the tension and tedium of our daily grind.

I found it to be an effective encouragement to read (over time) as my reputation for a blend of fact and entertainment stimulated a desire to dive in.

Tony Karrer said...

Gary - that's a fantastic point. How did we all miss that?

Michael Kaisaris said...

I can understand why a blogger might want to write with skimming in mind. I find myself, skimming blogs all the time if I don't feel the post is relevant to my own interests. However I suspect that the the techniques that create informative, engaging and persuasive writing for skimmers are worlds apart from the techniques a writer would use to create the same effects for readers that are actually reading. Reading and skimming are such different activities, that I believe writers using techniques to aid skimmers in digesting their words, are actually making it harder for the real readers. Strong, engaging sentences and paragraphs often have a structure that puts new and interesting information at the end, so that the reader doesn't have to stumble through unfamiliar territory before they get a sense of the subject. This is true is paragraphs too, often in academic writing. The writer introduces the subject before we see a thesis, for example. Also, it is difficult to create the sort of flow that readers need in order to fully submerge themselves in a text with a bulleted list. How then, can bloggers create a style that gives readers in each camp the sort of text that they want to read?

Tony Karrer said...

Michael - that's a very interesting question. Most of the techniques I suggested are more signpost techniques that I don't believe hurts reading (actually I believe it helps because it highlights what I consider important). But you are right that sentence composition might be quite different for skimming and reading. Hopefully other people will weigh in on this.

Chuck Leber said...

Great comments on this. I would add:

For detailed info include an outline of the points that will be covered (can do as hyperlinks to the relevent content). This functions as an advance organizer that communicates what will be covered and the structure of the information.

It's worth noting that creating documentation using the points being discussed greatly enhances its value as a reference aid. It makes it much easier for a user to find exactly the info being looked for at a future point in time.

Two books worth reading on this (just read Tony's post about books!)are...

"Mapping Hypertext" (the classic book about structured writing or Info Mapping) and "Visual Language: Global Communication for the 21st Century." Both books are by Robert Horn.

Michael Kaisaris said...

Tony,
"actually reading" looks like an overstatement in the light of a new day. And I can see what you mean about signposts. Each technique you have mentioned suggests, "start reading here," or "jump off into a new flow of information here."

Chuck,
Thanks for the suggested reading. I was just re-reading some of the things that I have recently posted on my own blog, and I think I need a bit of a crash course in this 21st century communication.

Joyce Seitzinger said...

Start by telling your reader why your information will be important or useful to them. If you can solve one of their problems, they will read on.

I do this in emails advertising staff development sessions:' "I set up a forum but no one is using it" Sound familiar?'

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Tony

I hate to be lagging behind here, but I go with Sue on the opener. In fact, there is the golden 32 word catch. If you can't nail it in the first 32 words, forget it.

Journalists use this rule - but, of course, this is only a hook. It's the layout that makes for easy skimming.

I'd go easy on the bullets too - five bullets OK, 15 bullets and it's dead Jim.

The editors of magazines and newspapers know more about skimming than most web page or blog page writers.

I notice that your text column width is wider than most. A skim reader can find it easier skimming a narrower column of text than a wide one.

It is for this reason that magazines and newspapers have columns of text, formatted much narrower than the average text columns on a web page or blog.

Lately I've been watching my paragraph size. From my own experience, I find huge chunks of text in paragraphs daunting and difficult to keep on track with when I'm reading.

It is significant that some of the most popular blogs (and I mean popular to the tune of 50 to 70 comments within 3 to 5 days) all have a format with short paragraphs (Sue also recommends this) and medium length sections - with headings as you say.

The Rapid Elearning Blog uses this style and with good effect. So does Zen habits.

Sentence length is another good parameter to watch. Ater I started using the Flesch Reading Ease facility in Word, I found that after the first two or three posts that I monitored using it, I could write without needing to check my ease all the time.

I have a hunch that the writing style has also a lot to do with skimmability of text. Some may argue that this ties in with Reading Ease.

I also suspect that punctuation may help with some readers. For as trivial as they may seem, commas break up text in a similar way to paragraphing, permitting cognitive assimilation.

Spot ya
from Middle-earth

Tony Karrer said...

Joyce - I think the question at the start is much the same idea, but you are definitely right that having the right start in terms of value helps people understand what they are seeing.

Ken - great suggestions. And looking at the Rapid eLearning blog, they definitely are a good example of allowing for skimming. A series of headers, with small paragraphs.

Small paragraphs that are easy to read does not necessarily mean it's good for skimming. That means you have lots of easy to digest paragraphs. And yes that's much less daunting to read. But it doesn't necessarily make it easier to skim. You still need the signposts.