Last week at a presentation for the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), Puget Sound chapter, I tried an experiment I often use to illustrate how long it takes readers to find information. Here’s how it goes:
I show a slide that communicates information in one 90-word paragraph, and I time participants to see how long it takes for everyone in the room to find the answers to two simple questions. Reading the paragraph, participants usually take between about 6 seconds and 30 seconds. Last week, everyone found the answers within 25 seconds.
I asked, "Is 25 seconds the right amount of time to find basic information?" Most people said it was far too long. But one brave individual said, "What’s wrong with taking 25 seconds to find information? That seems fine to me."
Before I could respond, another attendee told him, "When it takes me more than a few seconds to find something, I stop looking. I give up or I pick up the phone and call."
That’s when I conducted Part 2 of the experiment. I showed a slide on which the same information appeared in shorter chunks of text, with headings, bullet points, and white space. This time the group took between 1 second and 6 seconds to find the answers to the same two questions.
A few days after the presentation, the person who had asked "What’s wrong with taking 25 seconds?" emailed me asking for the two sample slides. He wrote, "My communication tends to be wordy, and the example you provided was great."
Have you thought about how long it takes readers to find information in your messages? Why not look at an email you have recently written, and think about what your readers will want to find in it. Can they find it quickly? One common reader question is "What do you want me to do?" If the action items are not easy to find, readers are likely to overlook them.
To be sure essential information stands out, use headings (in a bold font or a larger font), short chunks of text, bullet points, numbered lists, indenting, or other formatting. Think of your job as highlighting for the reader. Like yellow highlighting, too much is pointless. The right amount draws your readers’ attention to the information they need.
No, 25 seconds does not seem like a long time. But when we multiply it by the dozens of documents people read each day, it can feel like a lifetime.