On Friday at a dental appointment, I had a chance to read People magazine, something I do only when at the dentist or standing in a supermarket line. The cover featured Ellen DeGeneres, and I wanted to read her interview. Where would I find it?
I flipped past two pages of ads, and the information I needed stood out boldly: Ellen, page 52. Easy!
An hour later, home from the dentist with a rubbery mouth, I glanced at the title of a Wall Street Journal article online: “Justice Stevens: The Five Extra Words That Can Fix the Second Amendment.” Interesting! What are those five words?
[Correction: I realized after publishing this post that I was reading The Washington Post–not The Wall Street Journal. My apologies to WSJ.]
Unlike the People approach, former Justice Stevens’s Wall Street Journal article did not quickly supply the information I sought. After scanning 1617 words of a 1785-word article, I finally found the five words: “when serving in the Militia.” (Justice Stevens’s revised Second Amendment would read, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”)
Granted, The Wall Street Journal is not People, and an article about the U.S. Constitution has a different weight from an interview with Ellen. Yet People helped me find what I wanted almost instantly, and the Stevens article made me strain to find the information.
What you can take from People to apply to your business writing is this: Readers want information fast. On the job, they may not have time to slog through lots of content. Recognize what they will look for and point them toward it:
- Use bolding and highlighting at the left margin, where readers are scanning.
- Include brief descriptive headings like People’s “On the Cover.”
- Write in short chunks of text.
- Insert white space between the chunks.
- Use bullets for lists or similar pieces of information.
How do you help readers find information quickly–whether they are staring at their laptops, scanning their phones, or standing in line at the supermarket? Please share your ideas.