Updated: Jun 3
Eight seconds. According to recent research, the average attention span of persons is less than that of a goldfish (which is nine seconds). It therefore means that a reader takes eight seconds to decide if an article is interesting enough to keep reading. Whether you are in the business of selling products, services or ideas, the aim of your annual report, press release, donor report, funding proposal, blog post and other promotional materials are all the same---It is to get people to take some form of action.
This action may be to buy, to donate, to grant, to sponsor, to sign up, to attend, to subscribe etc. Even a document that is written to increase awareness ultimately wants someone to engage in a particular behaviour (such as washing one’s hands after reading a brochure on sanitation and hygiene). Your written documents are all about a Call To Action.
However, if you only have eight seconds to grab and hold a reader’s attention, how do you write a compelling article that inspires people to take action? The following tips may be useful to you.
1. Know Your Audience
The first step is understanding your target audience and knowing that they are king. A document should always serve their needs and their interests. Once you know what motivates, interests and inspires your target audience, then you can write a document tailored for their needs. You can pitch an article at the right level and don’t run into the problem of writing a technical document laced with jargons for a non-academic audience.
Ideally, you should have the same content repackaged in different formats to appeal to your different audiences. Want to know why that nice 150 page publication that you handed out at a conference (that the donor loves so much) is now a door stop at someone’s office? One reason may be that the thick document with all the programme details addressed the donor’s need for accountability but is not appealing to the conference attendee who is more interested in the stories of how the programme changed people’s lives.
Knowing your target audience also allows you to frame your message in a way that is relevant to them. This will make your document more interesting for persons to read.
To give a practical example, I recently wrote a blog post on an evaluation approach called ‘Contribution Tracing (CT)’. Since the approach is new, I knew that most persons had never heard of it before. It therefore meant that an article written solely on the approach itself would not catch the attention of a wider audience. As the topic of ‘impact assessment’ is known to people and is a buzz right now, in my blog I framed or contextualized CT as an impact evaluation method (which it is by the way). If CT had anything remotely familiar with ‘Brexit’, best believe I would have framed the blog post that way as well.
2. Have a Coherent Structure
Before I begin to type the first letter of a document or an article I already know how it ends. Once I know how it ends, I then try and figure out the beginning. The last thing I do is work on the ‘middle’ of the story. Everybody’s creative process is different, but this one works for me. It amazes me how some people just start writing without an idea of where the story is going or how it ends. This is how incoherent documents that lack structure and are all over the place are produced.
Every single piece of document you write should have a clear beginning, middle and an end. These three sections of your document should then tie seamlessly together and always do a summary at the end. Not only is this an elegant way to close an article, but it reminds the reader of the key takeaways.
3. Tell a Story
As children we all had an imagination. We dreamt of magical worlds and faraway places with beautiful landscapes and interesting characters. Somewhere along the way as we enter adulthood we lost this sense of wonder and got stuck in in a grey, lifeless world that becomes reflected in our boring and lacklustre articles.
Have a vivid imagination
Story telling is not just for children. We can infuse life into our documents and the cold statistics of our reports by telling a story. Said story should have images and appeal to the different emotions to tantalize the senses and enhance the reader experience. I usually use humour to invoke a state of happiness in the reader. If you feel happy and entertained there is a greater chance of you being engaged in the article.
Additionally, give the reader a ‘rest’ by breaking up solid text with graphs, charts and images. You will hold their attention longer this way.
You can find several royalty free images at Morgue File, Unrestricted Stock, Pixabay, Foter.com, DeviantArt, Photoeverywhere.co.uk and Animalphotos.info. If you are unable to find something suitable you can always utilise the services of a professional photographer or cartoonist for custom drawings.
4. Keep It Short and Simple (KISS)
According to the famous writer Kurt Vonnegut, every sentence in the story should either reveal something new or move the plot forward.
Too many articles ramble on and lose the reader’s attention. Use Vonnegut’s principle to edit mercilessly so that you have an engaging article that gets straight to the point (with the style and flair intact of course!).
Additionally, for documents targeting a wider audience, experts recommend that you write at the level of a 14 year old. It does not mean that you are ‘dumbing down’ your document. On the contrary, you are making your article more conversational and relatable. Furthermore, for articles aimed at an international audience, it is good to keep in mind that some persons are not native English speakers.
5. Have a Call To Action and Follow Up
Apart from ending with a summary of the key points from your article, a well written document will always have a Call To Action somewhere at the bottom of the document. This is where you instruct people on what to do next.
Do you want them to subscribe, visit a website or get in touch with you for more information? Say so. If you say nothing, there is a strong likelihood that people will do just that after reading your document…nothing!
Once people have taken the desired action and you are aware of it, follow up by responding or thanking them. It is just common courtesy.
6. ‘Jazz up’ Your Title and Cover Photo
Once you have written a great document, formulate a title that is attention grabbing. Don’t underestimate the power of a great title and an appealing cover photo. This is what will entice people to start reading the informative content that awaits them in the body of your document. Make sure that your title does not mislead though. Persons should have a good idea what your article is about from your title. As such, ditch the vague, obscure and boring titles.
For example, an obscure and boring title for this article could have been ‘All About Writing’ or ‘Writing in Today’s World’ and then I put a cover photo of a pen. Honestly, would you have felt inclined to read the article?
Even technical reports can have ‘jazzy’ titles. One publication ‘The Evaluation of Politics and the Politics of Evaluation’ by Chris Roche and Linda Kelly (2012) is an example of a nice and playful title that reels you in.
Remember that people definitely judge a book by its cover, so make yours great.
In summary, take your documents from mediocrity to awesomeness by knowing your audience, having a clear structure, telling a story, applying the KISS principle, having a Call To Action and using a killer title and cover photo. These tips work for all types of publications (from proposals for funding to academic papers) as humans are the ones reading the documents and the last thing you want to do is bore them to death.
Bored to death by a dull article. The silent killer that is sweeping the country
Hope these tips were helpful. However if you still need help to glamorize your articles or produce content to promote your business feel free to get in touch with me.