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Writing to engage people online


Louise Clifton examines why bringing humanity to your writing is essential to engage people online, and how you can get people to stick around to read what you’ve written.

Carefully nuanced arguments are lost to time-poor readers and a scrolling thumb.

Technology has changed our habits. We often talk about generation Z’s diminishing attention span, but few of us are immune from some (or all) of this behaviour. Much of what is written for online platforms (be it an email, blog, web content, a tweet…) is viewed in a swish of the eyes across a screen or the stab of a finger punching downwards. And that’s not to mention the battleground of how many words you see depending on the size of the screen: mobile vs. tablet vs. laptop vs desktop.

Carefully nuanced arguments are lost to time-poor readers and a scrolling thumb. Whilst we can’t overcome these societal changes as quickly as it takes to order an Uber, this blog aims to help people engage their reader and to navigate the challenges of writing online content.

Being human

The strongest, most compelling weapon in your arsenal is being human. It’s also the simplest; after all if you’re reading this then it’s likely you already tick this box. Ironically (perhaps), it’s the one we are often at most risk of forgetting. The humanity in our writing gets lost by trying to get a point across, or is subsumed by Acabusinish (an unlovely hybrid of academic jargon and management speak, coined by Tom Scott).

Committing marketing sin, my view is that you are writing for another human being, not a robot scanning for keywords. That’s not to say these aren’t important – critical words that a skimming eye can easily catch because it’s what they’re looking for are useful – but if what you have to say resonates with the reader and your message is clear, then you shouldn’t compromise your voice for Google. This is me, nailing my colours to the mast.

The moment you surrender the humanity in your words for keyword analysis you should ask yourself: who are you trying to win over?

But what does ‘being human’ in this context mean?

It means not losing your style, voice, sometimes even the meter of your speech and your idiosyncrasies, in a ream of text. Of course depending on the context you may wish to be more formal (as in a press release) or more relaxed, like this blog. But always hold this question close; is what you’ve written distinctly yours?

Have you used words or phrases that will exclude readers, be misunderstood, or not understood at all?If you are writing for your organisation and you need to mirror your brand values (or guidelines) which state that you are an approachable, open and welcoming organisation, then how does your writing reflect these? Have you used words or phrases that will exclude readers, be misunderstood, or not understood at all? And does what you say draw the reader in, like you imagine a welcoming organisation would do?

Ultimately, you want your writing to be remembered, to stir emotion, or to encourage action. These are very human needs and they can only be created between one person and another. The moment you surrender the humanity in your words for keyword analysis you should ask yourself: who are you trying to win over?

What does the science say?

Humanity, for me, will always be the starting point, but it’s helpful to acknowledge how people actually engage with online content. We might also phrase this as just how little people read what’s on a screen.

A study in 2008 by the Nielsen Norman Group looked at how people read online. What they found isn’t particularly surprising, and is worth noting that it applies to web pages not emails.

Across users in the study, people read between 20-28% on an average web page. After reading for 25 seconds, people spent on average 4.4 seconds more for each additional 100 words. This is the point where people really start to skim, if they continue reading at all.

When looking at web page titles, 97% of people read these. 98% of people read sub-headings, which is a positive sign indicating that people want to engage with online content. However, users took the same amount of time to read a heading as they did sub-headings, suggesting that by this point people were starting to glance at these portions of denser text.

It’s worth acknowledging that this is only one study and of a relatively small sample, but to get a flavour of people’s behaviour these results are useful reminders of how people digest information and give helpful pointers when writing content for a blog or webpage.

Quick fire ideas

With all this in mind here are some practical ways to think about how you write and present your work:

  • Find ways to draw the eye that will disrupt lazy scanning. Aesthetically these might include the use of bold, italics, indented paragraphs, colour (used carefully) etc.
  • For blogs, web content, news articles and the like, a headline and summary are critical to let your reader know what to expect. To write an effective headline and summary, write your full piece first. Pick out your most essential points, write them down, rearrange them, and play around with how they could fit together. Include words that people may not expect to find, but always make sure that you never lose the essential thread of your message. Alternatively, try writing a haiku or a couplet or some other short form of words to synthesise what you want to say; this will encourage you to find new ways to express the essential points of your writing in a more creative way.

white space is your friend. Use it with care and thoughtfulness

  • My particular favourite – white space is your friend. Use it with care and thoughtfulness. How much you use and where you use it will depend on how much text there is, the font size and style, what screen the reader is likely to read it on etc. This point is relevant not only to web pages but to emails too. A lazily written email with indistinct paragraphs will be read lazily too.

In writing this blog I learned a lot about my natural style for writing online articles. Writing is a continual learning process, and rather than struggle with the journey the victories are in tweaking and evolving how you write, all the time. The changes you make might be based on quantitative evidence, but they come from your experience, some might call this, your humanity.

By Louise Clifton

Louise is the Director of Marketing, Communications and Operations at Invisible Grail. Louise’s passion is to help people bring alive the stories that show the wider world who they are and why what they do matters.

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