In today’s always-on world, the need for speed is greater than ever

When was the last time you read a novel? A big, chunky, doorstep of a novel? Hundreds and hundreds of pages of densely packed text, which kept you enthralled for hours at a time? OK, maybe that was a bit ambitious. How about a really long article – I’m thinking New Yorker-length, or perhaps Standpoint? One where the journalist takes several thousand words to give a vast, panoramic overview of the topic, scrupulously presents both sides of the argument, and reaches a balanced, thoughtful conclusion? OK. Ambitious again. How about a full-page article in a Sunday newspaper? A broadsheet, I mean, not one of the tabs, with their half-page photos and big, brassy headlines that squeeze the column inches. OK. Let’s stop there, and I’ll just take a shortcut. To the point.

Short and tweet

Getting your message across in as few words as possible has always been the guiding principle of marketing copy. But in the internet era, the approach is even more relevant. You don’t have the luxury of rambling. Not that you ever did, mind you. It’s just that now, people are only ever a click (or a swipe) away from another screen, message, tweet, page, app, clip or game. The way we consume information is changing. Even the way we talk about it is changing – who ‘consumed’ information in the 70s, 80s or even the early 90s? We’re voracious info-animals, and we can’t get enough of it. Trouble is, we don’t do detail anymore. Or length. Just last week, I caught up with a friend of mine whom I haven’t spoken to for long while. He was always a big reader, and had at least two books on the go at any one time. So what was he reading? “Er, nothing – I mean nothing big. Not at the moment,” he said falteringly. “In fact, I haven’t actually read a book – I mean a book book, not an e-book – for over two years.”

The long and the short of it

It’s something that Nicholas Carr knows only too well. He’s a technology writer and author of the boat-rocking article in The Atlantic magazine in summer 2008, Is Google making us stupid? His thesis is that the sheer volume of information available to us is changing the way we read, as is the number of devices we have it served up to us on. He’s noticed that he’s no longer able to do ‘deep reading’ in the same way he used to, as his brain is remapped to skim, skip and hyperlink. I know exactly how he feels. And that’s partly why I printed out his article (seven A4 pages, by the way – breaking out in a sweat yet?) to read offline. I just knew that I’d flit about if I read it online, and its subject matter made me want to really concentrate on what I was reading.

Cut it down, spice it up

And my point is? The point I’ve spent all these paragraphs building up to? Brevity is king. (If you’ve made it this far, congratulations, by the way. ) It’s not that people don’t want detail – they do. It’s just that you need to serve it up in bite-sized chunks, so they can digest it. We don’t do long anymore. Short is the new long – and here’s what to do to fit in with the fashion:
  • Get organised. Don’t just throw your facts in a pile, like some Swedish self-assembly bed. Instead, put them together so they make sense, they’re ordered logically and are easy to understand.
  • Reach for the red pen. No, you don’t need 500 words. Yes, you can cut it down. No, you don’t need to say everything. Yes, you do need to select. No, you probably don’t need that last point. Yes, it was a mistake having 12 bullets.
  • Chunk it, like good old Dan Brown did in his blockbuster The Da Vinci Code (short chapters, cliffhanger at the end of each). Small sections work better, as people don’t feel so intimidated by them. Keep them turning those pages.
  • Summarise your key points in a box: the quick, two-second elevator pitch that makes people want to find out more.
  • Write for both types of reader – the skimmer and the deep-reader. OK, the latter are in short supply these days, but they’re still around. So give a quick summary, list the highlights, and let them choose whether they want to plunge into the deep waters of detail. Don’t just chuck ’em in (they probably can’t swim).
  • Minimise temptation. Don’t have too many hyperlinks in your body copy – you’re just making it easier for people to go elsewhere. Instead, put them at the end (just look below).
  • Know the end point before you begin, so you can lead the reader quickly and effectively to their destination. Want them to sign up? To purchase? To fill in a form? To call for more information? This way please…
The internet may be changing how we think, but we still want information. It’s just a matter of how it’s packaged that’s changed. We may not be chunky-novel readers any more, but we still want a good story. As long as it’s a short story. Find out more:
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