In an age of too much information, be careful what you ask for (you might just not get it).

I just sent a PDF by email to a client. It’s password-protected – not by me, but by the person who sent it to me – and I told her so. It’s password-protected, I wrote. Here’s the password, I wrote. It’s case-sensitive, I wrote. A couple of minutes later, back came the reply. It looks like it’s password-protected, she wrote. Could you let me have the password? Sound familiar? I’ll bet it does. In our always-on, 24×7, welcome-to-the-machine world, it’s easy to feel swamped by the deluge of data. So we find ways around it. I’m no exception. I’m just as guilty as anybody of skimming, scanning and hopping from one headline to the next. But how else can you cope with the onslaught of information? More importantly, how can you help your prospects and customers cope? Because it’s not just about helping them deal with information overload. It’s about helping you make the sale, get the call, find a lead or receive an enquiry.

Here’s looking at you

OK, time to get our priorities right. You first. And for a very good reason – because if you can’t see the wood for the trees, the message you get out to your target audience will be muddled, confusing and frustrating. So how do you focus on what’s important? Easy – cut down the distractions.
  • Do one thing at a time. What happens to you when you’re overloaded? Personally, my pulse increases, I feel like I’ve had too much caffeine, and I get a strange tingling feeling in my arms and legs. If I start dumping the ballast (Skype, reading the news online, checking social networking sites) and do just one thing, I can feel my mojo returning and my karma heave a sigh of relief. You will too.
  • Go offline. This is a really scary one, I know. And if you’re anything like me, you can’t trust yourself to really, really go offline. Luckily, help is at hand. Freedom is a devilishly clever little program that disables your internet connection for up to eight hours at a time. The only way you can close the program is by rebooting – which is enough of a disincentive to all except the most recalcitrant.
  • Speed read. No, no, I’m not suggesting you plough through a Buzan book or fork out a fortune on a course. Just adopt one simple technique. It’s something I learned a few years back when I wrote copy for a speed-reading guru. Everything else I’ve forgotten, but this one simple tip has stuck: read the first sentence of every paragraph. Nothing else, just the first sentence. You’ll pick up the gist without reading the bits in between. It’s simple but smile-crackingly effective.
And that’s it? I hear you say. Well yes, it is. Because if I listed my 50 Top Tips for increasing productivity and getting more done, you’d work out a 51st one – skip them. So there. Now what about your customers and prospects?

Slowly, slowly, catchy…

You’re overwhelmed. They’re overwhelmed. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t get through to them. You simply have to think ahead – and more importantly, think like them.
  • Make it easy. I skim, you skim, he skims, she skims. Face it – we all skim, so make it easy for people to do it. Break up your copy with bold, bullets, headings and colours. Vary the font size, but don’t go too wild (here’s a tip: use three point sizes maximum, and multiples of two e.g. 10pt, 12pt, 14pt).
  • One (idea) at a time. Divide your ideas up into paragraphs. Cut down the paragraphs, so they don’t look so daunting. Make sure each paragraph passes the ‘read only the first line’ test (yes, it’s a game two can play).
  • Summarise before, summarise after. Don’t launch into the detail straightaway. First, give a summary – but not an executive summary, or at least, don’t call it that (nothing sends a shiver up the spine quite like those two fatal words). So it’s an overview. Then, follow with the detail, and at the end, wrap up with the main points. So your prospects have three opportunities to pick up your message.
  • Don’t give too many choices. I’ve just been looking at broadband offerings. I’m having trouble with my current ISP (more about that sorry saga in another post) and I’m thinking of switching, after seven years of loyalty. But is the competition making it easy? No chance. Especially BT – there’s Anytime This, Total That, the Everything Package, the Almost-But-Not-Quite-Everything Package. Evenings and Weekends, free this, unlimited that. So which one did I go for? None of them, of course. I decided simply to cut and run.
  • Make it obvious. How often have you read through copy and thought, yes, yes, all very well, but what do I do next? If your time is short, so is theirs – so don’t waste it. Get to the point fast, and show them what to do next. Allow for impatient readers, and impulse buyers. Have a clear, simple, easy call to action.
  • Communicate often enough, but not too often. It’s a delicate balancing act, and it’s important to get it right. Let them know you’re out there, but don’t be a corporate stalker.
Meanwhile, back at the copy ranch, I got an embarrassed email from my client. I must stop skim-reading, she wrote. No, I thought, you mustn’t. You’ve just got to start doing it properly. Find out more:
  • Nothing left to lose. Freedom’s more than just another word – it’s a way of life. And it’s available for Mac & Windows here. As used by Dave Eggers (and Rachel).