Two Steps to Ensure Your Document is Read

Here are the four facts that describe how people actually read your business or technical document – and, based on those facts, the one tool you need to get your potential audience to actually read your document.

10926445166_7764d9d17b_oHere’s a fact we don’t think about much: Unlike you, your readers haven’t read your document. As a result, your potential audience doesn’t know what’s in your document or, if they do know what’s in your document, they don’t know where to find what they want in your document. Your document looks, to your readers, like the picture on the left: A towering mass of information that the reader has to find their way through. If you can’t convince your readers that what they need to know is in your document AND that they can find what they need…well, then you’ll lose those readers and all of your work will be wasted.

There are two steps to ensuring that your work isn’t wasted and that your document will actually be read and used. The first step is getting your document’s audience to actually start reading your document (a topic I covered in my last blog post). The second part is to convince your reader to go beyond just reading the title of your document — which is what this post is about.

The good news is that getting your readers to actually read your document is easy to do provided, of course, that you understand how people actually read a business or technical document

How People Really Read Your Document – Four Facts

Here are four facts about how people read business and technical writing that (we describe these in more detail in Learning Tree’s Technical writing course):

  • Most people make a decision about whether they should bother reading a document is in a very short period of time: The time varies from study to study but it’s always a period that’s measured in seconds (the one exception: people who claim that they read everything “cover-to-cover”…but even they spend less than 15 minutes with a document).
  • People don’t read business or technical documents from the start to the finish (no matter what you’d like to believe). If you think about the way you read a newspaper then you have a pretty good model of how people actually read a business or technical document: Rather than begin reading your document at the start, readers begin by scanning the document, looking for information they think will be useful.
  • When, after scanning, readers find a page that looks useful, readers still don’t start reading what you’ve written. Instead, based on the page layout, readers will organize the page into sections (typically, a “section” consists of a heading followed by some body text). Readers then make judgments about what each section contains, assess the value of each section,  and then prioritize the sections. Only after that process,  do readers actually start reading, beginning with whatever section they think is most valuable to them (or deciding to skip the page if they decide none of the sections look valuable).
  • On the Web, people spend even more time scanning and skimming than they do when working with paper documents and even less time reading (probably because computer screens have poorer resolutions than paper documents, which slows down reading speeds).

In that description, you’ve probably recognized your own behavior when reading business documents. Guess what? Everyone else is doing the same thing.

Building a Document that Will Get Read

Putting these four facts together means that, except in very unusual cases, your readers don’t actually read your document. Instead, readers read only sections of your document. At best (and only for some kinds of documents) you might be able to count on readers reading your document’s introduction…but after that, readers will start scanning for the sections they’re interested in.  A section, therefore, is a group consisting of a heading, some body text, and the audience that’s looking for that section.

So, your first step in creating a document that will actually get read is to ensure that every reader can determine if the section they’re looking for even exists in your document. Your second step is to make sure that your readers can find that section. The primary tool you have for meeting both of those goals are are your document’s headings.

This means that your headings, not your body text. are the most important part of your document: Get the headings wrong and no one will ready your body text. If your document is short (under five pages), you can expect readers to flip through your document, scanning your headings to see if you have what they want. If your document is more than five pages long, you should provide a table of contents (really, just a list of headings in your document along with page numbers) so readers can use that list to determine if your document has the section they want.

To support scanning, your headings shouldn’t be cute or clever. Instead, your headings must accurately describe their section’s body text to your reader. That means that your heading must use the words and concepts that are familiar to the reader the section is targeted for. It’s often helpful to think about what questions the reader expects the section to answer and then craft your headings around the answer your section provides. If, for example, your reader is wondering about whether they can afford your project, a heading like “Project Costs” will let the reader know both that you’ve addressed the issue and that this section has the answer. It’s that heading makes your document valuable to your reader.

To put it another way: It’s not enough for your document to have the information; You must also tell your reader that your document has the information (and where to find it). Great headings convert your potential readers into actual readers.Headings are so important that some writers,recommend writing your headings first (this one, for example, in a post that includes some excellent tips on writing great headings).

Defining Sections

Which raises the question: How do you decide when to start a new section? The tight coupling between an audience, a heading, and body text gives you the answer. Whenever you

  • Change topics


  • Have some content that only some of your readers will want to find

then that’s where you should insert a new heading to mark a section for your readers.

Online, because readers spend more time scanning, headings are even more important. In a paper document, you’ll typically end up with a heading every 500 to 700 words (about three headings every two pages). In an online document, to support skimming and scanning, you should aim to reduce the content in your sections to have the headings crop up every 300 to 500 words. One way to reduce the body text between the headings is to make secondary information in a section available through a link rather than in the section itself. If you’re counting, this blog post has about 1300 words and is divided into 4 sections: less than 350 words per section.

Headings let potential readers quickly determine what value your document will have for them and, more importantly, find what they need quickly. As Learning Tree’s course on business and report writing says, the audience for your document is like a person at a presentation who arrives late (by skipping to the section they want) and leaves early (by stopping once they’ve found what they want). Headings let your readers know when they should come in and when they can leave. Your readers will thank you for that.

This is the last post in a series of six that discusses how to create a presentation or document that people will pay attention to. The first two posts talk about the importance of getting the readers’ attention and what you have to do before you start creating your document or presentation.

The next two posts show how that’s applied in a presentation that people will pay attention to. The first post shows how to start the presentation and the second discusses how to structure the body of the presentation to keep your audience’s attention.

The previous post showed how to get people to pay attention to your document.

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