Getting People to Read Your Document

A person lying on the ground buried under paper

The picture is what people mean by “information overload:” crushed by incoming documents. But, unlike the person in the picture, in real life when people have too much information to deal with, they pick and choose what they’ll take the time to read. Most people won’t let themselves be buried and they’ll avoid that fate by not reading your document…and you don’t want that. You want people to read your document.

Your audience (whoever you want to read your document) isn’t really your audience – they’re just your potential audience. Your goal is very simple: Turn the potential audience into actual readers.In an earlier post, I showed how to structure a presentation in a way that will hold an audience’s attention. But presentation is linear – someone attending a presentation has to start at the beginning and sit through the middle until they get to the end. Not surprisingly, structuring the flow of a presentation is one of the key points in Learning Tree’s public speaking course.

For a document, however, your potential audience can choose to ignore your document completely. Your potential audience members will make that choice based on three pieces of information: The document title, any other information associated with the document, and who the document comes from (which isn’t necessarily who wrote the document). There’s not a lot that you can do about “who the document comes from,” though it’s always a good idea to have your document distributed by someone people feel obliged to pay attention to. However, you do have more control over the other two parts of your document: the title and the summary.

A Title That Attracts Readers

First: Gimmicks in titles  don’t work or, if they do, don’t work for very long. If you’re a Facebook user, you’ve probably seen innumerable articles with a title like “Someone does something…and what happens next is incredible.” There seems to have been a time when this gimmick was successful in getting people to read the associated blog. However, after a gimmick been used often enough–and it doesn’t take very often–it stops working (and it doesn’t help that what happened next usually wasn’t very incredible) And this is true of any other gimmick to get people to read your document.

There is one thing that always works as a title, though: stating the unique value of your document to your audience. That means your title needs two components: who should read it and what value it has to them. People will read something if they know that it is (a) directed at them and (b) will deliver something that the they value (notice: not something that you value or that you think the audience should value; something the audience actually does value).

Including those two pieces of information is essential…but it’s also a good idea to keep your title short. You probably won’t achieve all three goals on your first try so, initially, don’t worry about keeping the title short. “Essential Information for Owners of PT Cruisers” is a great title because it identifies the audience (owners of PT Cruisers) and what the document contains (the essential information). Another great title, for exactly the same reasons, is “What Contractors at Our Company Need to Know to Get their Invoices Paid.” Those titles, while long, are much more likely to be read than, for example, something titled “Contractors’ Welcome Guide.”

My first example, however, could be shortened down to “PT Cruiser Owners’ Manual.” With this title, the document is obviously still aimed at owners of PT Cruisers. This new title, however, counts on readers knowing what an “Owners’ Manual” contains – but that’s probably a safe bet for car owners. Every reader brings some body of knowledge to the document and should leverage that knowledge when shortening your initial title. You can also leverage the context of the document when shortening your title. You might shorten my second example down to “Contractors: How to Get Paid,” because it’s obvious what company the document applies to based on who distributed it.

There’s another benefit to including the audience in the title. In Learning Tree’s technical writing course we refer to the “other audience”: The people who your document isn’t aimed at – the people you don’t want to read your document because your document has no value to them. Including the target audience in your title helps ensure that the “other audience” doesn’t read your document. That’s good because, if the “other audience” does (by some horrible accident) end up reading your document they’ll think that your document is worthless and that you’re a bad person for wasting their time…and you don’t want that.

Writing an Effective Summary

You may have more than just your title available to help you describe your document to your potential audience. Often, you will be able to add a subtitle to your document that will be displayed with the title. Often the subtitle  can be longer than your document’s title. If your document is being distributed through email then you can use the subject line of the email and the first couple of lines in the email body to describe your document to your potential audience.  Those additional words are often referred to as the document’s “blurb” (journalists often call it the “lead” or “lede”). You can use your blurb to help convert your potential audience into readers.

The most important rule to remember in writing a blurb is “Don’t repeat your title in your blurb”. Instead, use the blurb to extend the title’s promise around the value your document provides to the audience. You can do that in two ways: either by providing more detail about the value in the document or by pointing out some other value that’s also included in the document. My car owner’s manual might have a blurb like “How to keep your car running cheaply and efficiently for many years”; my document aimed at contractors might have a blurb like “Including how to get paid promptly.”

In many ways, writing a good blurb uses the same skills required to write a great executive summary (Learning Tree’s course on writing business cases has an excellent section on writing executive summaries). The major difference between writing an executive summary and a blurb is that you should only take  20 to 25 words for your blurb — and, again, shorter is better. If you’re interested in some guidelines from another field around writing blurbs (or don’t want to take the whole business case course just for section on writing executive summaries), try this short article on writing blurbs about plays (I’ve found it surprisingly useful even when writing blurbs for business documents).

With a great title and blurb you can convert your potential audience into actual readers…and you do want that.

This is the fifth post in a series about how to create presentations and documents 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 last post goes on to discuss how to structure the document’s body so people will continue to read it.

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