How to write for those who don't want to read
There are two kinds of readers, those who want to read, and those who do not. People may not want to read, even if they want to understand what is being written, for a variety of reasons but mostly because time is a scarce resource. If you can get the information you want in 30 seconds why should you spend 5 minutes? Least effort principle rules the world, here as well. We are going to talk about how the information is distributed in a document and what we can do to help lazy readers to get the valuable information even if the investment of time is minimum.
Information distribution in a document
A document tries to communicate some information, but not all that information has the same value. Often there is a 20% of information that has most of the value (let's say 80% of the value) and the rest is somewhat valuable. But you'll get to the point of the document even if you do not read the 80% least valuable information. That 20% most valuable information is contextual to the reader, not all readers have the same interests. But at the end, the writer has some intent in that document and that is what defines the 20% most valuable information.
This 20% of information that has most of the value can be accessible or not. Let's say that you must read all the document to get this information, it is ok, but lazy readers will fail in their legit goal of least effort. Ideally, investing a 20% of total read time should be enough to get the 20% most valuable information. Between that two cases, there is a variety of possibilities. Most documents fall into the middle ground of having to invest some time to get the point, but not an excess of time. We can compare documents in that dimension, the change to get the point of the document given time:
Great, not all documents are created equal. Some readers may have preferences for one type or another. Maybe you can help me answering this super-short form about reading habits (just 2 questions). But what we can do to increase the chance of getting the point with minimum time investment?
Techniques to make valuable information accessible
- Separate each big idea in a section.
- Use section titles to tell what the big idea is about.
- End each section with a short summary of what has been told. This summary should explain just the section's big idea.
- Separate each small idea in a paragraph.
- Use bold text to emphasize the idea behind each paragraph. If a paragraph does not have valuable information (maybe it is complementing or reinforcing an idea) it may not have bold text. We do not want to mark in bold each small idea, but instead just important ideas of those 20% most valuable information.
- Use charts and other graphics to let readers double check the ideas. They should read first the idea in the text and then when they see the chart it should reinforce the idea so they are certain about they got the point.
There are many other techniques to let readers understand faster what you want to communicate. If you thing someone is missing comment it!