How Newspapers Build Content for Skimmers

The abundance of interesting articles makes it tough to cut through the clutter and get your message into the hearts and minds of your audience. But newspapers have it figured out — and they have for a long time. They’re famous for delivering information quickly, speaking to the lowest common denominator of people: the skimmers. The good news is that you don’t have to write for every reading style. Because if you can get the skimmers, you can get everyone. Let’s talk about how to organize your info like a newspaper.

First off, let’s give newspapers the credit they deserve: they model a great information hierarchy. And we can use this, especially for our busy B2B customers. We create messaging that will get to the point quickly. Not because everyone absorbs information in that way, but because if you can get skimmers, you can get other readers.

Apply this to your email newsletters, website, and social, and you’ll watch your substance come to the front.

 

 

Clear Headlines

Clear headlines summarize the whole article. There’s no guessing and no click-bait. So how do you do it?

Say it straight (then, if you can, say it “great”). Tell the whole truth really quickly, without trying to be clever. If you just landed a contract with a big company, and you want to tell people about it, consider: “Blimey Construction Wins $50 Million Bid to Build Cardinals’ Stadium.”

Then, once you’ve said it straight a few times, add a superlative like “killer,” “best,” “top,” or give a number. Tell people exactly what you’re going to tell them to do. For instance, let’s say you want to talk about how to set up a manufacturing line for ice cream, but you want it to sound interesting, and not like a manual.

  • You could say: “How to Set Up a Killer Manufacturing Line for Ice Cream.”
  • Or you could say: “5 Mistakes that Will Lead to a Meltdown on Your Ice Cream Line.”

Mistakes to avoid: Whatever you do, create tension with the headline. The first example above might sound happy and optimistic, but the second one sounds more interesting. Everyone wants tension. Tension organizes a story and makes you want to know more until your questions are answered. Make sure you build a little tension in the headline by telling them what they can get — or even lose — from the info in the article.

Remember, you can’t make people interested if the topic isn’t relevant. But for those for whom it’s relevant, make the topic feel so clear and organized that they can’t help but click.

Inverted Pyramid

A clear opening paragraph/summary — the first or second paragraph in any news story — expands on the headline, giving slightly more detail on each aspect of the headline. Like an upside-down pyramid, a clear opening paragraph (working with a clear headline), puts the bulk of the information at the top, not the bottom. It lets people know if they’re wasting their time or not.

Example from the Wall Street Journal:

Headline: Grand Jury Subpoenas Sent to John Bolton’s Publisher and Agent

Nut Graph (first paragraph): Federal prosecutors issued grand jury subpoenas to former national security adviser John Bolton’s publisher and literary agent on Monday, according to people familiar with the matter, launching a criminal investigation into whether Mr. Bolton mishandled classified information.

Notice that the nut graph expands on information contained in the headline.

How it can work for you: In any article you write, you want people to absorb the information. Write the problem first, because that’s what most people relate to, then talk about how you’ll solve it with your article. Give them everything you can right up front by summarizing.

Mistakes to avoid: Remember that newspaper articles are written to fit into a newspaper. They put the good stuff up top in the article, but leave the details toward the end. Why? Because the editor might cut the end to jam in another article on the page, or might make the article “continued on page D8.” This is where you’re different. Since you can publish your whole article, blog post, or whatever in full (plus, you want people to read your call-to-action), try to avoid answering all the questions you raised before the end. Make sure even the skimmers have a reason to read to the bottom.

Active Voice

Writing in the active voice forces you to use more and stronger verbs than adjectives and adverbs (modifiers). This makes the piece more active and interesting, “showing,” rather than “telling” the reader what you’re claiming.

Here’s where some examples will help:

Passive: Resound is great! They were the best to work with. Resound has indispensable knowledge and unprecedented ability to build a website for us. Once Resound was done, the website got rave reviews from our customers and employees alike. Working with Resound was a dream since the communication was always great and we were never in-the-dark.

Active: They didn’t just give us a pretty logo, they really looked inside our firm to understand our clients, our team, and our reputation in the community. Working with Resound on the firm rebrand was a great experience. They made the whole process (from brand audit to launch) run very smoothly. Their team is creative and professional. I am very excited with the final product we received from Resound.”

I highlighted the passive words in the first example and the stronger verbs in the second. The passive words, sometimes called “to be” verbs, tend to weaken the sentence. By finding those weak verbs, you can look for a better sentence structure. For example:

  • “Resound is great.” You’re not giving me any reason to think Resound is great. All I know is that you think they are. But if you told me something that Resound did, I’d be able to see what you mean.
  • “We were never in the dark” could change to “By communicating regularly, Resound made sure we always knew what was next in the process.” Granted, we have to add information to the sentence to make it active, but that’s precisely the point.

How it can work for you

As we talked about before, “Say it straight, then say it great.” So take a two-step process to writing, starting with your crappy first draft. Allow yourself to use all kinds of crappy language and imprecise writing in order to get what you want down on paper. Sure, it’s crappy, but it needs to get down on paper as the first draft. Then, a day later, you go through it and cut stuff that doesn’t seem to add to the message and make the first paragraphs, headings, and summaries — and the important stuff — super clear, direct, and punchy. And you’ll be able to because you’ve written about it and are now so much more familiar with the topic.

So what mistakes come with this process? Obsessively self-editing and also trying to edit when you’re still inspired by the topic. Let’s break these down briefly.

  • Don’t self-edit during your first crappy draft. If you do, you’ll bog yourself down and you’ll find that it’s harder to finish.
  • Along that same vein, the rule goes “Write hot. Edit cold.” This means to make sure you write when you’re inspired by a topic; this helps you to delve deeply into the topic. But then you edit when you’re not inspired; this helps you to be objective and get to the point.

These rules are like cheats; anyone can use them. Follow these two rules, and you’ll activate your copy and become a better writer than some who are naturally more talented than you.

Get the Skimmers and the Rest Will Follow

The skimmers are the toughest people to engage. But often they’re the most valuable. Plus, the same article structure that makes it easy for skimmers also helps the regular reader who has a little more time. In other words, if you write clear headlines, give the main point up-front, and use an active voice, you’ll find that your articles attract more of the right readers and really engage them with a well-organized and active message.

And even though you might not write the next great American novel, you can console yourself with the engagement and leadership you build within the industry through your clear writing.

If you’re looking for more practical tips like these, consider signing up for our newsletter, or joining in on our next Brand Roundtable Chat where we’ll be discussing creating compelling content and building remarkable brands with a small group of leaders and marketers like yourself! Glean from our years of experience running our Phoenix area creative branding agency. We look forward to seeing you there!