Attention spans aren’t shrinking
Because we share so many short formats these days – like posts, Tweets and GIFs – some marketers conclude that our attention spans are shrinking.
That suggests that shorter and shorter copy is the direction of travel. Long copy is old-fashioned and short copy is modern; copy just gets shorter and shorter over time.
In reality, however, while the statistics on shorter attention spans are quoted all over the internet, there’s very little evidence to back them up.
You already know this from your own experience. Yes, you’re sharing cat GIFs – but you’re also binge-watching Game of Thrones. And you like both those things not because of their length, but because of their quality.
So the real point is not how long or short your copy is, but how interesting it is. To paraphrase Howard Luck Gossage, ‘People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s short. Or long.’
Readers hear words in their heads
When people read, they ‘hear’ the words in their heads, as if they were listening to someone speaking.
So if you want your copy to be convincing and persuasive, it needs to ‘sound right’ to readers, even though it may never be spoken aloud.
It’s always worth reading your copy aloud, to see how it sounds. Personally I feel a little self-conscious doing that, so I use text-to-speech to get my computer to read it instead. I have never, ever failed to make a change as a result of what I’ve heard – and I usually make quite a few.
Readers recreate stories in their imaginations
Cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley has found that when we read a story, ‘we create our own version of the piece of fiction, our own dream, our own enactment’.
In the process, we use the same parts of our brains as if we were really watching or living through the events of the story, drawing on our own past experience to reconstruct it in our heads.
You probably already know how powerful stories are. But this finding suggests that stories set in familiar places or situations might actually be more vivid for the reader, because they can imagine them more easily. An ‘everyday’ story might carry more weight than something exciting or glamorous.
Readers feel empathy like pain
Researchers in psychology use techniques such as fMRI to examine what happens in our brains when we think, feel or act a certain way. One fascinating aspect of this is determining, empirically, whether emotions that we have words for objectively exist.
Recently, studies have shown that we feel empathy in the same part of our brains as physical pain. (That’s one of the things that differentiates it from sympathy, which is more purely emotional.)
That means that when you empathise with someone, you are quite literally ‘feeling their pain’. And if you can manage to elicit empathy in your reader, your copy will have an almost physical force.
Readers don’t read as well as you think
The facts about literacy in the UK are sobering. The average reading age is nine, which is why most tabloid newspapers pitch their language around this level. Around a quarter of UK adults would fail GCSE English.
However, that’s just the start. It’s increasingly likely that your reader is a non-native English speaker. They may have dementia, or dyslexia, or any other condition that makes it harder for them to understand you. And even if they don’t, they’re probably tired, bored or irritated – which can only make them less receptive to what you’ve got to say.
That doesn’t mean your copy is doomed. But it does mean that the way you write determines your audience, in a very real sense. It behoves you to choose your words carefully – or they may never be read at all.
You can read more about these tips and many more in Copywriting Made Simple. Find more info, along with references for the findings referenced here, at copywritingmadesimple.info.
First published on haydngrey.co.uk