How to Convince Readers to Act

17 June 2010

 

Word count:  750

Estimated reading time:  6-7 minutes

instructions to monkeys.jpg

 Image by Sister72


The ultimate purpose for writing at work is to get stuff done. Sometimes the work is interesting, but mostly it’s ‘same-old, same-old’.

 

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about using a sales structure for documents to persuade readers to act. Recently I read some fascinating research with another tip about getting people to act, and I’d like to share that with you today.

 

Basically, if you want to convince people to do what you’ve instructed, you need to make it seem easier to do.

 

Make the instructions easier to read

OK – that sounds reasonable. Certainly written instructions need to be clear, concise and complete. They need to be written in everyday language, one action per step – in the correct order.

 

But what if the reader still doesn’t do what you’ve asked?

 

Make the work easier to do

OK – that also sounds great. But sometimes the task isn’t easy. And maybe the task is boring.

 

What do you do then?

 

Make the work look easier to do

What we believe about things is how we see (perceive) them. It doesn’t matter what reality is. What we believe becomes our reality.

 

It’s kind of like the parents of a newborn baby. Their baby might be really ugly. But to them, that child is beautiful.

 

So we’re talking about perceptions of how easy or difficult a task is – and how to make readers ‘see’ the task as easy to do.  And this is the interesting part.

 

Let me tell you a story

Two researchers at the University of Michigan (USA), Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwartz, tested people’s motivation to do something new. For example, how could you motivate people to start doing a new exercise routine? Or how might you convince people to try a new recipe?

 

Previous research in this area suggested that when people perceived that the new behaviour would be difficult, they were less likely to do it.

 

But if people have never done something, how do they estimate how difficult it is? This is what Song and Schwartz wanted to study.

 

They set up several studies to test their hypothesis. In one study, they asked two separate groups to read identical instructions on how to do an exercise routine. One group read the instructions printed in an easy-to-read font – like Arial. The other group read the instructions printed in a hard-to-read font, like Mistral.

 

They asked participants in both groups these questions:

1. How long do you think the activity will take? (the number of minutes)

2. How easy are the instructions to read? (scale of 1 to 7; 7=very easy)

3. How quick do you think the routine will feel? (scale of 1 to 7; 7=very quick)

4. How easy will it be to do the exercises? (scale of 1 to 7; 7=very easy)

5. How willing are you to do this exercise routine? (scale of 1 to 7; 7=very willing)

 

What do you think the results were?

Pretty amazing! Even though the instructions were identical, the answers were very different between the two groups.

 

Here are the average ratings from those whose instructions were written in an easy-to-read font compared to those with the hard-to-read font:

-They estimated that the exercise routine would take 8.23 minutes, compared to 15.1 minutes in the other group.

-They scored ‘ease of reading’ at 6.3, compared to 4.3 from the other group.

-They perceived that the exercises would ‘feel’ 1.37 times quicker than the other group.

-They thought the exercises would be 1.5 times easier to do than those in the other group.

 

And most important of all – they were 1.5 times more willing to start doing the exercise routine.

 

And what does this have to do with writing?

It means that your choice of fonts affects people’s willingness to do things you ask them to do. (It also has to do with other issues, which we’ll talk about in future posts.)

 

Avoid ‘fancy’ fonts, and use easy-to-read fonts

You may be tempted to make your written presentation look ‘sophisticated’ by using a fancy font. But think about the lessons of this study. After all, you want people to be more willing to do what you ask.

 

In the words of Albert Einstein, ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.’

 

Hard-to-read fonts

Easy-to-read fonts


Brush Script

Braggadocio

Edwardian Script italic

Lucida Blackletter

Mistral

Princetown LET


Arial (what I often use for titles)

Baskerville

Capitals (good for titles/subtitles)

Georgia (one of my favourites)

Gill Sans

Times New Roman

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