Show me value . . . show me what to expect . . . show me the way

22 July 2010


Word count: 750

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes



 Image by kamshots


A few weeks ago, we talked about how to get people to do what you ask. Research shows that if you use an easy-to-read font, the readers will perceive the task as easier to do – and they’ll be more likely to do it.


I’d like to continue on that theme and talk about how you can use titles and subtitles in a document – even in short emails – to enhance those results.


Show me value -- enticing titles

Advertisers say that the purpose of a headline is to get people to read the first sentence. And the purpose of the first sentence is to get people to read the next sentence. And so on.


Advertising writers know that most readers (up to 80%) never read past the headline. So they work very hard to write headlines that will entice people to keep reading.


We can take this lesson and apply it to business writing.


The best way to entice someone is to show a benefit. For example, a primary concern for businesspeople is time and how to use it effectively. So an enticing subject line might be ‘3 ways I’ve found to save time on record-keeping’.


Show me what to expect -- meaningful titles

Of course, you don’t want to entice readers just for the sake of enticing. There’s nothing worse than reading a document whose title promises one thing, only to discover that the content is entirely different. That’s the quickest way to lose credibility with your readers.


So keep the titles and subject lines honest and meaningful so that the reader knows what to expect. This is the first step to helping people think about what they already know about a subject -- and then more efficiently process the information you’ll be writing about.


Meaningless titles

Two of the most overused and meaningless titles are ‘Introduction’ and ‘Conclusion’. Most of the time, ‘Introduction’ means ‘Start reading here’. And ‘Conclusion’ means ‘I’m almost finished, so you can stop looking at the clock and breathe a sigh of relief’.


Try to be a little more creative. Instead of using ‘Introduction’, you could use ‘Background to XX’ or ‘Overview of Report on XX’.


Many people use the ‘conclusion’ section to repeat everything they’ve already said. I find this tedious and boring. Real ‘conclusions’ are logical inferences from the findings – not a rehash of them. Only use the title ‘Conclusions’ (note the plural form) if you are actually writing about what the facts imply or what you can infer from findings. This is often used only for longer reports (or in academic writing).


If you’ve written your document well, restating everything in a so-called ‘conclusion’ is unnecessary. Instead, use easy-to-see titles and subtitles throughout the document, so that the reader can scan back over the document to find anything they want to re-read. In place of ‘conclusion’, you could use ‘The Way Forward’ or ‘Recommended Next Steps’.


Show me the way – logical, easy-to-see subtitles

Another purpose of titles and subtitles is to show the reader where they are in the text. They’re like signs along the road that help you reach your destination.


If you’ve ever visited a place where the street signs are clear and easy to see, you’ll know how important they are.


And if you’ve ever visited a place where the street signs are unclear or non-existent, you’ll really know how important they are.


After visiting many places around the world, I’ve become very suspicious that whoever is in charge of signage along city streets really doesn’t want newcomers in town. It’s like they’re saying, ‘Hey, if you belong here, you’ll know where to go. And if you don’t belong here, why should we help you find your way?’


Very frustrating. Very unfriendly.


The same applies to your writing ‘signage’ – the titles and subtitles that you use to guide the reader.


Make your titles and subtitles stand out in some way. To do this, use boldface or underlining. They’re the equivalent of having street signs that are large enough to see.


Your subtitles also need to be logical – step-by-step directions from the beginning to the end of the reading ‘journey’.


For example, in this post, the subtitles follow the same order as the main title (which I hope you’ve found enticing enough to read this far!).


What’s your experience?

Share some of your stories about documents with well-written or poorly-written titles and subtitles or subject lines -- for example, the email subject line  ‘RE:RE:RE:xxx’!


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