The Internet is bloated. Your users have miniscule attention spans. And nonprofit websites everywhere are filled with clichés and ambiguity.
Words matter. The wrong words—or even worse, forgettable words—can cost you money and goodwill. But the right words can move mountains. They can spark emotion, spur action, and launch a lifelong relationship.
So how do you choose the right words for your website?
What You’re Up Against
Let’s start by surveying the digital landscape. As a professional communicator, you face a smorgasbord of challenges online.
Limited Attention Spans
In 2000, a study by Microsoft showed that the average human attention span was 12 seconds. When the study was conducted again in 2015, it had plummeted to eight seconds.
What happened between 2000 and 2015 that would account for a 33% reduction in attention span?
The mobile web, of course. And while the advent of smartphones has produced some significant benefits—including an increased ability to multitask—it’s dragged your users’ attention spans below that of a goldfish.
In other words, you have precious few seconds to seize your users’ attention and convert it into actual interest.
More Content Every Second
You’re not just competing with other nonprofits in your space; you’re also competing with the Internet as a whole. And as you know, the Internet is expanding at a breakneck pace.
Consider what happens on the online every 60 seconds (source):
- 4 million Google searches
- 1 million hours of YouTube videos are watched
- 456,000 tweets are tweeted
- 300 new Facebook accounts are created
- Nearly 1 million Tinder swipes
- 16 million text messages are sent
So, not only do your target audiences have shorter attention spans than ever, there’s ever more stuff to distract them online. It’s a double whammy.
Users Don’t “Read” Online
Countless usability tests have shown that users don’t consume digital content the same way they consume printed content. In fact, online, people don’t “read” so much as skim, hunt, browse, and scan. They’re either looking for something specific or hoping to stumble upon something unexpected and exciting. In any case, users rarely read each word, left to right, all the way down the screen.
American Literacy is Iffy
The average American adult reads at an 8th-grade level. Another way of putting that: Half of American adults can’t comprehend a book written at an 8th-grade level—which includes titles such as The Great Gatsby and the Harry Potter novels.
If your web copy scores higher than an 8th-grade level, you’re losing readers. And the further above 8th grade your copy reaches, the exponentially more people you’re leaving behind. Ideally, your copy should score somewhere between 6.0 and 8.0 using the Flesich-Kincaid readability test.
For the record, this article scored a 7.1.
(Pro tip: The surest way to lower a readability score is to shorten the length of your sentences.)
How to Make Your Web Copy More Readable
Despite the challenges you face as a content creator, there are some quick ways to improve your words and set your nonprofit apart from the herd.
Keep Your Audience (and Their Needs) Front and Center
That you should focus on your target audience’s needs seems like an obvious idea. But marketers and development professionals stray from this idea constantly. (And in our defense, it’s because we think about our organizations a lot more than our audiences do!)
There’s a great story about Nora Ephron that illustrates how powerful addressing your audience is:
Before she became an award-winning screenwriter, Nora Ephron was a senior at Beverly Hills High School. On one of the first days of her journalism class, Nora’s teacher made a proclamation:
“Class, today we’re going to practice writing ‘ledes’ for the school newspaper. A ‘lede’ is the first sentence of a new story. I’m going to give you all the same facts, and I want each of you to write the ‘lede’ of the story if it was going to appear in the student paper.”
He then proceeded to give the class these facts:
Kenneth L. Peters, principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Pat Brown.
The kids put their heads down and began to scribble—each of them trying to seize on the most compelling part of the story. After reading the submission, Nora’s teacher offered his own version: “There will be no school next Thursday.”
His point was a critical one for Nora’s future career of producing crowd-pleasing screenplays: What does your audience care about? In this case, students care far more about getting a day off school than a teaching conference. Put their needs front and center. Remember, it’s about them, not about us.
The Second Draft is What Matters
Writing is a way of thinking. That’s what Flannery O’Connor meant when she famously said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
When setting out to create some digital copy—e.g., a fundraising email, new homepage message, event invitation, poster for your upcoming gala, annual report—your first job is to just get the ideas out of your head.
Get the first draft down on paper (i.e., your screen). As you’re writing, don’t worry about grammar or syntax or even if the thing makes any sense. Your first draft, if you’re doing it right, will be terrible. Accept this fact. Nobody ever has to see it. The first draft is simply your way of thinking through all the many approaches you can take, the many facts to share, etc.
The writing is in the rewriting. This is when you turn your bloated, schizophrenic first draft into a jewel that will leap from the screen and seize your reader’s undivided attention (within eight seconds, of course).
Cut! Cut! Cut!
Your first draft is probably too long. And remember, online, users don’t read in the traditional sense. You need to make it easy for them to find your key message. Reducing the word count will get you there quicker than any other approach.
In college, I had a writing professor who told us to eliminate 66% of the words from our first draft to our second. I’ll challenge you to something a bit easier: 50%. See if you can take that 1,500-word email draft down to 750.
This may seem like a bold goal. But it’s easier than you think. Here’s an example:
Please note that although Chrome is supported for both Mac and Windows operating systems, it’s recommended that all users of this site switch to the most up-to-date version of the Firefox web browser for the best possible results.
That sentence, which seems totally reasonable and relatively easy to comprehend, has 41 words. But if we attack it with our half-off pen, it becomes this sleek 17-word alternative:
For best results, use the latest version of Firefox. Chrome for Mac and Windows is also supported.
Not only did we hack off 59% of the words, but we also get the added benefit of increased clarity and more personality. Cutting copy often has this effect: injecting your wandering, meandering ideas with punch and dynamism.
Ways to Cut Your Copy:
- Eliminate Prepositions
Prepositions are important. We couldn’t have a language without them. But they’re also overused. Look for words like “in” and “around” and “under” and “on” and see if you can get rid of them.
- Cut “To Be” Verbs
This classic from your junior-high English teacher holds true for web copy. A sentence such as, “This program is designed to serve underprivileged students” should become, “This program serves underprivileged students.”
- Use the Active Voice
Another classic from way back, this rule isn’t true 100% of the time. But first drafts are notorious for using a passive voice (i.e., in which the subject of the sentence has an action performed on it). Switch those passive sentences to active when possible. So, “Jim was hit by the dodgeball” becomes, “The dodgeball hit Jim.”
- Cut Filler Phrases
These say-nothing phrases are all over the place. They’re often a way for the writer to stall while thinking of what they want to say next. Examples include “it goes without saying” and “it’s important to realize” and “one can easily see.” Be brutal in your editing and leave this fat on the cutting board.
Use Structure on Your Web Pages
Remember, users don’t read every word you write online. Often, they’re searching for something specific. Or else, they’re browsing until they come across something interesting. In either case, your job as a digital communicator is to make it easy for them. Smart page structure is the quickest way to deliver that ease.
Consider these two, side-by-side blocks of text. The words are identical, but the structure is quite different:
Why is the version on the right so much easier to read on your screen than the left? Structure!
Specifically, the version on the right contains:
- A title to help orient the reader
- More white space, as well as line and paragraph breaks that give the reader’s eyes time to rest
- A relevant image and bulleted list to add more visual interest
- A sans serif font, which is generally easier to read on screens
While the version on the left might be more enjoyable to read on print, the version on the right is far more effective on a screen.
Wrapping it Up
You may have noticed that most of the advice above has nothing to do with what you say, but with how you say it. That’s on purpose. Reading on screens (laptops and smartphones) is such a unique user experience that the “how” becomes almost as important as the “what.” Your nonprofit may do the most amazing work, and you may have amazing stories that people can’t resist responding to, but if those stories are hard to find, hard to read, or are cluttered and drag on, all your good work will go unnoticed.
In the second part of this series, we’ll dig into how to craft messages that stick. In the meantime, you can check out our free, on-demand webinar on this very topic.
Good luck with your writing (and rewriting)!
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