Kidney thieves, toilet spiders and short copy

Did you realize that medical students in New Orleans are drugging visitors and stealing their kidneys? Or that the toilets in a major U.S. airport are full of venomous spiders? Or that people don’t read anymore, so you need to keep copy as short as possible?

Looking for a common thread? It’s simple — all three are myths that have circulated so widely that many people accept them without question. Yet none of them is really true (at least I don’t believe organ larceny has become a problem in the French Quarter).

I’ve heard the claim that people won’t read longer copy so often that I almost believe it myself – and might, if I didn’t know better. The simple fact is that people will take the time to read your copy – no matter the length – if it is meaningful to them and they believe it will offer value.

“…there’s still an appetite for more information, if it’s delivered effectively.”

There’s no argument that people rely more heavily on visuals than they did in years past. The quick-cut videos ushered in by MTV and the instant gratification offered by the Internet have conditioned us to absorb information faster and in smaller bites. But there’s still an appetite for more information, if it’s delivered effectively.

Don’t believe me? Convinced that people won’t take the time to read? Then you probably haven’t set foot in a Barnes & Noble in recent months, looked at the number of titles in a magazine rack, or tried to find Grisham’s latest at your local library. “But that’s not the same thing!” you protest. “That’s reading for entertainment or to gain knowledge.”

Isn’t that what your ads, brochures, and other materials should do? Shouldn’t the reader enjoy them and learn from them? Shouldn’t they capture his or her complete attention and motivate the action you want?

One reason copy in advertising and brochures has become shorter is that people have become more aware of the power of graphic design – and some designers look at text as just one more ugly item they’re forced to use. However, the information in that text is the very reason the ad or brochure exists. Truly skilled designers understand that, presenting copy in ways that draws the reader’s eye and encourages reading. They wield typography as deftly as they employ color and composition to create visually pleasing and communicative work.

Others will tell you that copy has no “stopping power;” that minimizing text in ads allows a dramatic visual that will demand the target’s attention. But in most cases, the purpose of an ad isn’t to stop people – it’s to give members of the target audience enough information to move to the next step. Stop them and fail to offer what they need, and they’ll move on, blissfully unaware of what you can do for them. In fact, folks in the direct response industry – the people who live or die based on how many people send money – will tell you that longer copy nearly always outpulls shorter efforts.

I remember working with a company that offered a premium product in a price-competitive market. Recognizing that the only way end-users would be willing to pay the higher price was if they were aware of the benefits, the company developed a series of ads that spelled out their products’ advantages and differentiated them from the competition. The ads were so copy-heavy that most advertising creatives (myself included) cringed upon seeing them.

But what we experts despised, readers devoured. When publications conducted readership studies, the company invariably earned the highest scores for being read and remembered – well ahead of more visually compelling ads and better-known competitors. The company gave the readers what they needed, and that knowledge led to increased market share. The ads may not have been pretty, but the information they delivered made them darned effective.

So how long should your copy be? Exactly as long as it takes to do the job. Don’t fall prey to arbitrary (and absurd) rules about how many paragraphs there should be, or that each paragraph should have a set number of sentences.

Still afraid that nobody is going to read more than a paragraph or two? Some very simple steps can make your copy both readable and well-read:

– Be organized. Organization is every bit as important as content. Well-organized copy is inherently more concise, because it doesn’t bounce all over the place.

– Stay active. Active, economical language and simple sentence structure say more in less space.

– Make it talky. If your copy is conversational, the reader will be able to hear it subconsciously, making your words even more compelling.

– Cater to skimmers. Use paragraph headings and lead-ins to direct the reader to what she’ll find most interesting. Worried she won’t read the whole thing? Don’t be. As long as she finds what’s most meaningful to her, you’ve succeeded.

– Boldface and underline judiciously. Read copy aloud, and raise your voice when you come to bold or underlined copy. If you sound like you’re ranting, there’s too much. Think of boldface and underlining as spices – a pinch here and there adds flavor, but cupfuls frustrate digestion.

If you know better than to fall for wild claims about kidney thieves and toilet spiders, you’re smart enough to look past bad advice on practical subjects. After all, nothing debunks a myth – even a convincing one – more effectively than common sense.