When people don’t read, you really need a writer

Nobody reads copy anymore. At least that’s what everyone tells me. Nobody pays attention to the printed word, so keep it to a minimum and don’t even think about using a word with more than two syllables.

Much as I hate to admit it, there’s some wisdom behind that. Couple the oversupply of information to the lust for instant gratification, and you have a recipe for little patience.

So should I worry about my future financial security? Hardly. In fact, the less people read, the more you’ll want to have a good copywriter on your side. You see, as the number of words decreases, every word must work as hard as possible.

And that’s the copywriter’s specialty.

Today’s self-styled experts tell us that nobody has time to read copy. Bunk. Whether you’re trying to reach a factory’s purchasing manager, a technology company’s specifying engineer, or a fifteen-year-old movie fan, people will take the time to read your message if they believe they stand to gain something from it.

And while people may read differently these days, most still enjoy the printed word. If you don’t believe me, spend a couple hours at your nearby Borders or Barnes & Noble. Visit the library and try to find the latest Patterson novel. Count the titles on the drugstore magazine rack, or near the supermarket checkouts.

“Most of us still prefer sitting down with a good magazine to scrolling down. No wonder so many companies post PDF documents on their sites.”

“Wait,” you say. “That isn’t copy. That’s reading for enjoyment.” True, but good copy doesn’t read like copy. It reads like a conversation with a friend, like literature, like poetry, like a theater of words on the page. It draws you in and takes you along for a ride. It leaves you with a smile. Or angry. Or in the mood to act. But it never seems like someone’s selling to you.

Many visionaries thought the Internet would supplant printed materials in a very short time, but it hasn’t. Most of us still prefer sitting down with a good magazine to scrolling down. No wonder so many companies post PDF documents on their sites.

But many people misunderstand the roles of the words on a website. A lot of experts think they’re not that important. Visuals matter more, they say. Animations! Games! Interactivity! Yet nearly every study I’ve seen confirms that most Web users are surfing for information, not to be dazzled. They want it well-organized, thorough, and easy-to-read. Care to guess what kind of professional is skilled at all three?

Despite the supposed death of copy, companies continue to churn out reams of newsletters, annual reports, and other house organs. Sadly, much of it proves to be pretty ineffective at communicating. Why?

Think back to my comments about the Web. Today, people want information, and don’t want to work too hard to obtain it. Start thinking of these tools as information channels. Include the information people want, and make it easy to find.

Don’t expect everyone to hang on your every word. They’ll never read the copy as carefully as you do. Instead, they’ll scan your publications, looking for something that might interest them. After a second glance, they’ll move on if the subject matter falls short.

To improve effectiveness, work with the reader. For example, in a newsletter for bank executives, we began every article with a bullet-point summary. Each paragraph started with an explanatory lead-in. Bankers scanned the summaries to see whether the information would be of benefit and read only those paragraphs of interest. While they read less of each issue, what they did read was meaningful and memorable.

That’s the key to reaching today’s reader: understanding that they’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information. If you can help them find what’s most meaningful and important to them, you’ll get their complete attention. And if you’re not sure how to do that, maybe you need to enlist some help from someone who does.