I Only Read the First Three Sentences!

We all read a lot of very long documents: proposals, reports, stories and more or, at least, we are asked to read them. 

The truth is, we don’t really read them at all.  Most often, we just skim.  We skim to pick up the idea, the theme or the key points.  We skim to find the parts that are of most interest to us at that time.

The strange part about this admission is that we don’t think about this when we are crafting a document or story or report.  We write as if we really believe that the reader will cover it all and read every word.  And this is where we go wrong.

As I tell all of my audiences when we discuss good communications skills, we need to put ourselves in the shoes, or seats, of our audience.  We need to ask ourselves, what do they want to hear and how do they want to hear it. If you do this before producing those pages of text you might approach it a little differently.

You might realize, for instance, that you have multiple audiences for the same document, interested in different parts.  You might realize that you have a lot of technical detail that needs to be presented which is of interest to a few, but important people.  Or you might just remember that most of your readers will only read the first few sentences.

So, let’s start writing for our audience.  Let’s start constructing our output in a fashion that is ‘skimmable’ (not a good word, but it fits), readable, and easy to navigate.

How? 

My friend Benoit de Grass is the author of the chapter “The Power of Seven” in the book “The Keys to Our Success”

In his chapter, Benoit tells us that the key to his success is breaking his output into chunks of 7, plus or minus 2.  It is such a simple but powerful idea.  Humans will loose attention, he suggests, if you try to cover more than 9 ideas or topics.

The idea of 7, plus or minus 2 is important here.  But so is the formatting of those ideas.  If I am asked to read a document or report that covers a lot of ground, I will ‘chunk’ my work, as Benoit suggests, but as well, I will number and label the 7 (plus or minus 2) sections.  Thus my reader has easy access to the sections that he or she really wants to read.  

  • Tell me up front what you are going to tell me.
  • Give me the detail with the same headings as listed above
  • Recap what you have told me.

Readers like me, and many of you, will have no excuse not to read the parts that you want us to read – and that we want to read.

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