If you struggle with getting audience members to open and consume your communication, the problem could be just this simple: Your message may be too hard to navigate.

When it comes to communication, people often feel dazed and confused. They don't see the value of each communication channel, don't know how things are organized or how they fit together, and can't easily find the information they're looking for.

To solve this problem, I recommend seeking inspiration by visiting a retail store. One of my favorite books is Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. Author Paco Underhill that explains how retailers and others use a variety of tested techniques to get you to: 1) put that item in your cart, and 2) buy it.

These techniques include everything from lighting and signage, to physical layout, to whether or not they even have shopping carts (Target does; Macy's doesn't), and why.

What does shopping have to do with communication? Everything. Retailers survive only because they can attract their customers' attention and persuade them to make a purchase.

Anyone who communicates--who needs to "sell" an audience on spending time with a message--can learn a lot by shopping. (Actually, I believe that shopping is not only educational, but therapeutic, but that's a different story.)

And one thing retailers do very well is help shoppers navigate, to find what they need when they need it. While it's true that stores would like everyone to browse for hours, touching everything and trying on every other item, they know that most customers are pressed for time.

Companies that want you to buy their stuff understand that they have to create an environment (physical or virtual) where you can easily find the item, enjoy doing so, touch it/smell it/taste it/ visualize it, try it on, and take it with you when it's time to go.

When communication is difficult to navigate, it's like being stuck at an endless checkout line in some now-defunct retailer that deserved to die: Bradlees. Caldor. The Wiz. Ames Department Stores.

Since communication is often confusing and complex, people need to be reminded how the system works--how to get around the store. Think mall map: "You are here. This is where you find the food court."

The advantage, of course, is that if you help people find what they're looking for, they're likely to buy it.

How do you make communication easy to navigate? Here are 5 quick suggestions:

  1. Make sure you always give your audience control over the experience. Your communication should be easy to scroll and scan.
  2. Don't use long blocks of narrative text--seems like too much work and too much of a commitment.
  3. Look at USA Today for inspiration; emulate the way the newspaper organizes content and makes it accessible.
  4. Employ the seven key elements of navigation: contents, summary, inverted pyramid, headlines, subheads/breakheads, sidebars and bullets.
  5. Use checklists like this one. (See how easy this is?)