Here's a fabulous fantasy: You've won a two-week, all-expenses paid vacation at a luxury island resort. You stay in a beachside villa that is a five-minute stroll from the resort's main compound, where the restaurant, pool, boat harbor, dive shop and other amenities are located.
Since you have no agenda, but do have lots of time, you don't need a watch or a map. Every morning you get up (eventually) and decide what to do today. Sometimes you hit the beach; other times you take a leisurely stroll. You explore. You wander. If you go the long way or even get a little lost, it doesn't matter.
Remember, though, this is a fantasy. Unfortunately, back in the real world, most of us are so pressed for time that we are always looking for the shortest route. Before we begin our morning commute, we listen to the radio traffic report. We consult Google Maps when planning a trip to an unfamiliar place. We race into the supermarket, scanning the signs to find the aisle for jalapeño peppers. We park near the mall entrance that's closest to the store we need.
And, when it comes to finding information, we also seek the shortest route. We don't have the time to meander or the patience to lose ourselves in communication. We want to get in, get done and get out.
That's why the #1 reason your audience is missing your message is poor navigation. Too much communication creates barriers that prevent audience members from finding what they're looking for (or accessing your offer).
To appeal to your audience, you must give them easy access to the information you're providing. The front door has to be clearly visible, the hallways clean, the aisles clearly labeled, the products at eye level and the exit signs always brightly illuminated. If your audience members start to feel overwhelmed or confused, they won't muddle through--they'll get out as fast as their legs can carry them.
In other words, you need to create simple navigation that lets your audience members access communication according to their needs. I use the term "navigation" to describe the idea of making information accessible because it's the best term to describe the experience of finding one's way through any type of communication: print, electronic, even a PowerPoint presentation. Webster's Dictionary defines "navigate" as "to direct a course," and I think that is a good description of what communicators do for a living. As It's our job to help the audience easily traverse the information we're providing.
Want to make access easier? Here are three key navigational elements you should use:
1. Helpful headlines. No aspect of communication is more important than the headline. It's the first thing the audience notices, promising the solution to a problem the audience has. At its very best, a headline addresses the most important question of all, "What's in it for me?"
The best headlines are simply common sense. They're logical. They shouldn't be overly clever--no wordplay, no alliteration, no rhyming, no limericks--just simple, short and straightforward. Today's audience doesn't want cute or clever. These folks are in a hurry, and want the headline to tell them exactly what the communication is about--so they can make a quick decision about whether or not to spend time with it.
2. Contents. Your audience wants to know what's ahead. So for every communication you create--from four-paragraph emails, to 20-slide PowerPoint presentations, to 50-page handbooks--include a list of the stuff that follows.
3. Quick-read summary. Remember "executive summaries?" The idea was that senior managers were much too busy to read an entire report or proposal. This meant that, in order to get senior managers to pay attention and give them the essence of what you wanted to convey, you needed to create a brief summary of the content.
Since a lack of attention has now become a universal problem, a quick-read summary now makes sense for almost every audience--especially if your content is longer than a page (or a screen). Summaries should not be clever; the idea is to capture the gist of what the entire report, article, brochure or other content means to convey, not to show off your IQ.
Remember: Friends don't let customers (or any other audience) get lost in a thicket of information. By providing easy navigation, your audience will get the message.