Everyone who is serious about communicating spends a lot of time thinking about which words to use.

And, these days, we all know that visuals are critically important to attracting audience members. So we concentrate on selecting the most appealing photos, art or other images.

But, despite these best efforts, there may be one factor you're overlooking--and I propose that it's the most important element of all--that determines whether your audience is drawn into or turned away by your communication.

That element is friction.

To understand friction's importance, let's start with Cambridge Dictionary's definition: "The force that works against an object as it slides along the surface of another object or moves through a liquid of gas." Used in a sentence: "A gasoline engine loses over 70 percent of its energy to friction and heat."

In communication, friction occurs when an audience member is intrigued by a topic, but then encounters resistance on his/her quest to engage with content.

Friction occurs when:

  • The experience doesn't work right. A link is broken. A video doesn't play. A website isn't mobile enabled so it can't be viewed on a smart phone.
  • There's a barrier to overcome. The most common is the lowly password. The audience member doesn't remember his/her password. Or must register for the first time, answering many questions to do so. (Or, in media, there's a paywall, requiring the user to get out his/her credit card.)
  • Content is too long. A video is 10 minutes, and the audience member only has three. There are too many pages or too many words. The slide show is 55 pages.
  • It's too hard to understand. Content is thick and dense. Words are difficult; terms are unfamiliar.

These and other sources of friction all add up to the same result: When communication requires too much of a commitment, audience members abandon ship.

And here's the very bad news: Even if audience members are completely interested in the topic--even if they need the information--and even if your content is really awesome, friction can cause failure.

As Bob Garfield writes in a recent column on online publishing, "Because it is human nature not to be bothered if bother can be avoided, it takes very little friction to stop a transaction, or any action, in its online tracks."

The good news is that there are many ways to reduce friction. (Start with addressing each of the above reasons.) But you've got to be committed to creating an experience that's easy, convenient and, above all, audience-centric.

As Mr. Garfield quips, "Where's the WD-40?"