Reading is hard. And people are busy. So, when we're pressed for time, the last thing we want to do is plow through a dense document. 

In fact, Nielsen Norman Group, experts in eye tracking and other research that shows how people engage with online content, recently proved again that digital readers don't actually read: They scan

"When writers and designers have not taken any steps to direct the user to the most relevant, interesting, or helpful information, users will then find their own path," writes Kara Pernice at Nielsen Norman Group. "In the absence of any signals to guide the eye, they will choose the path of minimum effort and will spend most of their fixations close to where they start reading (which is usually the top left most word on a page of text)."

How can you encourage people to keep going, so they get your whole message without getting stuck?

The answer is to embrace subheads. Subheads are words or short phrases that help to group paragraphs together and introduce new pieces of information. They also visually break up large pieces of text, helping your reader digest information.

In fact, the simple subhead has super powers:

  • When subheads are used as mini headlines, they keep your reader engaged and moving through your content.
  • The best subheads contain compelling and important words, so subheads will catch readers' attention as they move down the piece.
  • You can use subheads in any kind of writing: emails, reports, print pieces, guides, articles, even PowerPoint.

How can you improve your subhead skills? I recommend you find inspiration from good examples, especially in major media. Even The New York Times, which used to shun subheads, has slowly embraced the technique.

For example, a recent Times real estate article used subheads to create a sidebar about the teacher being profiled:

Occupation: English teacher at a public middle school. She also trains teachers through the New York City Teaching Collaborative and New York City Teaching Fellows.
Kitchen cabinets for art supplies: On a friend's recommendation, Ms. Williams started keeping her nonperishable food in the refrigerator to free up space for her arts-and-crafts supplies. She taught herself how to macramé and also makes candles with essential oils.
Unexpected bonus: "Now that I live by myself, my dad wants to visit. He's never visited me in New York before. So that's exciting."
On upgrading from a scooter to a motorcycle: "There are so many potholes in New York, I wanted to focus on learning how to navigate through the streets safely before I had to manage the clutch. I've wanted a motorcycle since I was a kid."


And Melanie Anzidei, a reporter at The Bergen Record, used subheads to organize an article about a mall expansion. I love the conversational tone of these subheads--they make the piece friendly and accessible:

What about the residential building?

Green space? And a hotel too?

Does the mall need zoning approval?

What about parking?

What about traffic? Buses?

As Nielsen Norman advises: "Do the work for the users instead of forcing them to exert effort and take bad shortcuts. Prioritize and format text to direct users to what you want them to see, and to what you know they want to see."

The best way to do so? Subheads, of course.

Published on: May 30, 2019
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