While I fantasize that you hang on every word of my fascinating writing, unfortunately that's not true.

Like everyone today, you're skimming the surface:

  • Dipping into subheads
  • Stopping briefly at boldface text
  • Reading the first few words of a paragraph
  • Pausing at a quote
  • Skipping to the end

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.

So here's what happens when your content is too dense, according to Nielsen Norman:

"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. 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)."

What can you do to get your message across, despite the fact that your audience won't read every word?

Advises Nielsen Norman: "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."

That means you need to do these 11 things:

  1. Write visually, structuring copy for easy scanning on any device.
  2. Create a powerful headline/subject line. When it comes to communication, nothing is more important than the headline (or, in email, the subject line). The headline is the first thing audience members notice. It grabs their attention. It promises the solution to a problem.
  3. Use subheads as mini headlines to keep your reader engaged and moving through your content.
  4. Start headlines, subheads, and paragraphs with the most compelling and important words, so readers will catch them as they move down the piece.
  5. Put important concepts in boldface type so your reader can see key information at a glance.
  6. Highlight supporting statistics, quotes, or facts in callouts.
  7. Place peripheral information--your "story within the story"--in a sidebar so your content doesn't stray too far off the main point.
  8. Use bulleted or numbered lists to make skimming easy.
  9. Let images convey the spirit or emotion of your message.
  10. Share facts and figures by creating infographics.
  11. Use Qs (Questions) and As (Answers) as sidebars to provide helpful information.

Once you've added your subheads, lists, callouts, and images, look at your piece again. Will your reader get the gist of the message just by scanning?

Here's an example of creating content for email to employees that non-reading readers can quickly digest:

It's time to enroll in your benefits

Open enrollment (October 20 to November 3) is when to choose which benefits work best for you.

Take this time to:

  • Explore what's changing
  • Add, change, or opt out of health plan elements
  • Enroll newly eligible family members in your health plan

(Callout) Watch your mail for your comprehensive enrollment guide

Important point: If you wish to participate in a Health Care or Dependent Care FSA (Flexible Spending Account) next year, you need to sign up during open enrollment.

Published on: Jan 28, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.