We’re clicking instead of concentrating
This is your brain on the web: Constant problem solving (To click or not to click?) and divided attention (You’ve got mail) lead to cognitive overload.
And that makes it harder for readers to concentrate when reading your copy online.
In fact, a 2005 study by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London showed that online multitasking temporarily lowers your IQ more than smoking marijuana does. (And is not nearly as entertaining a way to get stupid, from what I’ve read.)
Now, where was I going with this?
In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr surveys the research on web brain. Among the findings:
More than 20 years of research shows that links cause web visitors to:
- Click instead of concentrating. Readers of hypertext often ended up clicking “through pages instead of reading them carefully,” according to a 1989 study.
- Click instead of finding. Participants in a 1990 study who searched for the answers to a series of questions in print outperformed those who searched webpages.
- Click instead of comprehending. The more links included in a passage, the less people understood, found a 1999 study by Erping Zhu. That’s because readers have to devote more of their brain power to evaluating the links and deciding whether to click them.
- Click instead of remembering. Readers of hypertext often “could not remember what they had and had not read” in a 1990 experiment.
Bottom line: There’s “very little support that hypertext will lead to an enriched experience of the text,” according to a 2005 survey of research (PDF) by Diana DeStefano and Jo-Anne LeFevre, psychologists with the Centre for Applied Cognitive Research at Canada’s Carleton University.
Indeed, they wrote, “the increased demands of decision-making and visual processing in hypertext impaired reading performance [especially when compared to print]. Many features of hypertext resulted in increased cognitive load and thus may have required working memory capacity that exceeded readers’ capabilities.”
Reach readers online.
So how do you write blog posts, webpages, email messages, status updates and other copy that get the word out online?
- Get to the point faster: Don’t expect readers to read even the first paragraph to figure out where you’re going.
- Chunk it up: Break your message into more, shorter webpages.
- Write tight: Use all of the tools you use to condense copy for print, but use them more aggressively online.
- Lift your ideas off the screen: Make your copy easy to scan with microcontent, or online display copy.
- Cut the fluff: Drop the adjectives, adverbs, hyperbole and other blah-blah.
- Make it friendly: Engage readers with a conversational, me-to-you voice, not an off-putting, stiff corporate style.
Reach readers in print.
And don’t overlook print as your medium of choice. Writing a thought piece on the state of the industry, the CEO’s vision for the future or the company’s five-year plan? Put it on paper.
Sorry, what was I saying?
Oh, yeah. The way the web distracts and overtaxes your readers’ brains makes it no place for long, complex messages. So deliver ideas in print, nuggets of data online.