Keep readers reading, skimmers scanning
The other day, I received in one of my favorite association magazines a story of interest to me: “Maximizing student productivity: Tips for successful internship programs.”
My intern was scheduled to arrive in three minutes, so I decided to skim the story. I read the subheads: “Tip No. 1,” they said. “Tip No. 2. Tip No. 3.”
What were the tips? I’ll never know.
Subheads have magical properties.
What if I told you there was a magic wand that kept readers reading and skimmers scanning — even after their attention begins to wane?
Friends, there is such a tool, and it’s called a subhead.
“Write subheads that reveal, rather than conceal, your contents.”
— Ann Wylie, writing coach, Wylie Communications
Subheads are important because they help skimmers get the gist of the message. But label subheads — those that classify the topic but don’t say anything about it — don’t communicate much at all.
So instead of just labeling a section of your copy with the topic — “Mortgage services,” for instance, or “Tip. No. 1” — tell the reader something.
What about mortgage services? What is Tip No. 1?
To get the word out via subheads:
1. Make thinking visual.
Think of your subheads as the Roman numeral outline of your piece. What are your topics I, II and II? Those are your subheads.
When one of my clients wanted to lend support after some of its employees endured a fire, subheads included:
- Acknowledge the event.
- Listen. Don’t ask questions or seek details.
- Offer long-term emotional support.
- Offer practical support.
- Watch for reactions.
Write subheads that reveal, rather than conceal, your contents
2. Don’t write ‘read below’ subheads.
If your subheads say “Problem,” “Solution” and “Result,” you’re telling readers, “read below to find out what the problem, solution and results are.”
But there’s a reason they’re not reading. They’re skimmers!
Instead of trying to force skimmers to read, write robust subheads that define the problem, solution and results.
3. Answer, don’t just ask, questions.
If you raise a question in the subhead, answer it in display copy — a bold-faced lead-in, highlighted key words or a bulleted list, maybe.
If your subhead asks, “Why subheads?” for instance, you might answer the question in a list with bold-faced lead-ins.
Otherwise, your question is essentially saying “read below to find out.” And we know skimmers want to skim, not read.
Bottom line: If you ask a question in the display copy, you need to answer the question in the display copy.
4. Keep subheads short.
Aim for eight words or less. That’s the number of words readers can get at a glance, according to American Press Institute research.
And limit subheads to one line. Longer, and they’ll start looking like text, not display copy. And then you’ll lose the attention-grabbing power of subheads.
Don’t drop the subheads.
Finally, don’t drop the subheads. It’s a poor communicator who ignores this power tool.