Measure A.R.T.

How long will it take them to read?

I am, sadly, monolingual, so I am not able to read 20 minutes, a free commuter newspaper published in Geneva and Lausanne, Switzerland.

Measure Average Reading Time

How long is too long? Readers measure the length of your message in time, not space. If you’re smart, you will too. Image by Lukas Blazek

But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t appreciate it.

20 minutes lets readers know in its title how much time they’re likely to read the piece. In other words, it reports average reading time, or A.R.T.

If your piece is short enough, reporting A.R.T. may increase readership. Readers who had planned to put your piece in the pile of things “to read later” — aka the rest stop on the way to the trash can — may say, “Geesh, surely I can spend two minutes on this now.”

Tell 'em how long it'll take to take to tell 'em

Tell ’em how long it’ll take to take to tell ’em: 20 minutes reports average reading time in its name

Here’s how to establish, measure, manage and report A.R.T. on your own pieces.

1. Establish A.R.T.

Writers measure the length of their messages in words, inches or pages. Readers use a different measure: time. So instead of using writer-centric measures, think like your reader.

Rather than asking, “How many words should this be?” ask, “What’s a reasonable amount of time to expect someone to spend reading this piece?”

Roy Peter Clark, Poynter Institute senior scholar, estimates that most people can read about 200 words a minute. So to fulfill the promise it sets up in its flag, 20 minutes needs to be no more than about 4,000 words long.

So before you hit the keyboard, determine how much time you’d expect readers to spend reading each piece you write or assign and multiply that time, in minutes, by 200.

So if you are aiming for a one-minute release, you’ll want to limit it to 200 words.

And if your audience members aren’t likely to spend more than 15 seconds on your check-stuffer, you’re looking at a 50-word piece.

Beware: We tend to overestimate how much readers are willing to read.

How much time are they willing to spend? For instance, employees participating in a London study, for instance, spent only about two minutes reading their own CEO’s message. The longest message — Lloyd’s of London’s, at 872 words — actually got less reading time than the shorter two, from GE and Heinz, at about half that length.

As a recent PRSA Strategist article on employee communications was called:

They’re Just Not That Into You

How much time can you afford to have them spend? Also consider how much time you’d want readers to invest in learning this information.

After all, if you’re producing employee communications, your readers have to take time off from working to read your piece. How much staff time are you willing to dedicate to getting the word out?

Let’s say it takes each employee two minutes to read your 400-word story. Now run the math:

Is that a reasonable investment? Or would a 200-word, one-minute story make more sense?

2. Measure A.R.T.

During the editing process, divide your total word count by 200 to find out how many minutes it will take the average reader to get through your piece.

So if your piece is 400 words long, it will take two minutes to read.

Is that too long? If so, you’ll need to …

3. Reduce ART.

You might find that it makes sense to cut your piece to save your readers time.

4. Report A.R.T.

If your piece is short enough, reporting A.R.T. may increase readership. So tell ’em how long it’ll take to tell ’em.

This approach is trending:

  • 20 minutes reports ART in its name.
  • So does “Take Five,” the twice-monthly email newsletter for Bank of America employees.
  • Humor Power Tips,” an e-zine by speaker John Kinde, reports at the top of the issue: “Word count: 350 words; Reading time: two minutes.”

Saint Luke’s Health magazine promises readers that they’ll learn about a health topic in two minutes with one of the health system’s experts.

Two minutes and out

Two minutes and out Would they spend 120 seconds to learn about their skin?

And when two minutes is just too long, Fast Company’s “60 Seconds” introduces readers to a tastemaker in just a minute.

One minute and out

One minute and out Help readers decide whether it’s worth their time by reporting A.R.T.

How can you report A.R.T.?

Let your readers know at the beginning of each piece — and maybe even in your title or headline — how long it should take them to read it.

A.R.T. for this piece:

  • Word count: 800
  • Average reading time: 4 minutes
  • Cut Through the Clutter

    Measure, monitor and manage clarity with a cool (free!) tool

    Would your message be twice as good if it were half as long? The research says yes: The shorter your piece, the more likely readers are to read your message, understand it and make good decisions based on it.

    Cut Through the Clutter

    But most communicators (and, let’s be fair, their reviewers) ignore the research and keep piling on the paragraphs. The result? “You’re not more informed,” writes Tom Rosenstiel, former media critic for the Los Angeles Times. “You’re just numbed.”

    Analyze your message for 27 readability metrics and leave with targets, tips and techniques for improving each one.

    So how long is too long? What’s the right length for your piece? Your paragraphs? Your sentences? Your words?

    At Cut Through the Clutter — our in-house clear-writing workshop — you’ll learn how to:

    • Analyze your message for 27 readability metrics — and leave with quantifiable targets, tips and techniques for improving each one.
    • Increase reading, understanding and sharing with five techniques for cutting your copy significantly.
    • Avoid discombobulating readers. Leave this workshop with 11 metrics for reducing sentence length and increasing comprehension.
    • Stop getting skipped. Find out how long is too long — and leave with three ways to shorten paragraphs.
    • Eliminate multisyllabic pileups from your copy. They’re the No. 1 predictor of poor readability.


Source: Sandra Oliver, “Message from the CEO: a three-minute rule?Corporate Communications: An International Journal, vol. 5, no. 3, 2000, pp. 148-167

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