Move people to read and act with Schramm’s Fraction of Selection model
Every day, your readers get way too much to read. In fact, according to a study by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, your readers receive the data equivalent of 174 newspapers — ads included — every single day.
That’s all of your spam. All of your junk mail. Every post in your Instagram feed.
That’s all the signs you pass on the way to work, in your office and on the toilet stalls. Every YouTube video your 14-year-old nephew sends you.
And if you read all of it, you will die.
That’s right: Death is the cost of too much information. Because if you process 174 newspapers — ads included — every day, you won’t have time to eat, sleep, take a shower, take a walk, talk baby talk to the cats and keep up with Project Runway reruns.
Death is the cost of too much information.
In other words, you won’t have time to do all of the things that allow you to live and that make your life worth living.
So to live through the day, your audience members have figured out how to not read most of the information they receive. (This is disturbing: Not reading most of our messages is actually a survival strategy for a little segment of our audience we call humans.)
In fact, each day, your readers select just a tiny sliver — a fraction — of all the incoming information. They say, “This, I’ll read.” And everything else goes into the trash.
So how do they select the tiny sliver of information they’ll actually pay attention to? And what persuasive techniques can we use when attempting to persuade people to read?
Ask Wilbur Schramm.
Godfather of communication
Wilbur Schramm was a scholar in human behavior and communication theory. He invented the study of mass communications. Wrote 30 textbooks during his lifetime. In his spare time, he was also an O’Henry Prize-winning short-story author and a flutist in the Boston Civic Symphony.
Schramm was among the first generation of human behavior and communication theorists to scientifically analyze how people respond to messages and how we can use communication to get people to do what we want them to do.
Among other things, Schramm devised many of those models of communication that you had to memorize in college. Did you have to memorize Sender > Receiver > Feedback > Interference? Blame Schramm; he either created those models or reported them in his textbooks, which is why you had to study them for your test.
Now, I never wake up in the morning and say, “Sender > Receiver > Feedback > Interference: How can I apply that today?” But I wake up every morning and ask myself, “How can I apply Wilbur Schramm’s Fraction of Selection model today?”
The Fraction of Selection formula
The Fraction of Selection model answers the question: How do readers decide what to read?
When contemplating their stack of messages, Schramm said, readers see this formula flit through their minds: Expectation of reward divided by effort required.
It’s “What will I get out of this?” vs. “What do I have to put into it?”
What will I get out of this message?
What do I have to put into it?
Your readers are just like you. In reading and in life, we’re looking for more gain, less pain.
For instance, but I’d love to have the body of Beyonce. However, I’d like to accomplish this on an all-Twix bar diet. I don’t want to work very hard at it.
If readers want to get the most out of your message while spending the least amount of time and effort on it, then, according to Schramm’s model:
- When you increase the gain, or reward, of reading, you’ll increase readership.
- When you reduce the pain, or effort required, of reading, you’ll increase readership.
- When you do both of these things at the same time, you’ll really dramatically increase readership.
To apply this formula to our own work, the first thing we need to ask is, “What are the rewards of reading?”
Increase the rewards of reading.
So what makes readers feel like reading? Persuasive strategies include:
- Information I can use to live my life better. Does your piece help readers make money, save money or get a Beyonce body while sitting on the couch eating Cheez Whiz from the jar with a spoon? That’s information they can use to live their lives better. To find it in your story:
- Ask “WIIFM?,” or What’s In it For Me? Why, from the reader’s point of view, should they bother with this message.
- Lead with the benefits; substantiate with the features. Persuasive copy focuses on what readers can do with your product or service, not the product or service itself.
- Use the magic word (You) to write to and about readers. Of all of the techniques to persuade, this is among the most important. Rhetorical questions can be helpful here.
- Write news you can use to live your life better. Use How to, 6 ways and other persuasive language.
- Move from event to impact. Persuasive writers focus on what came out of a product, service, program or idea — not on what went into it.
- Entertainment. Are you using creative techniques like human interest, metaphor or storytelling? Are you making your readers laugh, cry or shoot Diet Coke across the room from their noses? Make your message interesting to read.
We have now exhausted all of the benefits of reading. That’s it. Information I can use to live my life better and entertainment are the only tools you have to draw readers into our message. (Of course, you could always do both at the same time!)
Nothing much has changed since Schramm’s time. A few years ago, Chadwick Martin Bailey looked into what gets readers to agree to share information. Their answers:
- Because I find it interesting/entertaining: 72%
- Because I think it will be helpful to recipients: 58%
- To get a laugh: 58%
That boils down to entertainment and information I can use to live my life better. It always amazes me that we keep learning the same things about our audience members over and over. Turns out, our readers remain human, whether they’re reading a thesis or a tweet.
Another study supports this finding. Practical value, anger and anxiety and interest are among the top attributes of messages that get shared, found Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman, two professors at the University of Pennsylvania. Think of:
- Practical value as News I can use to live my life better, or how-to service stories
- Anger and anxiety as problems you can solve using a technique called fear appeals
But no matter how much you increase the reward of reading, your results get slashed by how hard it is to read. So to keep readers from running screaming from the room when they contemplate your message, you need to work both sides of Schramm’s equation.
To get people to read through to the call to action, you must also reduce the effort required.
Reduce the effort required
Let’s say I’ve convinced you that if you’ll read this message, you’ll be able to make $1 million by the end of the month — ethically, legally and morally. I’m guessing you’d read the piece: Some 99% of the audiences in my writing workshops say they would.
But what if I told you that this message is 6,000 pages long, presented in one-point type. It’s black type — Shakespearian Gothic font — on a 98% black screen. No leading. The entire 6,000 pages is one-sentence long, and there isn’t a word in here that has fewer than 14 syllables.
In my classes, we lose between 75% and 95% of our readers when they find out how much effort will be required to read the piece. And this with a reward — a million bucks! — that’s so huge, few of us will ever be able to offer it.
Sources: Richard Alleyne, “Welcome to the information age – 174 newspapers a day,” The Telegraph, Feb. 11, 2011
Jonah Berger and Katherine l. Milkman, “What Makes Online Content Viral?” (PDF) Journal of Marketing Research, April 2012, pp. 192-205