topic mastery

Writing to Match Skimmer Reading Habits

More people skim rather than read, so it makes sense to write for skim-readers, especially purposeful skim readers who are looking for the maximum information in the least amount of time.

More people skim rather than read, so it makes sense to write for skim-readers, especially purposeful skim readers who are looking for the maximum information in the least amount of time.

In a world of smash-and-grab reading, you cannot afford to dilly-dally in writing to the point. Assume your target audience are skimmers who hop from article to article, video to video and outlet to outlet looking for something that makes them stop – or at least pause.

This isn’t PR jingo. It’s reality. Consider Swarthmore College’s advice to its students about skimming:

“The first rule, in some ways the only rule, is skim, skim, skim. But skimming is not just reading in a hurry, or reading sloppily, or reading the last line and the first line. It's actually a disciplined activity in its own right. A good skimmer has a systematic technique for finding the most information in the least amount of time.”

If colleges are teaching people to skim, we should prepare to write for skimmers, especially disciplined skimmers.

William Comcowich, writing for ragan.com, suggests tactics to satisfy skimmers. Most are obvious ways to package your message in digestible bites – informative headlines, subheads, lists, short paragraphs, key details and visuals.

However, these tactics are mostly crutches for undisciplined or impatient skimmers, who are turned off by long sentences and words they don’t understand. There is another, higher-performing level of skimmers who should drive our writing styles. These are the skimmers that schools like Swarthmore are training.

The Tracks of Skim-Readers

• 55% of page views last less than 15 seconds
• Readers on average read 20% of text
• People don’t read left to right, but skim in an “F” pattern
• Only 10% to 20% of readers make it through an entire article
• A newsletter opened in email has 51 seconds to make an impression

High-performing skimmers seek “the most information in the least amount of time.” They are skimming to find information of interest, utility and value. You might call them purposeful skimmers.

Purposeful skimmers include that group of people we refer to as influential, which is a group PR professionals should court by writing in sync with how they skim-read.

With that lens, one of the most important elements of writing for skim-readers is to provide a concise description of your core point. This requires mastery of a subject by the writer. It means doing more than simply moving information on a conveyor belt of sentences. Writers must have a command of their topics so they can squeeze out what’s important or unique and summarize it in a few words.

The bottom-line message can be contained in a headline, opening paragraph or cutline to a compelling visual. The key is making it visually accessible for the skimmer.

Once you grab a skimmer’s attention, your secondary or supportive points need to be easily accessible, too. Bullet points, pull-outs and cleverly worded lists can be useful to sustain skimmer attention. Readable charts work as well.

When skimmers turn into readers or deep-dive researchers, you need additional layers of information to satisfy them, such as short paragraphs with links or expandable content that’s revealed at a reader’s click.

Word choices, brevity and show-me content convey mastery while offering valuable cues to skimmers. Fluff, wordiness and foggy explanations are turn-offs, probably for more than just skimmers.

The best advice: write for your audience. Increasingly, your audience is full of skimmers. They want premium content, but don’t want to go on a treasure hunt to find it. Make your written content fit the reading habits of skimmers, especially purposeful skimmers. Make your content discoverable.

You won’t be indulging your skim-readers; you will be meeting them at the edge of your content and inviting them in.