CommCorner guest 010: Cecily Whiteside
Fits and Starts –
Storytelling for the Modern Reader
By Cecily Whiteside, Sora Creative Imagining
Imagine you’re on the phone with a young mom trying to set up an appointment. She’s got the phone tucked against her ear with the baby on her hip. The toddler and preschooler are running around off-leash. You can hear them in the background, their shrieks could be laughing or crying. Or both. It’s hard to tell. At one point this would have described my life. Everyone who called me, from my best friend to the guy coming out to service the AC, had a conversation with me that went something like this:
“Thursday at two? Let me just….JANEY DON’T PULL YOUR BROTHER’S HAIR….when did you say? Oh Thursday. Morning or…Oh...at two. I’m not sure if……..PETE PUT DOWN THE DOGFOOD! THAT’S FOR LUCKY!.....Hold on a sec, I have to put the baby in the high chair…..(crying in the background)….JANEY, I SAID LEAVE YOUR BROTHER ALONE!...Okay I’ve got my calendar now. Now, what day were we talking about?” It’s a little like talking to someone with Tourette’s syndrome.
Distracted readers are today's target audience
In many ways this young mom is similar to the audience you are trying to reach with your online communication. Distracted and disjointed readers with their attention constantly elsewhere present a unique challenge to today’s writer.
In order to get the message across to this distracted audience you not only need a good story, you must present it in a way that reaches them. Gone are the days of people sitting at the breakfast table reading the daily news or watching a TV show at prime time on Tuesdays each week. In this electronic age, there is constant entertainment, constently available: binge watching our favorite shows on Netflix, games on our phones, 24-hour news for every personal bias, tweets and Instagram and Facebook posts coming in astounding volumes from our 500+ friends. There are never-ending reasons to not read your blog post.
The first step is to have a good story, well told.
Every day, each of us will run across a dozen or more good stories. The key for writers is to recognize them. Listening and watching are the most important qualities in a storyteller. And then of course there is the ability to tell the story well, which comes from practice. As Steven King points out in About Writing, we must read a lot and write a lot if we want to improve our craft.
We also need the facts. Whether through interviews, research, or a combination thereof, having the information correct and homing in on the aspects that make it compelling are the hallmarks of a good writer.
And finally, we must pay attention to the mechanics. We are trying to create a world for the reader to enter, but if our grammar, spelling and syntax are full of errors, it jars them back to reality. More than once I have stopped reading an article or comment after coming across “their” instead of “there” once too often. I don’t think I’m the only one.
I’ve got the story, now where are my readers?
Times have changed, and technology is driving new reading habits. We’ve just reached the tipping point where more than half your online audience will access your website through their mobile device. This does a couple of things to the visitor’s ability to engage in your content.
• They read more slowly. Studies show that reading on a mobile device is 20-30% slower on a cell phone as compared to a laptop- or desktop-sized screen.
• They leave faster. On a computer, average time spent on your site is 150 seconds. No, that’s not a lot of time to get your message across. But on a mobile phone? It drops to 72 seconds, on average. That's just over a minute.
• They keep getting interrupted. Every few moments a reason to leave your site pops up in their notifications. An email, a new kitten picture posted by a girl they knew in high school, an Instagram post by the celebrity they follow. Your content has to be interesting enough to keep them engaged in spite of all the places they can go with just a click.
• They have to keep saying yes. It takes five pages on a cell phone to see the same amount as one page on a computer, and each of those pages means your reader must say “yes” again. That means five opportunities for them to simply not scroll to the next page.
• They lose their place. If they pop over to check on the delivery status of that Amazon order, then come back to your site to finish your content, that is a huge win. Make sure they can find where they left off to reward that loyalty.
Simple is better, but don’t dumb it down
Recent studies by the PIAAC, a multi-national study of adult literacy done in conjunction with the Department of Education, show that 52% of Americans read at a 5th-grade level or below. That’s half of your audience! 88% are 8th-grade level or below. In fact, the number of readers at a college level or above is “not statistically measurable.” In other words: Zero.
Most writers are in that upper echelon of readers, but we have to be careful not to write for ourselves. This does not mean you should dumb down your content. What it means it that you must adjust your presentation so that the content reaches the audience. It’s not as daunting as it sounds.
Edit with your audience in mind
You wrote the first draft for yourself. You interviewed the subject, then got some juicy background by searching the archives. You played on the emotional impact of the story as you poured every bit of your considerable way-with-words to bring the story’s tension to its climax. It’s some of your best work and you can’t wait to share it with the world (or your publisher). Not so fast. Now it’s time to edit. Here are the things to keep in mind as you read through what you need to get the final draft website-ready:
1. Make sure it’s interesting.
During the interview you asked open-ended questions and let the story unfold organically. What you thought was going to be a straightforward article may have ended up totally different because you kept an open mind. It may have taken you in an unexpected – and better – direction. Now you need to evaluate the final product and make sure you followed the right thread and ended up with the most compelling storyline. Some of my best work was a total departure from my original assignment or idea about the story. That’s the best kind of writing in my opinion!
2. Make sure it’s accurate.
Check your facts. Then double-check. You should also consider talking to other sources. Excitement over what you’ve discovered from your research and interviews will come across to the reader, but don’t let that excitement blind you. Journalism and marketing both hinge on trust. Make sure your reader can trust you.
3. Make sure it’s concise.
Don’t get caught up in the word-count game. Sometimes a blog, website page or article needs to be 1200 words to really convey the story. Sometimes it’s better at 400 words and trying to boost word count dilutes the message. If you’re getting paid by the word, it might be time to try a new business model.
4. Make it skim-able and digestible in small chunks.
Like the penny dreadful authors with their serial installments of novels, you have to think in terms of the cliffhanger. When someone skims your article, the best possible outcome is for them to read down the page, realize they missed important stuff, and go back to read more thoroughly.
5. Make it simple.
Remember too, that short sentences and short paragraphs are more inviting, especially for the less literate reader. Some of the smartest people I know are not great readers, but they are great thinkers. Don’t discriminate; let’s just write to reach them.
6. Make it easy to return.
Use lots of subheads to break up the text. Keeping them on the edge of their seats will increase the likelihood of your readers returning after any of the multiple distractions pull them away from your article. But they have to be able to find their place when they return. Subheads, numbered bullet points instead of just bullets and, again, short paragraphs, are particularly important when your readers are on a cell phone.
It’s up to you to make the story accessible. Good content will delight your readers and keep them coming back for more. Sloppiness and condecention will drive them away. It doesn’t matter if you are writing about the latest tech, a bio for an executive, or a blog about kitchen cabinets. You need to love your subject a little bit and let it show. Your audience will thank you: Maybe by staying to read your post, but hopefully, by following you and coming to back to visit often. Good storytelling hinges on reaching the reader, however they access your material.
Cecily Whiteside is owner of Sora Creative Imagining, a content creation company for corporate storytelling. When she is not writing for businesses, she is writing for her own entertainment or finding inspiration hiking, getting out into the wilderness for quiet contemplation, or just sitting on the beach listening to the waves crash.