How to slow the skimmers. The 6 S’s.

Think of skim reading as a forest fire, rushing headlong, unstoppable, caring little for what it consumes.  Dangerous stuff if you’re trying to get readers to stop and absorb a particular marketing message.

And you can’t stop it either.  Skim reading, speed reading – whatever you want to call it, isn’t just a habit, it’s a skill that’s learnt.  There’s training courses on it.  The best you can do is to try to regulate the speed and minimise any adverse effects.

We all do it to a degree and no, it’s simply not all down to the intrinsic nature of the Web either. As long as there’s been long tracts of text – in print or digital – there’s been skim reading.

With a forest fire you can’t just wait for the wind to die down.  Firebreaks are built ahead of the fire, areas deliberately set alight to slow the progress, bucket loads of water dropped to stem the advance.

Extend the analogy to your marketing writings and you’ll help reduce any negative impact of skimming on message delivery.  As an aide memoire, think of it in terms of 6 S’s.

Short

Short words, short sentences, short paragraphs.  Using them means less ink on the page.  So less fodder for the flames, less reason to blaze on through missing key messages buried in an inky blackness.

Space

Of course short also means more white space, so more natural fire breaks to arrest the advance and cause a momentary pause.  Punctuation, line breaks, inter-paragraph spacing, they all induce space. Use them.

Sub-heads

Use a sub-head (a short one) to pick out words of direct relevance to the reader.  It’s a firewall a reader needs to pause at before consuming the paragraph the other side.  Similar too the mighty caption, add one to the bottom of every photo, a sure fire way of getting a reader to stop.

Shape

Just like the type and separation of trees in a forest affect the intensity of the blaze, so the shape of the characters on the page (I mean font, but it didn’t begin with an ‘s’) will also govern how fast a reader advances through the text.

So yes, serifs are oft deemed more readable in print than digital, but be it serif or sans serif, choose it carefully, then occasionally bold it, italicise it, underline it (as a well crafted hyper link).  Give the reader a reason to dwell.

Size

The wordcount, the size of fonts, of paragraphs, of sentences, of words (I guess we’re back to the first couple of S’s), use them to regulate the speed of passage. Too big is too much fuel and the fire rages on.  Too little and the fire might just leap to a different forest altogether.

Substance

Having said all that, unless your text is well written, researched and directly relevant to the target reader, unless it engages and inspires, then no amount of attention to the previous 5 S’s will slow a reader down.  Substance is paramount too.

If you want to slow a reader, if you want to quell the blaze, all 6 S’s need to be factored in.