LONG tracts of gray text are unattractive in any format, but they are wholly off-putting on the Web. If you write important corporate information for public consumption, you need to adjust your writing style to address the unique requirements of online “readers.”
The most important thing to know about writing for the Web is that almost no one looking at your work on a computer screen is actually going to read your every word. Instead, research shows that people skim and scan online content, picking out bits and pieces of information from the screen.
This has been substantiated in eye-tracking studies by the Poynter Institute at Stanford University. Researchers there found that people are picky about what they read on a screen. For example, they ignore ads and things that look like ads and tend to focus on text instead. When people look at text, they often:
- Focus on headings, captions and briefs.
- Read the first part of a paragraph before skipping to the next paragraph.
- Scroll only three-quarters of the way down a page.
Why people don’t read online content
Researchers have advanced several reasons to explain why most people are averse to reading online content. An important reason is relevance. There is so much information on the Web that people have to be very picky about what they are willing to spend time reading. It is up to writers of online content to convince people of the relevance and worth of what they are writing about.
Other reasons for people not reading information on a computer screen include:
- Technological factors: Most computer monitors have very low resolutions. Compared to words printed on paper, text on a screen is grainy and harder to discern. This is especially so if the text is set at a small size, as is the case on about half of all the IR websites we study.
- Environmental factors: The glass or plastic used in computer monitors picks up the glare from surrounding light sources. This makes already grainy text on the screen even more difficult to read.
- Physiological factors: Most computers used to access online information aren’t as portable as paper. People are forced to sit in a fixed position to view them, which makes the reading experience less comfortable. With paper, people can move around, slouch on a comfortable couch or even read in the bath.
Given the limitations of reading from a computer screen, usability expert Dr. Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group has estimated that reading from a screen is 25% slower than reading from paper. Perhaps this will change in the future with the introduction of better computer screen technologies, but for now it’s something writers must take into account if they hope to get their message across.
Poor Web writing can be more costly than paying for good online copy.
IR communications professionals have a responsibility to provide all the information appropriate for investors in a way that is understandable to them. That was the point behind the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s Plain Language Rule, and it is the point behind writing better IR disclosure information for the Web. Both seek to make information more accessible and understandable to the investment public.
However, regulation shouldn’t be the only reason for making your online communications clearer. Your company stands to benefit if your public disclosures are optimized for online reading because well written online information and disclosure can lead to better informed investors. In turn, these investors will be in a better position to ascribe an accurate valuation on your company’s securities.
The most common culprits of gray text on IR websites are quarterly and annual reports, governance policies, proxy statements, news releases and management speeches and presentations. Given how important these items can be to your company’s IR program, it makes sense to take the time to properly prepare them for online consumption. Of course, the additional time and expertise required to prepare these for the Web may result in additional short-term costs, especially if you need to hire an outside Web writer or editor.
However, the costs of preparing information specifically for the Web will be money well spent. Not only can it lead to a better understanding of your company among investors, but there can also be more immediate benefits. If your online information is easier to read and understand, investors and shareholders will have less need to ask you to send them expensive printed documents. They will also have fewer questions and misunderstandings and thus fewer reasons to take up your department’s time with phone calls and emails.
This means savings for your company from shorter print-runs and lower mailing costs. And it means more time for your department to devote on proactive activities rather than reactive ones. You’ll be doing more of the things that add value and less on the things that detract from it.
Seven simple ways to improve your writing for the Web
Even experienced writers need to learn how to make their writing work for the Web. Effective online writing starts with a foundation of plain good writing, to which you apply a series techniques to adapt the work to the realities of how it will be consumed online.
1. Use plain English.
Using plain English achieves three things for your online content:
- It makes a document easier to read online;
- It makes what you say more credible because its helps prevent jargon, legalese and marketing hype; and,
- It helps you connect with people internationally for whom English is a second language.
The US Securities and Exchange Commission provides a good guide to plain English on its website.
2. Break up text with informative headings.
For the majority of people who scan online pages, the information in headings is likely all they will absorb. So it’s important to make sure your headings are informative and impart useful information.
Headings that inform are more likely to encourage people to read the text beneath them than those which attempt be cute or which are mere labels. For example, “Air conditioner sales up 15%, driven by panic buying amid European heatwave” tells people much more about the size and permanency than the cute “Air Conditioner Sales Heat Up,” or the label heading “European Air Conditioner Sales.”
Good headings also help people find information in a long document by acting as a kind of navigational aid.
3. Use bullet lists where possible.
- Attract your reader’s eye;
- Show at a glance how many information items are covered in a paragraph;
- Provide a visual break on long text pages; and,
- Make information seem more digestible.
4. Put the most important information at the top of the page and at the beginning of a paragraph.
Studies show that online readers typically only read 75% down the length of a page. So if you want them to read something, make sure it’s close to the top of the page.
Research has shown that people typically read only the first sentence of each paragraph to get a sense of the information being discussed, then skip to the first sentence of the next paragraph.
You must put the main information at the front of your sentences to overcome this behavior. It also means you should heed the one-idea-per-paragraph principle.
5. Use relevant images to provide visual relief and added info on the page.
Add relevant visuals like slides to transcripts of speeches. Add charts, graphs and maps to MD&As and photos and video to online news releases.
The most important element of any visual is the caption. Like headings, they should impart useful information to people.
6. Write tightly and link to background.
Online documents should ideally be half the length of their print counterparts. You can achieve this by stripping contextual information out of your main document and placing it in a linked file. Don’t rehash material that appears elsewhere on your site — link to it.
Links can also be used to add valuable context to financial and operating data. They can take the user to a note explaining trends or allow investors to look at the information in different ways.
7. Break up long pieces over several pages.
If you do this, also provide a complete version of the document in a single file, such as a PDF or printer-friendly file, for those who want to print the full item at once.
Writing good online documents is difficult for even the most experienced writer. Don’t try to implement all seven of these techniques on your first try. Start with one or two and then gradually expand to include the others.
Remember, too, that most of what we write today will almost certainly end up on a computer monitor somewhere, so knowing how to write for the online environment will almost certainly give you an edge over those who don’t.