The Pause That Refreshes

I’m proud to tell you that my 7 year old daughter Emily is following in her father’s footsteps, and has already begun telling really bad jokes.

Her latest goes like this: “A man goes to the doctor, and the doctor asks, `How’s that new medicine working that I gave you to make you stronger?’ The man says, `Not so good.’ (pause) `I can’t open the bottle.'”

Take a minute to regain your composure, since I know that joke has got you rolling on the floor.

The interesting thing is that when she first starting telling the joke, it just didn’t sound that funny. I finally realized what the problem was. She was delivering the punch line too soon.

Instead of pausing between the last two sentences, she was saying one right on top of the other. Without the pause, it just didn’t sound right. Go ahead, try it for yourself (hint: close your office door first).

I was reminded of this yesterday as I read through a handful of newsletters from a new client; a professional service firm that had brought me in to help them fine tune their current approach. What they had in place was actually pretty good, and most of the key ingredients were already there: good content; professionally done design; automated back end; etc. And yet something was wrong.

The problem was — and I know this may seem trivial — there wasn’t enough white space on the screen. The text was laid out in big, chunky paragraphs, each consisting of from six to as many as ten sentences a piece. Like Emily’s first attempts at joke telling, it felt as if the information was coming too quickly, not giving the reader enough time to take it all in.

In the case of your newsletter, frequent paragraph breaks are the pauses in your “jokes.” They’re important for a few reasons:

• It’s hard to read on screen. Unlike a newspaper or book, a computer monitor is a lousy medium for reading lots and lots of text. By breaking the paragraphs up into little pieces, you make it easier for your readers to get through the material, increasing the likelihood that they’ll stay with you.

• People like to skim. Studies of online habits show that people jump around, moving around the screen to whatever catches their eye. Shorter paragraphs help them pick out things of interest to them (as does bold face, which is why I sprinkle it around).

• It makes the text feel more conversational. Think about the way dialogue in a book is laid out on a printed page. Lots and lots of short, one or two sentence paragraphs. When your newsletter writing uses this same approach, it has a much more personal rhythm to it, and makes it feel like it was written by a human being.

Bottom Line: It may seem that the more tightly you format your newsletter, the more “meaty” it will feel. In my experience however, too much information packed together creates an obstacle to effective communication. In writing — as in good joke telling — the spaces in-between can make all the difference.

(P.S. I know that you’re now dying to send us your own dumb joke. Don’t be shy; click here and send it in. Emily can always use new material).

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