Cones In The Road

I was driving along yesterday, almost home, minding my own business. I was on a quiet, curvy, country-ish road with no other cars in sight. Suddenly, as I went around a bend, I saw a bunch of cars in the road, all moving slowly in either direction.

So I said to myself, “Hmm… that’s odd. I wonder what’s going on up ahead? Not only that, why am I speaking to myself in complete sentences?”

As I got closer, I saw the problem: Sitting on the line in the middle of the road were two, small orange traffic cones, about 10 feet apart. Nothing else. No “Men Working” signs, no kids playing nearby, no traffic accident. Just two lonely cones in the middle of the road.

What struck me as interesting was the fact that two little pieces of plastic could cause all the cars to slow down. Not because there was a sign telling them to, and not because they needed to (the road was plenty wide).

Slowing down to have a look was just a reasonable, human response to something unusual and potentially important (or dangerous).

Likewise, when it comes to writing your newsletter (or your web site, or your thought piece or your holiday cards), it’s also in your best interest to put cones in the road.

What I mean is that given how predisposed people are to “driving quickly” through whatever it is they’re reading, when you include things in your writing which serve to slow them down and which cause them to pay more attention, your message will have more impact.

Am I suggesting that you make your writing difficult to read? You know, blurry type, teeny letters, convoluted sentences. No, plenty annoying that would just be.

I am suggesting, however, that you entice them to slow down, by offering things which can only be enjoyed and appreciated at a reduced speed.

Two examples…

  1. Humor. Take a minute and read this joke, excerpted from Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes:

    Mrs. Goldstein was walking down the street with her two grandchildren. A friend stopped to ask her how old they were. She replied, “Five and seven.”

    Not that funny, right? That’s because I removed a few key words from the punch line. Here, try it again, this time with the punch line intact:

    Mrs. Goldstein was walking down the street with her two grandchildren. A friend stopped to ask her how old they were. She replied, “The doctor is five and the lawyer is seven.”

    Ba-dum. The thing about humor, and the reason it’s so effective in slowing readers down, is that it can’t be skimmed. If you don’t read every word of it, from beginning to end, you’re likely to miss the joke entirely.

    When you include humor – not necessarily out and out jokes like the one above, but things like puns, made-up-ish words, or clever asides – you train readers to watch more closely. In the process (shhhh) they read the business parts more closely too.

  1. Stories. A well-told story pulls people in and, if well told, forces them to come along for the ride.

    Consider the story at the beginning of this newsletter. I’m willing to bet that nobody who got as far as this sentence in the second paragraph – “I wonder what’s going on up ahead?” – stopped reading right there. If you get that far, I’ve got you … at least for a few more sentences, until I satisfy your curiosity about what was happening in the road.

    As with humor, stories cause readers to slow down. The need to understand where it’s going, along with the conversational nature of a story, results in a less hurried pace than with typical business writing – readers become enveloped in it. Here as well, the slower pace increases the likelihood that they’ll take in and digest your overall message.

Bottom line. Yes, your readers are in a hurry. And yes, left on their own, many will just skim what you write and race to the end.

Your job, therefore, is to help them slow down. Drop some cones in the road along the way … and don’t forget to smile as they pause to get a better look.

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