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Attention, Please: Balancing Style and Substance

Now that social media has made it possible for anyone to broadcast their message to the world, it’s harder than ever to stand out from the crowd.

We all know the usual tips and tricks about using images, the effects of humour, creating catchy headlines and so forth. Ultimately, a reader’s attention span for a text really boils down to how convincing the text seems to them. It’s a highly subjective experience. Gimmicks that attract one reader’s attention may be a big turn-off for others.

The answer lies in the question

Advertisers often use rhetorical questions. These are questions to which the writer doesn’t actually expect an answer. Ask someone the question, ‘How would you like to go on a dream holiday?’ and it’s unlikely they’ll respond, ‘Actually, I’d rather stay home’.

Rhetorical questions draw the reader’s attention, but they also subconsciously force the reader to take a position. If the reader decides not to go along with the expected answer, it can become even more difficult to change their minds. A good approach is to present strong arguments first and then use rhetorical questions later in the text. This way, the reader takes all the arguments into consideration and is more likely to agree with you.

Driven to distraction

Beware: Carelessly using gimmicks to attract attention often has the opposite effect on readers. Don’t let stylistic choices distract your reader from the actual message you want to communicate.

A classic study in the early 1990s found that attempts to make texts more ‘vivid’ actually steer readers’ attention towards the wrong details. The study looked at what happened when researched added painstaking detail to a history text for high school students. The text described the cease-fire negotiations between North and South Korea in the 1950s and the role of the American army in the conflict. It included lively anecdotes, like American Admiral Joy being unable to see across the negotiation table because he was seated in such a low chair. While details like these stuck out in the students’ minds afterward, many of them struggled to explain any of the actual historical significance of the meeting.

Take care not to let interesting details cloud the reader’s view. It’s important to write with an appropriate level of detail, an appealing style, the right kinds of images and thought-provoking headlines – just make sure your writing choices are always suitable for your topic. Above all, they must always support the actual message you are trying to communicate. Otherwise, it’s all style and no substance.