The four new rules for writing in a pandemic-impacted world

The pandemic has forever changed how we write in business.

It hasn’t been chipping away at our skills or revising the ranking of keywords, or even given us a whole range of virus-related puns to use get people’s attention. But it has been changing our readers … across the board.

Writing in business has always been an ever-evolving craft. We’ve moved from headlines to subheadings, from search words to keywords, from slabs of text to sound bites of social content. Some writers back in the 2000s – I wasn’t one of the faithful – worshipped at the altar of SEO.

Back then, my writing workshops came with the advice that you had to focus on the needs of the reader, and you had between 3-5 paragraphs to get people’s attention. If your reader took one look at the screen on their desktop and didn’t like what they saw in 5-6 seconds, they were gone.

Then in 2015 my writing workshops came with the direction to get your reader’s attention in 3-5 lines. Social media, and the shift of email to phones, had concentrated people’s focus to one paragraph. And we started to see the impact of scanning. People were starting to not read.

Now in 2021, those numbers are still three and five. It’s just we’ve now moved to words. Not lines – words. Not paragraphs – words. And those words appear throughout your writing, people no longer read in the same linear fashion that you wrote your material.

The changes have been gradual – we’ve had to respond because people’s attention spans have narrowed over time like the arteries of an aging senator. The competition for attention has grown exponentially at the same time as the time that readers think they have has reduced, even if only in their minds.

The majority of internal communication is disregarded by employees because they don’t think it’s for them (Jouany, 2021).

Now 50% of the global workforce are millennials, so the first digital natives – likely to be far more visual than those people that came before them – now dominate the marketplace.

And then we had the pandemic, which broke existing models of workflow that threw a spanner into the work of teams, by having people working from home and introducing a comfort into the whole concept of online meetings. The floodgates also opened, as every marketer on the planet seemed to realize that if everyone was home they could be spamming the living daylights out of them.  Everyone is stressed – and people who are stressed are 80% less likely to process information (Center for Risk Communication, 2020).

One of the things that I talk about in my workshops and also with those writers that I coach  is that the pandemic has done more than changed behavior. It’s changed the rules. In fact, there are now four new rules for business writing in a pandemic in order to reach people who don’t read (even if the material is for them), have no time to read (because they’re homeschooling or working from home at 11pm) or are too stressed to take in what you’ve provided (because Covid).

New rule #1: more than ever, business communication is all about the audience.

This isn’t the pandemic’s fault. In a world of mobile phone saturation and social media lemmingry we now have a marketplace that has the attention span of a newt with ADHD. YouTube most famously ran into this with its Skip Ad function to the point where sometimes it doesn’t even allow you to skip their ads because it knows that in a microsecond you’ve already decided you want to.

Back in the 2000s, I was training people to write with their audience in mind, because they are the ones you are persuading to take the action you want them to take.

So what does this new rule mean to business writers?

Well, you have to write with the audience not just in mind but at heart. In 2021, you need to talk to them in the first line about how your message makes their life better, and for them to see the words they value throughout your content. Don’t fall into the trap of writing narratives or product or process descriptors. This has always been the case as we tend to fall back on thinking credibility is what wins persuasive arguments, but in a world strapped for time and attention, we need to be more audience-focussed than ever..

New rule #2: narrative surpasses information

I remember working with clients and companies back in the 2000s where the line “Join us on Facebook” was a thing that drew people to this platform where we were, and we wanted to them to read about what we had to offer. Or we wrote “Please visit our website for more information” back in the 1990s – and I argued at the time that people never went to our website for more information, they went there for specific information – to drive traffic to our little corner of the Internet.

Well, maybe we’ve got enough information. We’re now spending more time on social media than ever. In Australia we’ve just passed the research milestone of having Australians now using social media more than they sleep in terms of hours (SMPerth, 2020). And in a world of social media, what are you confronted with with every thumb swipe? Story. We live and breathe a world of story.

So this leads to new rule #2: don’t just give people information, show them how this information fits into their story. Please note, I’m not saying that you need to turn your latest factsheet about superannuation investment into a Goldilocks and the Three Bears knock off. But you need to understand that there is one thing more powerful than your information sheet about the nuts and bolts of superannuation – the story of someone who used that information sheet, and he’s now better off for it. That’s because we are used to looking for common ground in stories we read. So help us see our story in your company.

New rule #3: a digital mindset isn’t an option

We live in a digital world, but many, many businesses I work with don’t have a digital mindset.

They take a paper-based mindset into a digital world. What that means is that they design all their information as a PDF, as if the end document is paper-based. Then they digitise it, upload it to their website and expect people to download it and print it.

Processes are also another culprit of digital versions of offline practices. Consumers expect ALL steps to be online-friendly, not some. Videos are another culprit – when companies upload video versions of a meeting thinking it’s worthy of a Ted Talk. But it’s not.

Consider this.  50% of the current workplace are millennials and this number is not going to go down. These are the first digital natives who don’t just think that the web is interesting, they think it’s a necessity. So a digital mindset is more than just “we created some content and put it up”. When I work with clients to write their video scripts, it’s not a simple case of writing a script for the CEO to read. I encourage them to think digitally about that information. It’s more than delivery, it’s about how you interact with it after that. It’s how you deliver your information, and drop it into the digital stream of those people you’re trying to reach. It’s not just saying “can you spend five minutes to come and look at the PDFs we’ve just uploaded?” It’s understanding that the people that you’re working with, I’m thinking digitally pretty much all the time. And usually on their phones.

New rule #4: you need to value your reader’s time

My earliest writing workshops in writing for the web or writing for business contained the information that you had three to five paragraphs to get people’s attention. Then ten years ago with the advent of social media, I would have said that you’ve got three to five lines.

Fast-forward to the mid 2010s (five or six years B.C.) and you’ve got three to five words.

So what’s the rule? People scan, not read.

Don’t take it personally – it happens to all of us – in fact, you do it yourself as a reader. People don’t read everything you write, and I know that you sweated blood under a horrible Friday deadline to get this information written, but the reality is that they don’t read it.

They scan it, and what are they looking for relates to them. They decide – with the time they have available to them – whether or not you’re providing what they need.  They choose – based on the words they see, whether or not reading this is going to be the best value for their time.

So write for scanners, not readers. Hook them early with something about them, and then lay out a story on how this information makes their life better.

Just a note: people will gladly read long tail content online if it’s the reason they visited your site. If it’s speaking to them and delivering what they need, that also values their time. This isn’t about the reduction of time. It’s about making the best of use of your reader’s time.

There are now new rules for online writing that reflect how our readers have changed. The stresses of 2021 – be they pandemic-related or social media-inspired – have reframed how people consume our content, which naturally means we need to adjust how we write it. So how are you finding your writing changing

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