When I’m running Afia training sessions, I often talk about reader investment, which might sound like a pension plan for bookworms, but is in fact much more interesting and important.

Reader investment is the idea that, as readers, there are some things we really, really want to read, others that we can barely be bothered with, and some that fall between the two extremes.

You can think of it as a sliding scale. At one end are the types of writing you’re least invested in, and at the other end, the types of writing you’re most invested in.

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So, for example, you’re probably very invested in reading a gripping novel that you’re halfway through, perhaps to the extent that you look forward to an hour’s peace and quiet to be alone with it. Whether it’s Fifty Shades of Grey or Finnegan’s Wake, you really want to read that thing.

You’re probably much less interested in reading the letter from your bank that’s just plopped on to your doormat – that one about the EXCITING NEW way they’re going to do something you don’t care about. It doesn’t remotely excite you. You might give it half a glance before you chuck it in the recycling. You might not open it at all.

Most things fall between the two extremes. You might choose to idly flick through the local paper in your lunchbreak or on the train, but it doesn’t interest you as much as Fifty Shades does. On the other hand it probably interests you more than your work emails. Most of those you wouldn’t choose to read, and you go through them fairly briskly, but you still give them a decent amount of attention because that’s what you’re paid to do.

On the reader investment scale, those different types of reading probably fall into positions like this:

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So far, so obvious: we read things carefully if we’re interested in them. It’s not exactly an intellectual breakthrough. So why does it matter?

Getting it the wrong way round

It matters because businesses often write things as if they have very high-invested readers when they actually have very low-invested readers.

Have you ever sat in a meeting discussing a marketing email (or something similar) where lots of people have said ‘oooh we have to say this’ and ‘we have to tell them that’? Then a compliance manager chips in about some small print, and the manager of another team emails to say that you have to include a paragraph about a new, unrelated, product? The final draft ends up long and dense, with every single paragraph and sentence argued over.

The problem is, most of the people you send it to won’t read it in that level of detail. It’s a marketing email, for pity’s sake – we’ve got better things to do with our time. You’ve got very low-invested readers, but you’ve written as if they’re very high-invested ones who will pore over every word.

Good writing takes low-invested readers – those towards the left of our sliding scale – and moves them towards the right, turning them into readers with a higher investment. There are a few ways it can do this, including:

  • Focussing on just one or two main messages.
  • Starting with a headline and introduction that explain the benefit and show it’s relevant to the reader
  • Being easy to navigate, with a mix of short and medium-length paragraphs, and perhaps some bullet points and subheads (but not too many)
  • Using clear, straightforward, conversational, concrete, active language

…in other words, the basic techniques of good writing that we bang on about all the time.

In most business contexts, you’re rarely going to turn a very low-invested reader into a very high-invested one. Instead, you want to nudge your readers away from the extreme left, a few inches rightwards – which should translate into a few more sales, or customers with a clearer understanding of what they need to do, depending on the point of the letter.

The trap to avoid is imagining that, because it’s your letter that your business is sending out, readers will sit down, make a cup of tea and read it with intense care. They won’t.

Yet I see business after business that writes as if they will. If you want to avoid that trap, write well, write clearly, understand your readers and give them something as relevant and readable as you can.