How to Get Readers to Pay Attention

7 Comments

Whether you’re submitting a session abstract or writing a blog post, you gotta get your readers to stay focused.

Write an awesome, straightforward title. Like it or not, people judge books by the cover.  When you’re writing a presentation abstract or a blog post, the title is your cover.  Sweat it.

Blog Post Announcement

Blog Post Announcement

Hit hard with the first sentence. Show ’em that you’re not just good with titles, but that the rest of your stuff might be catchy too.  If you’ve got your blog set up to automatically post new entries to Twitter, this matters even more because the first few words of your post are usually copied into the announcement tweet.  I’ve reworked entire blog posts to make them flow better from a more appealing first sentence.

Tell them something they already know. Unfortunately there’s a bunch of bozos out there who copy/paste material to “create” their own stuff without really understanding it.  Let the reader in on a secret that they learned the hard way, like why disk queue length metrics are meaningless on a SAN, and they’ll believe you know your stuff.  The trick is doing this as fast as possible in as few words as possible.

Drop hints about what they don’t know – yet. Give them just a clue about a few things they don’t know to pique their interest.

Make them laugh. The person on the other side of the screen has been slogging through a bunch of dry, boring material.  They’re in desperate need of a laugh.  This one’s especially hard to achieve for session abstracts, but nobody said this was going to be easy.

Check for grammar & spelling errors. I know, your chat room buddies say your spelling is fine, and your fourteen year old cousin is jealous of your text messaging skills, but you’re gonna have to kick it up a notch.  It’s one thing to use slang like “gonna,” but it’s another thing to screw up the basics.  This is especially important when you’re submitting sessions for conferences.  If you can’t type when you’re not under pressure, the abstract selection people will guess there’s no way you can speak under pressure.

Take one thing off before you leave the house. Fashion icon Coco Chanel instructed women to check the mirror before they left the house, and then take one thing off.  Keep your clothes on, but edit your material down, as Jeremiah Peschka recently wrote in his Act of Writing post.

Update: define your audience. Clearly define the prerequisites that readers need to have before they digest your content.  If you’re writing for a person who’s been working with 2-3 years of SSIS experience who works with packages full time, say that.  If you’re writing for a person who is more familiar with UPS packages, say that.  Otherwise, when your readers give you feedback, they’ll complain that your material was way too junior or senior level.

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7 Comments. Leave new

  • Great post as usual. How do you feel about the tease? Using talk radio for an example, before a commercial break the personality will say, “In the next segment, I will tell you exactly what the Detroit Lions must do this weekend to destroy the Chicago Bears.”

    I’ve been thinking about trying to tie my posts together that way to encourage people to return for the next post.

    What do you think?

    • Hmm, interesting question. I have a feeling (although I haven’t measured this to see) that I’ve only got 3 kinds of readers:

      1. RSS/email-newsletter readers – people who automatically get every post automatically. I don’t need to sell them on reading the next post. These are my favorite because that’s how I read stuff too.

      2. Casual browser readers – people who pull up my web site every now and then to read. I could sell them on reading the next post, but if they really cared about coming back frequently, they’d get the email or RSS feeds. I don’t want to “push” them via marketing, although if I did, your teaser would be my favorite way to try it.

      3. Search engine stumblers – they find me via Google, get what they need, and bail. They won’t start poking around until I’ve turned up in a few of their search results and they start realizing I’m a decent guy. The teaser wouldn’t work there.

      So bottom line – it’s useful, but only for category #2, and I’m not sure how many people that is. I bet it’s a lot in the beginning though.

      • From experience I know that teasers do have some effect on the readers. I’ve done it a couple of times in the past, although not on purpose (i.e. not planned). What sometimes happens to me is the following: I start writing a blog post and before I’m done explaining everything (such as solution A AND solution B) I realize that the post is becoming quite long. Furthermore, solution B could be covered in a separate post without any problems. Those are the cases when I decide to end the first post with a teaser and then write the next, more or less standalone, part in a new post.

        A real-life example of this are my two articles about the Excel import – the first one using OPENROWSET() and the second one in SSIS. Even with my humble amount of readers, I actually got an email from a reader asking me what solution B would be!

        In my opinion, as long as the posts are related to each other, it’s not a bad habit. Once part 2 is posted, which obviously is going to link back to the prequel, you can update the first one to link through to the second one, thereby making it easy for your readers to read the whole story.
        In that case, Brent, I believe that your conclusion regarding the third category is not completely correct: why wouldn’t they be interested in more similar/related content? After all, that’s what they were looking for in the first place (unlike those of the first category).

        Interesting post btw! 🙂

  • I agree with all of your points except the last one. I’m constantly having to ask people who submit abstracts for my UG, Data Camps, etc, to make them longer and more detailed. I get a lot of abstracts like:

    “This session covers some mistakes you can make when you’re doing ETL in SSIS.”

    Um, okay. But which mistakes? How will people know if they should attend or not? No lead in, no break down… Definitely needs a lot of improvement but there is certainly nothing to remove!

    • Adam – you’re right, and in fact, I need to go back and edit the article. I’m going to do that now. The other point is that you need to clearly define the target audience. Updating…

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