Hi there and welcome to Episode 176 of the ProBlogger podcast. My name is Darren Rowse and I’m the blogger behind problogger.com; a blog, podcast, event, job board, and a series of ebooks all designed to help you as a blogger, to start a blog, to grow your audience, and to help make money from that blog. You can find more about ProBlogger at problogger.com.
In today’s lesson, I want to share something really quite simple. It’s a skill that is going to help you with all of the content that you create for your blog. It’s going to help your blog to be more read by the readers who come to it, it’s going to help those readers to understand what you are trying to say to them, and to take action upon the content that you create. It’s also going to help you to get more shares on your content too.
Today we’re talking about techniques for creating scannable content on your blog. As a blogger, you probably put a lot of time into carefully choosing the right words for your blog posts. We all do that. We all really think hard about those words, the things that we’re trying to convey. But many times what stops your readers from actually engaging with the content that you put a lot of time into is the way those words are arranged on your page. They’re very often the right words but they’re just not arranged in the right way and they’re presented in a way that is either hard to read or inaccessible to some of your readers.
As a result, our posts go unread. They get no comments or few comments and they have little chance of being shared because people aren’t actually reading the content, they’re not comprehending it. If you are someone who wants more readers, more engagement, more sharing of your content, then today’s episode is for you because learning to write scannable content is a skill that you will want to develop. Again, let’s get into the techniques for today’s show.
Studies show that the average person only really comprehends about 60% of what they read. That’s a little bit depressing as a blogger. It’s no wonder that this is true because another study that I came across today found that only 16% of people read websites word for word, 16% of people read the content that we write word for word. Most people today simply don’t read every word that is in front of them, they scan what they’re reading. I know this to be a fact because it’s exactly what I do.
When I first arrive on a website or a blog, I tend to do a very quick scan around the page without scrolling whatever I see above the fold. If I see something that interests me, then I might scroll down further. But really, it’s an initial scan of the page to see if the content looks like it is relevant to me and if it’s good enough for me to invest a little bit of time on.
If I see something above the fold that I find interesting, I generally then will scan down further. I’ll scroll and I’ll do another scan of the content. I might even scan to the bottom of the page to see how long it is, whether it’s going to be easy to read, and if I see any benefits of reading. And then I make a decision about whether I want to read it. If I see something in that initial scan that I want to read, then I go right back to the top and I begin to read.
This is how I think most people do it. People are making decisions in those first few seconds on your blog to determine whether they’re going to find your content relevant to them and whether it’s worth spending time reading it. If your content feels hard to read, if they can’t immediately see some benefits of reading it, then they will click away from your site and not actually read it, and never leave a comment, and never share.
Learning to write in a way that is scannable is really important because people are determining whether they’re going to read your content based upon that fact. In today’s episode, what I want to do is present to you 19, and that might sound like a lot but they are very short and simple techniques, that you can use to do just that, create scannable content. Good bloggers keep this in mind as they write. They will employ a variety of techniques to make their post easier to scan and to read. Not all of these will be relevant for every post you write but hopefully as you read through them you’ll begin to develop some techniques that will help your next post be more scannable, read, comprehended, and engaged with. Let’s get through them.
Number one, write great headlines. We talked about this in Episode 156, I’m not going to go into great depth but the first thing people will have their eyes drawn to is the headline of your post. Make it stand out, that comes down to designing your blog in a way where your headline pops off the screen and so people’s eyes are drawn directly to that. That’s what you want people to see when they first come to your site. Make it designed so that people see it and can have their eyes drawn to it but also make sure the headline itself is compelling and gives people a reason to want to read the next line. I do talk about that in Episode 156, I’m not going to go into any more depth on that apart from saying the best thing you can really do in your headline is to communicate a benefit for reading that.
Number two is to write a great opening line. Aside from your headline, the most read part of your blog post will be your first line. Again, you want to be communicating a benefit or creating a little bit of curiosity and intrigue, or making some kind of a promise, or do something in that opening line of your blog post to give people a reason for reading more. That’s a key place where you can help people to know that your content is relevant for them.
Point number three, keep your paragraphs short. Large, unbroken slabs of text will turn many of your readers off. Keep your paragraphs short. This gives your readers a visual cue that reading your content will be achievable. If they just come to your site and see these large slabs of text, unbroken paragraphs, they’re going to go, “This is just too hard.” They might not actually think that but it’s a subconscious type thing. Every paragraph should only have one idea in it and be relatively short.
Point number four is related to this, keep your sentences short as well. In a similar way to keeping your paragraphs short, keeping your sentences short will help your readers feel like your content is accessible. If the first line in your blog post is a sentence that’s 40 or 50 words long and is confusing to comprehend, they’re going to go, “This is just too hard.” I heard one person say that sentences should have no more than 16 words in them. I’m not a big one on rules but that sounds like a fairly achievable type of thing.
Number five, choose simple words. I remember back in high school, my English teacher once told me, she actually wrote this as a comment on one of the essay that I’ve written, that words that have four syllables or more sound impressive but make writing inaccessible to those reading. Anything with more than four syllables in it, four or more syllables, is inaccessible type word for people.
I actually pointed out to my teacher that the word inaccessible which she’d written as a comment was a five syllable word. That may not have gone down too well with that English teacher. I remember her not receiving that comment too well, but I guess her words of advice really did sink in for me.
Write like you speak. Choose words that simply and accurately convey your meaning. The less people need to get out the dictionary to find out what you’re actually talking about, the more they’ll persist with your reading. Big words might sound impressive but they actually make your content a little bit more inaccessible.
Number six point, use lists. Anecdotal evidence here on ProBlogger in the content that I’ve written over the years and on Digital Photography School suggest to me that my post with list type formats do so much better than the more essay like content that I write. Breaking your content down into the format of a list just seems more easy to read for your readers. As they scan through they can go, “Yeah, this is a list.” Yeah, this is 20 points, that’s pretty comprehensive but I can see that it’s broken down for me in some way.” I say this time and time again in the content that I create. Using a list to format your whole post can be one way, and even to use bullet points throughout a post can again help people to scan through your content, so using list in that way.
Related to this, headings and subheadings are so important. Large bold words that act as visual cues for what’s happening in the content that you write is one way that you can use to communicate really quickly the main points of your article, but also to draw the eye through your content. Again, if people come to your site and all they see is a large slab of text, it may be broken down into paragraphs but all they see is text and nothing really is standing out to them, then it’s harder for them to actually find out what does this article cover. But if you can break your 2,000 word article or even your 500 word article down into 4 or 5 sections that each have a subheading that communicates what that section is about, it gives your readers a visual cue as to what is coming up, and whether there’s going to be something relevant to them. Using subheadings can really be useful in that way.
Other types of formatting is point number eight. This is where you might use bold, you might use italics, you might even choose to use capitals, all caps or underlining to emphasize points. You want to be really careful with this type of formatting. You don’t want your whole article to be a mismatch of bold, italics, capitals, underlining, because then your content might begin to look a little bit cluttered and messy. Some restrained use of these types of techniques can really draw the eye of your reader to particularly important parts of your content. Even changing the font size or the color of your content might be relevant at certain times. Again, be really restrained on this, you don’t want your content to just be a mismatch of all of these techniques. Formatting is point number eight.
Point number nine is to use pictures. Research shows that reader’s eyes are drawn down the page by pictures. Simply by putting a picture every 200 or 300 words can be one way to add some visual interest, but also to draw the eye of your readers down the page. Placing your pictures cleverly beside your key points, especially when they do relate to the content, increases the chance of people really getting right down to the bottom of your post.
Point number ten is related to this, use image captions. When you’re using a picture, an image in your post, consider putting an image caption. This is pretty easy to do today with WordPress, it’s all built into WordPress. People naturally look at the little descriptions or the words underneath images. I would suspect that they, perhaps apart from your subheadings, are possibly the most read parts of your posts. Actually putting in an image caption in there that emphasizes a point that you’re trying to make, even if it has a call to action, might be a good place to draw the eye.
Number eleven, use other visual content. Using images is great but putting your key points or quotes from the article into a graphic image can be a really great visual cue as well. Using charts can also be good, or even putting tables into your content. Anything that is visual and there’s a different type of conveying of information can really help to draw the eye, to show your readers that it’s not just reading that you want them to do, you’ve got something for them to look at as well. This can really help to get your key points across. Even those graphics that we often use to promote our content on social media, actually putting those into your content, you might take a key quote from your article, put it over a graphic, a beautiful image, and put that into your content. That again acts like a sub header. There’s something that’s going to be relevant later in this article, gives you a reason to read more.
Point number twelve, use blockquotes. This is a formatting tool that you can use. Most WordPress themes have a blockquote. This is where you’re highlighting a particular part of your content in some way. If you don’t know what a blockquote is, do a search on Google for that and you’ll see that WordPress enables you to use those. It really allows you to highlight a particular part of your content. It’s usually designed there to highlight a quote, but you can of course use that in different ways.
Number thirteen is to use white space. Don’t feel you have to fill up every inch of your screen. Rather, creating space in your content can actually help your readers to feel not quite so overwhelmed. Again, space can draw your reader’s eye down into the page. This is partly to do with design which we are to talk about but also you can add in line breaks into your content just to really space them out a little bit more. Thirteen is using white space.
Fourteen, I want to talk just really briefly about using good design. Speaking of using space, a lot of what we’ve actually been talking about really does come down to the design of your site and the template that you use. This episode isn’t the type of episode to talk in depth about blog design. We have had others in the past on that which I’ll link to in the shownotes. Many times, blogs are difficult to read simply because their design is cluttered. Simplifying your design can really help a lot.
Also, choosing fonts that aren’t too small can help to make your content more readable. Adding a little bit of distance between your lines on your content can also help as well. Getting the advice of a good designer can help a lot. We’ll have some further reading in the shownotes on good design.
Point number fifteen is to get to the point. Try to be succinct with your points. One technique that I have tried to use on my own content from time to time is to use summary statements to help to get to the point. If I’m writing a long article, maybe 2,000 or 3,000 words, and I might be using subheadings to break up the text, underneath each subheading I might try to include a summary statement. It’s almost like the opening line of your blog post but it’s the opening line of a section, actually summarizing what is the benefit of reading this particular section of the content. Using those types of summary statements can help to get to the point. Readers see the subheading, they read that opening line of that section, and they immediately have a reason for wanting to read the rest of that particular section. It’s really similar to using a title and opening line but using that technique throughout your posts as well.
Number 16, don’t bury your points. This really does relate to getting to the point there. One trap the many of us fall into is that we bury our main points deep within the content where it’s unlikely to be noticed. If you’ve got a key point that you really want your readers to come away with, you just say it upfront. Use those summary statements and also emphasize it throughout your post which is number seventeen, repeat your important points.
If you’ve got something you want people to get from your content, say it more than once. Don’t rely on the fact that if you say it once they’re going to get that point because as we said right upfront, most people aren’t reading word for word so you do need to emphasize that point numerous times throughout your content. Say it in your opening, say it in some of your summary statements, say it in your conclusion, say it in a visual piece of content as well and you’re much more likely for people to get that main point, to get that main call to action.
Number eighteen, don’t introduce too many new ideas into a single post. Once again, this helps to avoid overwhelming your readers with all the information at once. If you want to cover many ideas in a single blog post, you might want to consider breaking that down into a series of posts. There are pros and cons of having a series of post or having a long piece of content. Both can work but the more points you’re trying to make in a post, the less likely people are to get all of them.
The nineteenth thing that I want to say is to write like a human being, which might sound a little bit obvious there. The more human-like your writing is, the better. People will persist with your content if they feel like they’ve got a connection with you, if they feel like there’s another human being on the other side of the screen that they’re reading. Tell stories, show them who you are, write in a more conversational style.
If there’s one piece of further listening that I would encourage you to take at the end of this particular episode, it is to check out Episode 52 of the ProBlogger podcast where I have a conversation with Beth Dunn who works at HubSpot. We talked through 10 things you can do to make your writing more humanlike and less robotic. That’s Episode 52, which I encourage you to go and listen to.
I hope somewhere in those nineteen points there are some techniques that you can use in your next blog post to make it more scannable. Let me whip through them again really quickly. Write great headlines; write great opening lines; keep your paragraphs short; keep your sentences short; choose simple words; use lists; use headings and subheadings; use formatting tools like bold, caps, italics; use images; use image captions; use other types of visual content like charts; use blockquotes; use white space; use good design; get to the point; don’t bury your points; repeat your most important points; don’t introduce too many new ideas into one post; and write like a human being.
I hope you found that useful. I’d love to hear what you would add to these. You can find some further reading today and comment on these particular episode over at problogger.com/podcast/176.
Once again, if you do want to listen to a little bit more today on blogging, I encourage you to go over and listen to that interview that I did with Beth Dunn, 10 Things You Can Do To Make Your Writing More Humanlike And Less Robotic. It’s Episode 52 which you can find in iTunes or on the ProBlogger shownotes page at problogger.com/podcast/52.