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Are you driving readers to distraction?
Author : Rob Ashton
Posted : 29 / 06 / 22
As you read this, a miracle is happening.
Your eye is detecting dots and squiggles on the screen in front of you and your brain is translating them into a voice in your head. Just glancing at your phone or clicking a link in an email is enough to fire up an entire network across your brain. As a result, you can hear my voice almost as surely as if I were standing and speaking in front of you.
Your eyes are detecting the difference between black and white, picking up the shapes of the letters as the light lands upon your retina. They are shooting signals down your optic nerves that go not just to the visual cortex of your brain but to your auditory cortex – the part responsible for detecting and interpreting sound.
More than that, other areas of your brain are interpreting what I’m saying and going into overdrive. You’ll be adding a tone to my words. It will be your tone, of course, because I’m not really speaking to you. But your brain will add it anyway.
In fact, when you look at anything, the part of your brain responsible for expectation passes signals to the part that processes vision long before you even know you’ve seen anything. So you are not just reading what I’m saying but predicting it too. You’re one step ahead of me, trying to imagine what I’ll say next and then confirming whether you were right or wrong.
That we can do this at all really is miraculous. But it’s a miracle not of evolution but of adaptation.
The network responsible for processing and interpreting the words you read isn’t there when you’re born. We have to grow that network. Millions of years of evolution have equipped us to communicate not by reading and writing but by speaking and listening. Our ancestors only started to communicate with symbols (which is what reading is) around 5,000 years ago.
Yet the large structures that are central to reading – the visual cortex and the auditory cortex – evolved over millions of years. So before we can read, we have to join together parts of the brain that we evolved for other purposes.
That’s why it takes us years to learn to read. We have to make millions of new connections as we almost literally rewire our brains.
And yet, once we can read, most of us don’t give it a second thought. We take it for granted. We may even imagine that reading is something that comes easily to us and that, therefore, it’s just a process of data entry. So too for writing. We type information on a keyboard and press publish or send, and the recipient detects that information and it enters their brain. Job done.
It’s perhaps for this reason that there are many articles on the web that advise us to be as brief as possible if we want to communicate well. It’s why people may seek to convey information quickly by sending emails or even reports that consist almost exclusively of a series of bullet points. The guidance is to strive for efficiency, as if our brains were computers and communicating merely a case of transferring data.
All of this misses one important fact: reading is incredibly complex.
When we’re reading, our brains are working almost at the limits of their capability. Just the act of detecting words and hearing them in your head has your brain operating on overdrive. You’re running down your mental battery. You may be able to listen to e-books or podcasts for hours. But if you’re reading, you’ll usually need to take frequent breaks.
Most of the time, we don’t notice this effort – especially if we’re reading something short, such as a text message. Other times, we’re only too aware of it. Opening some documents can feel like hitting a brick wall, so that you feel an immediate need to stop and pour yourself another coffee (or even something stronger).
If you’ve ever found yourself having to find a quiet place to read something, you’ll have witnessed your brain operating at its limits. It’s akin to how you might instinctively turn off your car stereo before pulling out at a busy junction.
All this means that reading is a precarious business. We’re walking a tightrope and at risk of falling off at any moment. As our battery runs down, we’re more and more likely to succumb to distraction. Levels of dopamine – the neurotransmitter that enables us to focus – start to drop. And as they do, our minds become ever more prone to wander.
Sometimes, that depletion may happen even before we open a document. If we know that the last report someone wrote was heavy going, we’ll be expecting the next one to be, too. We’re already primed for it to be hard work, giving the author an uphill battle against our expectations. And it’s a battle they can no longer fight, as they’ve already sent or published it. At that point, it’s too late. The damage is done.
This is why not just your ideas but the words you choose to convey them matter. You may be right in your opinion, your argument may be sound, and what you’re trying to say may be important. But all that will count for nothing if the person with whom you’re trying to communicate never gets past the first few sentences.
Heavy reading leads to no reading at all. Rather than reproducing your voice, it amplifies the reader’s inner monologue. That monologue may lead them to a different conclusion from the one you were hoping for. Or it may let in thoughts about myriad other things, leading them to become fatally distracted, killing any chance you might have of engaging them.
Common writing advice is to strive for efficiency, as if communicating is merely transferring data. This misses one important fact: reading is a miracle of adaptation. We should never take it for granted. – @RobertAshton @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet
Not all words are as easy to process as others. Some – especially those we may not encounter very often – use up way more than their fair share of brainpower.
Never think that complex topics demand complex writing. I’m thinking here particularly not of jargon words and technical terms but those that join them together. If you’re 100% sure that your reader also knows the specialist terms, then of course you should use them. To simplify them as if you were addressing a lay audience would itself be distracting. But that’s not an excuse to load down the whole report with heavy words.
So write ‘shows’ not ‘gives an indication of’ if that’s what you mean. Why write ‘in view of the fact that’ when you can write ‘because’?
Are you going to commence an investigation ‘at some time in the near future’, or ‘soon’? (They are, after all, the same thing.) And while we’re at it, why write ‘commence’ at all? Surely ‘start’ would be better. Why even say ‘commence [or start] an investigation’ at all when you could just write that you will ‘investigate’? (Words that end in ‘–sion’ or ‘–tion’ act like magnets for unnecessary words.)
Note that none of the original words and phrases above are technical jargon. Substituting alternatives that are easier to process does not dumb down anything.
Don’t try to impress with flowery words and phrases. It doesn’t work. Instead, it’s more likely to undermine the impression you hope to make. The alternative approach – telling it like it is – takes confidence, but it shows confidence too. So save your reader’s brain power for thinking about your ideas rather than forcing them to waste precious cognitive resources translating what you’ve written.
Making someone work hard even to understand what you’ve written will not just tire them out. It may well irritate them too.
It’s easy to forget the emotional impact of the words we write. And regardless of whether your audience is a colleague reading an email or an executive studying a board report, it’s often the emotional impact that does the most damage.
Emotions are controlled by the limbic system in the brain, and their effects are much faster than our logical thought processes. Not only that, their effects on what happens next are not always obvious to us. (It’s common to reach a decision based on emotion and then justify it with logic.) But if your writing is so impenetrable that it puts someone in a bad mood, don’t be surprised if you don’t get the outcome you were hoping for.
The sheer effort of reading leaves less energy available for emotional control. This may be why we’re more likely to lose our temper on social media or in a text message than when we’re speaking with someone. There’s even evidence that oxytocin – the hormone that’s central to social interaction – is triggered by the human voice but not by the written word.
Not all words – or topics – are emotionally neutral, either. Some trigger a cascade of emotions, even if you didn’t intend them to, while others fall flat and produce no reaction at all. Many of the most triggering words may surprise you.
Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario conducted a huge study of nearly 14,000 words in English to find out which were most likely to produce an emotional reaction in people who read them.
Top of the list was ‘insanity’, followed by ‘gun’ and ‘sex’. Many – as you might expect – fall into the ‘not safe for work’ category. ‘Scare’ and ‘panicky’ were both in the top 50. But so was ‘bonus’, followed not far behind by ‘money’, ‘paycheck’, ‘payday’ and ‘rich’. (The overuse of emotive words in news headlines in 2020 almost certainly contributed to the mental health crisis that followed, as I warned it would.)
So choose your words carefully. Before you even touch a keyboard or tap a message on your phone, stop and think of the person who will read what you’re about to write. Never forget that they are human. You are not transferring data, you are about to engage a brain that did not evolve to read and write, and one that’s driven largely by emotion (no matter how much we would like to think it isn’t).
And never take writing for granted. Because if you do, there’s a very high chance that you will be, too.
Image credit: MoonSafari / Shutterstock
Rob is a former scientist and the founder of Emphasis. He’s spent much of the last six years researching the psychology and neuroscience of the words we read and the effects they have on all of us. You can find out more here.
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