The old editor’s trick that gets you reading

Woman holds her eyes shut, waiting for a surpriseThe headline almost leapt out of my screen.

It was June 2020. Every day was bringing another batch of harrowing news stories. Yet this one, on the website of The Mirror, still stood out:

‘Tragic coronavirus death toll rises by lowest number in seven weeks.’


Whoever had written it may never have been near a neuroscience paper or psychology textbook. But they clearly understood exactly how the human brain reads.

Part of me despaired at how they’d wrung maximum negativity out of a rare piece of good news. (In case you missed it, it’s actually saying that the death toll was improving.) 

But I still couldn’t help admiring how they’d done it. 

In those 11 words, they’d harnessed some of the key principles of how the brain really reads. And understanding these can improve whatever you write at work, even if that’s not lurid news headlines. 

Let’s take a closer look.


First things first

The beginning of a sentence is critical, as the human brain uses it to predict what’s coming next. We’d all read very slowly if it weren’t for this anticipation.

Often, though, the brain doesn’t check if it was right. So we read what we expect to read, even if we’re wrong. (I explained more about this recently, in Why people misread your messages.)

Whoever wrote the headline must have known this. Notice how they changed tack halfway through, no doubt mindful of the fact that most readers wouldn’t notice.


Emotional reading

They were careful not to waste those vital first few words too, choosing some of the most emotive in the English language. (‘Coronavirus’ was a recent addition to the list.)

This is because emotion plays a huge role in how we interpret information, no matter how logical we might think we or our colleagues are.


Negativity bias

We’ve evolved to seek out and remember negative information, as our ancestors had to be on constant alert for anything that might kill them.

Extensive research shows that even the most cheerful Pollyannas among us still have this negativity bias. 

That’s why most journalists follow the maxim ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ – and why this headline writer went negative.


Scroll stopping

So the emotive words ‘tragic coronavirus death toll’ got readers to stop scrolling. And predictive reading made them assume the story was more bad news.

Then their Stone Age brain jumped straight in to reading something that it otherwise might have ignored. 

The headline still told the truth. But it hid that truth just long enough for millions to read the story.


Write sentences that work

I am not advising you to deceive people or hide the truth. But we can still draw some valuable lessons from the news headline.

Too many documents are full of sentences that start with long, qualifying clauses. They have the ‘why’ before the ‘what’.

This forces your reader to hold information in their limited working memory while they wait for you to get to the point. Often readers just guess the end of the sentence, or even give up reading altogether.

The start of a sentence is valuable real estate, so don’t waste it. Get to the point.


In control

To a surprising degree, you can control how the reader will read what you’re writing. You don’t need to leave it to chance. 

If you use certain words and phrases, you can even create the right emotional state to make sure they take in your message. Psychologists call it priming. It’s a big topic and so one for another time.

But Kathy Gemmell has also written about sentence structure (and much more) in her article on improving readability. It includes examples of how to get it right (and wrong). 

Or one of our high-impact writing courses will show you how to apply these techniques to your own documents. 

Finally, for more on negativity bias, see this review article, which first brought together a huge range of research in this area.


Image credit: Brooke Cagle / Unsplash

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