It’s a brutal world out there. Especially when you work in communications. Whether your scene is hi-tech or defense or the non-profit space, your main job is to reach your audience and boy is your audience overloaded in today’s world of never-ending information.
The truth is we are all busy readers. This means the expectations for quality content are higher than ever before. Add to this the fact that most readers barely read more than the first few paragraphs of an article; for an 800 word article, only 5% of readers will make it to the end.
Readers want to know upfront what’s new and why it matters to them. According to Axios, good content essentially shows “why something matters” from the get-go. That’s what ultimately hooks your reader. This means first orienting or connecting the dots for your reader, along with explaining succinctly why they should care. In other words, you first tell the reader “this is what’s new” followed by “this is why it matters.”
La la la I don't hear you....
So, how do you cut through the noise? You hook your reader by making an amazing first impression. You startle them with sparkle. You tell them a story that will be burned into their memory forever. In other words, you save the best for first and serve it on a silver platter. Let me show you how:
Start with Story
Every communications specialist worth his salt knows that story is really just education wrapped in entertainment. According to Lisa Cron, our brains are hardwired for story because it’s how we human beings learn from others and envision the future. If you’re doing story right, from the very first sentence the audience will want to know what happens next. If you work in security or the defense industry, for example, grab the audience’s attention by telling them what’s at stake if we don’t win the hypersonics race or defend ourselves effectively from ransomware attacks.
Stories, as long as they are delivered skillfully and are relevant to the rest of your material, make great openers because they instantly create an emotional connection and help people retain information in a way that data and numbers can’t. If you watch some great TED talks by people like Pixar’s Andrew Stanton or Italian author Ernesto Sirolli, you’ll have great examples of openings with a highly entertaining personal story (or oddball joke) that brilliantly encapsulate a message while hooking the audience.
Present a Startling Statistic
According to a recent study at the University of California, San Diego, the average American consumes about 100,000 words a day. To put that in perspective, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” contains about 460,000 words. This is about a 350 percent increase in information consumption from just three decades ago.
Sheesh the numbers just keep going up!
See what I did there? I made you sit up and think, “Whoa there, I didn’t know that!” (Ok, maybe you already knew that, I’m just guessing you didn’t.) A single shocking number or compelling piece of data can ground your material and bring reality to your presentation or article or even a social media post. It increases your credibility, demonstrating that you’ve done your research. Once you’ve made your impact on the audience with your startling statistic, quickly segue into validating the premise and the rest of your presentation.
Ask a Provocative Question
I once started a presentation about industrial espionage in a luxury chalet in the mountains of Transylvania by asking the employees, “How would you feel if someone walked into your house uninvited, went upstairs to your closet, and opened a box full of your personal items?” Starting off the presentation this way immediately piqued the interest of my fun-loving Romanian audience (which goes to show you that these tactics work across cultures).
By starting off with a question, you invite an audience response. By including the audience, you compel engagement. Asking your audience to imagine something gets them to visualize and feel some kind of emotion. And, as mentioned before, when you create an emotional connection, your audience is more likely to pay attention and retain your material.
Show Off a Striking Image
It may be a cliché, but a powerful picture really can paint a thousand words. According to Twitter, tweets with photos receive an average 35% boost in retweets. Social media strategist Jeff Bullas claims that Facebook posts with photos receive an average 37% increase in engagement and that posts in general with images receive 2.3 times more engagement than those without.
We all know that catching and sustaining your audience’s attention on social media is an all-out competition, which makes visuals an essential component of a successful social media strategy. For presentations, images can break up monotonous text. For an article, they provide memorable visualization that helps the audience retain the rest of the content.
A Note on Hi-Tech Communications
For the hi-tech world, saving the best for first translates into prioritizing benefits before features. This was one of the first things I learned from my project manager when I started working in product marketing for a global hi-tech company back in Israel. “Features” are basically all the shiny bells and whistles that your engineers worked hard to develop and that’s what engineers LOVE to talk about. It’s their baby. But the reader wants to know how does this benefit me? That’s why if you fail to talk about the benefits first, you’re more likely to lose that reader early on.
You see the picture of the umbrella here? It is divided by features vs. benefits. In other words, these are components of the umbrella vs. this is what the umbrella actually does for you. Don’t bury the benefit or assume it will be obvious without explicit mention. Just because you know why something is beneficial doesn’t necessarily mean it’s obvious to the person you are speaking to.
This concept is essentially the same as save the best for first and goes beyond the realm of hi-tech. Learning how to cut through noise with a crystal clear message is the most potent ability a communicator can have in today’s information-cluttered world. No matter the medium, keep your audience informed and engaged with the right material, positioned for maximum effect.
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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, journalists, CIA officers, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.