Career & Success

TL;DR: Writing Better to Capture Busy Readers

In this episode, Todd Rogers tells communicators how to get to the point — before their audience checks out.

October 10, 2023

Whatever you’re writing, Todd Rogers says most people are too busy to read it. That’s why, he says, “you want to make it as easy as possible for them.”

Rogers is a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the author of the book Writing for Busy Readers: Communicate More Effectively in the Real World. From text messages to fundraising letters to political speeches, Rogers says effective writing makes it “easy for busy readers to navigate what we send them, pull out the key information, and do what they are planning to do anyway, which is move on to the next thing.” This kind of writing, Rogers says, is “more effective for us, and kinder to readers.”

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast, Rogers and host Matt Abrahams explore how to use structure, simplicity, and everyday vocabulary to write in a way that saves readers time and transmits ideas more effectively.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: The bottom line is we must write so that our readers will pay attention and be engaged. Today we will learn how to become better writers for busy readers. My name is Matt Abrahams, and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast. Today I really look forward to speaking with Todd Rogers. Todd is a Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and is the Faculty Director of the Behavioral Insights Group. Todd teaches courses on the science of behavior change, and he’s written a new book called Writing for Busy Readers: Communicate More Effectively in the Real World.

Todd, when you and I first got a chance to speak a while back, I felt like I was with a kindred spirit. We both have such a passion for communication. Thanks for being here. I’m super excited to chat with you.

Todd Rogers: Thanks for having me, Matt.

Matt Abrahams: So let’s get started. My first question has to do with one of the subheadings I found in your book. It caught my attention. It read “Better Living through Effective Writing.” First, I’d love for you to define what you mean by effective writing. And second, how does writing well help us live better?

Todd Rogers: I love this question because I think it is not initially obvious. So writing better makes it easier for readers. And the reason this improves everyone’s lives is because it saves readers time and it’s kinder. Writing effectively makes it easy for busy readers to navigate where we send them, pull out the key information, and do what they were planning to do anyway, which is move on to the next thing. And so it’s more effective for us, and it’s kinder to readers.

Matt Abrahams: One thing that is very different about the way you approach your thoughts on writing is that you focus on the reader. Many others focus on what is actually written. Why is focusing on the reader so important, and what role does the reader’s context play in how we write for them?

Todd Rogers: I think you’re right, that a lot of the way we think about writing is as if there were some idealized form. Writing well is the way you were taught to write in high school and college. And that’s successful writing. What my coauthor on a lot of this work, including our book, and I have come to believe is that writing well is very different from writing effectively. And we should focus on how do we write effectively. And what that means is we should write in a way that reflects the way people actually read. And in the world, busy people are just constantly skimming. No one cares about our writings as much as we do. And the default behavior when reading is to move on and skip.

So we need to write in a way that reflects and accommodates the reality that people are assuming what we write.

Matt Abrahams: I agree. I skim all the time. Sometimes that gets me in trouble. What looks different in our writing? What actually tactically, in terms of the sentence structure, the words we use, what’s different when you’re writing for people who skim versus people who are trying to demonstrate they actually did their homework in a class.

Todd Rogers: Right. So when someone is skimming, they are jumping around. They are trying to pull out not linearly. They’re just trying to jump around and figure out what’s this about, do I need to do something, and when can I move on. And so when we watch with eye tracking, we see the people dart around and they try to get the gist of what we’re saying without reading it closely. So what that means is we want to add structure. One of our six principles is design for navigation. Make it easy to design what we write for readers. So add headings, add structure so that a reader who jumps around can easily figure out what’s going on. And any of the key points are up top, what [listing] [unintelligible] so they can orient themselves. They can jump around using headings, that you can use formatting to draw attention to the key information.

But in addition to writing complete sentences that flow from one sentence to the next and have active verbs, we also need to write in a way that just reflects the reality that our readers are jumping around when they read. And so that means writing with structure.

Matt Abrahams: Well, you’re preaching to the choir here. And part of the reason I think you and I get along so well is we both believe very strongly in structure. And when I was doing research for the new book I have coming out, I spoke with somebody who works for the Dummies organization, all those Dummies books, and she talked to me about wayfinding, how when you write, you need to think about helping people find their way through your content. And that’s what I just heard you talking about, that structure helps people find their way in terms of what it is they’re specifically looking for. And I think that’s so important and thank you for highlighting that.

You mentioned that your book has six principles that can help busy readers. I love that your principles are based on academic social science research. I think that’s so important. Can you pick two other principles beyond structure that you believe are really important, and can you give us some concrete advice on how to apply those?

Todd Rogers: Sure. So one is less is more. And we have run lots and lots of randomized experiments that have something like this structure. We ran an experiment with a large political organization where they wrote a fundraising email that was six paragraphs. In one condition, with 350,000 people, they got the full fundraising message. In the other condition, we deleted every other paragraph arbitrarily. People read them both and thought it was incoherent in the shorter one because we just arbitrarily deleted paragraphs. And yet, the three-paragraph one raised more money than the longer one, even though it was incoherent. Just less is more. [Unintelligible] omitting needless words. That’s easy, of course. Words are actually needless. Cut them. Great.

The harder choices are omitting useful but not necessary words, or useful but not necessary ideas. And the idea is just the more you keep, the less likely it is that someone will read and respond to our message. So there’s not a right answer to how much to keep. We just need to know there are tradeoffs. The more you add, the less likely people are to read and engage. But if they do, they’re going to get more content. So fewer words, but also — not just needless words, also sometimes we have to make judgment calls where we eliminate useful detail that would just deter or distract from our core point.

Matt Abrahams: So it seems to me that we have to be very mindful of what we write and think about the reader’s perspective. I think a lot of us are under such pressure just to get ideas down that we don’t really think about prioritizing what’s important for the read and making those tradeoffs you talked about. I’m reminded of a saying that my mother has said all these years. I know she didn’t create it, but it’s, “Tell me the time. Don’t build me the clock.” And I think a lot of us are clock builders when we write because that’s our process, and we’re trying to share that process with people. So I find that really interesting.

Before I ask you to share one more of your principles, how much does word choice play into this? I mean, sometimes I read things where people, I think, are purposely trying to impress me with their vocabulary when, in fact, I think simpler might be better. So less is more. I also think simpler language use might be better. What do you think?

Todd Rogers: The second principle I might share is make reading easy. That means short, common words, short sentences, simply grammar. And the idea here is that it is easier to read writing that is written in this way. So it requires less effort. It’s less taxing. It’s more pleasant, easy and fast to read. Additionally, it’s accessible to more people. So this is a second point: In addition to just being more likely to be read and responded to, it also is more accessible and inclusive. So the median U.S. adult reads at a ninth-grade reading level.

Very often when we write these sentences, they’re complex. They’re complete. They’re beautifully written with flowing prose. But they’re kind of inaccessible to a large chunk of potential readers. And one of my favorite parts of writing the book — and I imagine you had the same experience writing your book — I love learning about this literature that I had never encountered before. One of these huge areas of research is on eye tracking, how people’s eyes move when they read.

And if you can get people to read, actually attentively, carefully read, which is rarely the way we actually read, but if you get people to read like that, what you see is a word-word-word-word-period. And then at the period, they pause for the period-pause effect. And they sit there making it as if they are making sense of did I get the whole idea. And if they didn’t, they go backwards, and they jump backwards and reread. That’s a pain. It’s cognitively difficult. It requires effort. It makes people less likely to continue. Given that everyone, especially if it’s kind of practical writing — texts, emails, reports, pitches — they’ve got lots of things in their queue.

And so the easier we make the reading, the faster it is it’ll be for the reader to get through and the more accessible it’ll be to more people.

Matt Abrahams: I love that eye-tracking behavior. That’s fascinating to me. Thank you for sharing that. I had never thought about that. But sure, you can actually measure if we’re making it difficult. I have two follow-up questions, if you’ll allow me, Todd. One, it strikes me that if I write in a way that is easier for my reader to digest, that I am actually making that experience a little more pleasant for them. They’re not as frustrated. How does emotion play in what you write? I can imagine that if I write something that the material I’m covering is emotional in nature, that can be helpful in some ways, right, because people are engaging in a different way. But also, their experience of reading might bring about an emotion as well.

I mean, I remember back in high school when I was having to read texts that I was not that interested in. I got frustrated when I was reading — I’m not going to mention any books because I don’t want anybody [laughs] to see what I found offensive. But what are your thoughts on that?

Todd Rogers: The kinds of writing that I mainly [object] — so this book’s coauthored with my longtime coauthor Jessica Lasky-Fink. And the kind of writing that we’re really focused on — and this all originated with advising organization leaders during the pandemic communicating to their stakeholders and employees and constituents — is practical writing. When we are writing to our families via text or to our colleagues via email or Slack or in sales proposals to potential clients or current clients, it’s practical writing. And so it’s not going to be the literature that we sometimes associate with when we think of [unintelligible] writing. So how do we write practical [range].

That said, there are ways to be more persuasive and more compelling. All of that is conditional, or rather requires that people are paying attention. And so I have spent the last 20 years developing interventions to increase people’s likelihood of voting or increase people’s likelihood of choosing healthy foods or increasing students’ likelihood of going to school by communicating with families. And all of those are these interventions [in the field] to change behaviors. What I only recently realized is that seeing zero would [proceed] all of the persuasion and behavioral science that I and my colleagues have been developing is, do they pay any attention to what we’re sending them, to our communications?

And very often, if it’s very dense, they just don’t even bother engaging at all. Or if they do engage, they engage superficially before just moving on and say I’ll get back to that later. And so for me, the big context is how do we get to the — before we can be emotionally evocative or persuasive or structure things using different kinds of framing, we need to write the way that people will engage and process deeply enough to even get our messages through.

Matt Abrahams: I want to come back to this question of engagement because I think it’s very critical. But before I do, you said writing simply and using structure can help. Do you have data or an opinion on the use of lists and bullet points because at one level, a list and bullet points, to me, appears structured, and it in many ways is simpler than prose with subjects, nouns, et cetera. But I also know that processing lists can be hard for people. What’s your take on bullet points and lists to help people read what’s written better?

Todd Rogers: Assuming that they’re used to organize related ideas, I think lists are fantastic, like bullet points, for example. So typically, there is an agreed upon meaning of bullets. We all agree that if there is a sentence and then a bunch of bullet points, that each of the bullet points resembles each other in some way and some kind and that they are all related to the preceding sentence. And so that licenses the reader, if they understand what the preceding sentence was, to just skip the bullets if they don’t — if it’s not relevant to them. They [also] tell us that each bullet is an independent idea and that they’re distinct. Again, the goal through everything is how do we make it easier for the reader to navigate and understand what we’re trying to convey.

Matt Abrahams: You have changed my perspective. So thank you for that. I have actively dissuaded people from using bullet points and lists. But I see their value in a written form. I still think I hold my position that, when you’re speaking and you’re putting a slide up behind you, lists can be challenging for your audience. So I appreciate the balance we have to find of leveraging visual structure through bullet points and lists without going overboard and doing too much, which brings me back to the idea that you mentioned just a bit ago around engagement. I’d love for you to talk about how readers choose to engage or not with writing. And give me specifically some techniques that writers can use to increase a reader’s engagement.

Todd Rogers: I gave a talk today at an academic conference where I opened with, “Raise your hand if you’ve ever received a text message, and you looked at it and it was — and you’re like I can’t deal with this now, and you postpone dealing with it.” And everyone’s hand goes up. And then I said, “Keep your hand up if it has ever happened that you didn’t get back to it.” And everyone’s hand stays up, right, which is — actually the shortest mode of communication that’s possible, which is our text messages, even those, people look at, “I just can’t deal with that.” And that’s the first version of disengagement, which is not even processing it at all or figure out what it’s about. That’s like the first version of not engaging at all.

The second stage is, while you’re reading, how deeply you engage versus — do you really read sentence by sentence or are you darting around. And very often, it’s just darting around. And so there are strategies you can use that a lot of it is influence and behavioral science on increasing people’s interest or personal relevance of content or the pleasure they get in the language used. But for us, starting point is let’s just make it as easy as possible for the reader to leave the message with the key information we’re trying to convey. And from there, then we can start to leverage these other tools of social and behavioral science.

Matt Abrahams: So we’ve just got to get them to focus and pay attention. So this brings up another question — obviously, this isn’t appropriate for all writing: What role do icons, emoticons, emojis have because, in some ways, those are engaging. I will look at a text that has emojis in it in a different way than one that just has words. Do you have a position on that? Is there research behind that?

Todd Rogers: I love the phrase, “Do you have a position on it?” The only thing that Jessica and I have a position on is that our readers are busy, and we need to write in a way that makes it as easy for them to read what we are saying as possible. That will be most effective for us in achieving our goals as writers, and it’s also kinder by saving them time. That said, there’s been a bunch of research on emojis that I think is really fun. One, there are lots of courts — federal, state, international courts that have ruled on the meaning of emojis in financial documents. And it wouldn’t surprise you if I told you that a bunch of crypto communications sometimes involve emojis. And courts have tried to interpret what those mean as contractually binding or not.

That’s interesting enough. But here’s the most interesting thing: There are surveys showing that different generations — me being a middle-aged guy versus my kids — will interpret the same emojis meaning something different.

Matt Abrahams: Mm.

Todd Rogers: So a smiley face to me means warm feelings, probably agreement, maybe humor. And to my 13-year-old-daughter, a smiley face means sarcasm and irony. And so even just those kinds of generational differences, meaning wow, emotions are dangerous for clarity because they are interpreted in different ways by different people. That’s just generational. You can imagine different people have different meanings for different emojis. So I think they have a place as long as you know your audience and they are unambiguously both appropriate, meaning they somehow fit the norms of your organization, and you have confidence that it can be interpreted the way you think [it is].

Matt Abrahams: I give you a thumbs-up emoji on that answer. And to me that means a good answer.

Todd Rogers: [Laughs]

Matt Abrahams: I think the jury is still out, literally and figuratively. So thank you. You mentioned norms, and I want to dig into that. You talk in your book about norm, status, and identity. What do you mean by this, and why does it even matter for the writing that we do?

Todd Rogers: We are most effective when we make it easy for our reader to read what we are sending them. And one of the things we talked about is using fewer words, fewer ideas, shorter. Another is writing simply. Another is designing it, adding structure, and you said wayfinding throughout the writing, like navigation. Those are generally true. But different people in different contexts with different norms have different expectations on them when they write. So when there are a bunch of State Department emails that were released where lower-status people writing up wrote longer, more indirect messages, whereas higher-status people communicating down were shorter and more direct.

If you are lower status, there’s a lot of like defensive writer where you’re not sure how you’re going to be interpreted. You’re very concerned about how you’re going to be understood and what people are going to think of you. So you as a writer, [any] person listening has to really navigate the unequal burdens on writers and the way we are interpreted. But the thing that is universally true is busy and probably skimming. And so you want to make it as easy as possible for them. One thing that I teach when I teach — with leaders about how to communicate — and I think this will resonate with you having read your book — that one thing leaders can do is set norms for how do we communicate.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Todd Rogers: And in the U.S. Army, there is a regulation — an actual codified regulation called BLUF, Bottom Line Up Front. An enlisted person writing to a general, Bottom Line Up Front, the first sentence is the bottom line. A general writing down to an enlisted person, Bottom Line Up Front. First sentence is the bottom. line. And by making that a rule and a norm of the organization, it is easier for writers to make sure that they’re effective. It’s easier for readers because they know exactly where to get the bottom line, and it also protects the lower-status people from the kind of burden of navigating ambiguous concerns about how they’re going to be interpreted.

And so as leaders, we just set norms to make it more effective and also protect the lower-status writers.

Matt Abrahams: That point is so critical and one I think all of us should think about in the roles we serve in organizations. What’s important is the information we convey, but we can also help set the norms and expectations for what that communication should look like and read like. And I don’t think many organizations do that, save maybe the military or some governmental agency or something highly regulated. I think that’s a wonderful idea. I often encourage the organizations I consult to think about their communication infrastructure. And I’m talking about do you use email versus Slack versus texting for certain things. I think they should add to that this notion of what makes for good writing, and how can we make it easier on the people who are doing the reading. So thank you.

So Todd, before we end, I’d like to ask you a series of questions. Two of them are similar across all our guests, and then I have one random question I’m going to ask. Are you up for that?

Todd Rogers: Let’s do it.

Matt Abrahams: All right. Let’s start with the random question first. What is a pet peeve of yours that bothers you in the writing that you see of people?

Todd Rogers: Writing can serve at least two purposes. One is clarifying our thinking. And the other is communicate the magical idea of getting an idea from my head into your head without us directly interacting. That second one is magic, but the first one is also helping us clarify our own thinking. And I think what can be frustrating as a reader is if people don’t realize those are two separate things. And when they’re writing, they write starting wherever they thought they were starting and ending in a different place. And at the end is where they really want the key message to get across to me. And it would probably be better if they took the perspective, how do I make it easier for the reader? The reader doesn’t need to know where you started. The reader needs to know what’s the key information.

Those are two different functions, and editing and revising is the key to getting from the first to the second.

Matt Abrahams: Well put. My pet peeve is along those lines. It’s people who start from an assumption that you are where they are. It’s that cursive knowledge. And that really can be frustrating and sometimes very intimidating. So question number two, and you can take this as any kind of communication — written, spoken, et cetera. Who is a communicator that you admire and why?

Todd Rogers: I’m going to take this I think in a direction others have not. I really like the approach of Don Norman, who is the founder of User-Centered Design and wrote a book called “The Design of Everyday Things.” And I’m not talking about his writing, although he’s prolific. His like basic philosophy is if you’ve designed an object and the user interacts with it and does not understand how to use it, it’s on you the designer. It’s never the user’s fault. It’s always the designer’s fault, and that design is a form of communication.

And Jessica and I have that basic philosophy when it comes to writing — practical writing. Even if my writing is super clear, and if you had read the whole thing, you’d understand why we’re doing this and what time it is and where it’s happening and what you’re supposed to bring, if I send it to you and you don’t pull those information pieces from it, that’s on me, not on you. It’s the — it’s always on the writer to make sure it gets through to the busy reader. And it’s not just about clarity. It’s about actually accommodating the fact that this person — that our readers are busy and skimming.

Matt Abrahams: Very important. The design of your messages matters. Final question: What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe:

Todd Rogers: Three things: goal, context, and revising. Goal — we have to know what we’re trying to accomplish. And maybe writing can help us figure that out. But we have to be super clear in our goal. And then from there, we write, and we have to know our context — what are the norms, what are the expectations, how are we going to be interpreted, how much detail is expected of us or needed or wanted. And then revising is applying the six principles of writing for busy people, which we talked about three of them, but —. So it’s clarity of goal, know your context, and revising. Unfortunately, all of them are hard.

Matt Abrahams: But necessary, but necessary. In the work I do around oral communication, speaking, they’re identical. This notion of iteration is critical. And it’s a process. Many of us just think, I’ve got to get it out and it’s done. But it’s actually an iterative process, and I appreciate that, as do I appreciate this whole conversation, Todd. You certainly didn’t disappoint. Your information was very valuable.

Allow me to structure it clearly. Point one: People are busy. Write to make it easier for them. Point two: We have to consider the context when we write. And context includes norms, status, et cetera. And point three: Learning to write better is something that you can do, and it’s worth the effort. Todd, thank you so much. I wish you well on all that you do, especially with your book, “Writing for Busy Readers: Communicate More Effectively in the Real World.” Thank you.

Todd Rogers: Thank you, Matt.

Matt Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast, from Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Ryan Campos, and me, Matt Abrahams. Our music was provided by Floyd Wonder. For more information and episodes, find us on YouTube or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you, and please make sure to subscribe and follow us on LinkedIn.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More