How to Increase Your Audience Reading Time
How to format your content for user readability with actionable insights that fix real problems.
Here’s a truth that lies in the back of every creator’s mind: no one cares what you have to say. What they care about are the things that impact their lives.
Your content can be thought of as an exchange of value. The audience trades you their time and attention for useful pieces of information. Even when they do care about the topic, an audience will rarely be interested in everything you have to say.
Only by respecting the reader’s time and their perspective can you maximize the value exchange.
The bottom line: Answer the questions — what is it the reader wants from this article and how would they best receive or read it? Through these answers, you can break your article into clear and specific value segments to maximize potential reading time.
Here are the main points and how you can make the most of them.
Focus on Why Should the Reader Care
Most people don’t care how something works, they care why it matters to them. As a writer, you cant only focus on what you’re trying to convey to your reader. You also have to provide why they care about it.
In the hierarchy of your content, focus first on why it’s valuable to the reader before getting to the “how”.
Take this article as an example. I’m appealing to people that care about engaging with their audience longer. It should resonate with people that want to enhance their audience engagement.
Like most writers, this is a topic I’ve struggled with. I decided to compile the best advice and my personal experience in an article that addresses the problem. Readers may view personal experience as credibility, but they won’t care too much if what is shared can help them.
People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.
— Simon Sinek
Readers Want Actionable Insights
You can’t only highlight a basic problem though. You need to also provide actionable insights. Steps or information the reader can use to address the underlying issue. This can be broken out into two categories: proactive or reactive
Preventive and Proactive Insights
Readers want to be given the information they can use to prevent their problems in the first place. Simple actions or steps that can avoid the problem before it arises.
This article is an example of proactive measures a writer can take to address the problem of reader engagement. It provides a simple structure a writer can implement to ensure their future work gets a better read time.
Reactive and Prescriptive Insights
There are also reactive measures you can provide your audience. Think of this as a doctor would when assessing a sick patient.
You help your audience identify the symptoms and problems they face. Then present a set of steps for the audience to implement to end the problem. Your plan is like a prescription or medicine. You should present your plan in a way that the reader will want to consume it.
Reading Time is Scarce, Reduce Time Wasting
There is so much content to be consumed and a limited time to do it. Transition your mindset from the author to the reader.
You know that there are only so many hours in a day to read and so you’re less likely to waste your time on whimsical prose. Get to the point with your writing. Cut out the timewasting filler and get straight to the point the reader cares about.
You don’t need a long introduction to a topic and we don’t typically care about personal anecdotes. Examples can be used to showcase a point but clearly mark all examples so they can be skipped over.
Giving the reader what they want quickly will make it more likely they read on.
When You Write, Make it Skimmable
Skimming is how readers consume most content these days.
In the age of smartphones and limitless content, we quickly skim most of what we read. We jump from title to subheadings, bullets, and any callouts within an essay or article. It’s how we assess writing to determine if it’s going to be valuable. It saves time.
Build your content knowing your reader is likely to skim your article.
When readers skim an article with long paragraphs and limited headings and callouts, they may struggle to catch the underlying point. If they do, they will move on to the next article. See point one: time is scarce.
Resisting how people read has consequences. You’re not just pitching this individual article, you’re also pitching all past and future writing. Losing your reader because of poor formating is an opportunity cost.
A failed opportunity to transition them to other bodies of work and ultimately, a follow or subscribe.
Structure Content For Different Skill Levels and Competencies
Not all readers will have the same set of skills or level of interest in your content. That’s ok. You want to capture as much value as you can and that means appealing to a wider audience.
Focusing on why readers care about the problem you’re addressing and how they read allows you to engage a wider audience. By adding skimmable headings and callouts, readers are able to skip over the content they already know without losing the general train of thought.
Provide broad content for someone new to the problem and deep content to provide nuance to the more experienced reader.
Make it Shareable
We are likely to read what a friend recommends in greater detail. This is good news for writers. It means we can capitalize on an ever-increasing socially connected world.
A question to ask yourself, what part of your work could be shared on social media? Would you share it with your friends on social media? The goal is to make your work something that can be easily shared.
Make your content shareable by summarizing the actionable insights into concise points. Make it as easy as possible for your reader to look smart by sharing your work. If they have to think of what to say, they are less likely to share.
Create a quick takeaway that lends itself to being shared widely.
An Example of Shareable Content:
I recently wrote an essay on how to use a Lean Startup strategy to build an online audience. The shareable summary:
- The Problem: Writers waste resources experimenting on topics no one cares about
- The Solution: Writers can create Minimum Viable Products using a Lean Startup Strategy
- Reduce word count to restrict the subject depth
- Provide 3 main broad points and explicit value takeaways for the reader
- Publish, get feedback, iterate, or move on
How to Build an Audience Using a Lean Startup Strategy
“Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop is at the core of the Lean Startup model.” — Eric Reis, The Lean Startup
Content creators need a strong process to support reader engagement. You can increase your audience read time by shifting your perspective and catering to how your audience consumes content.
- Create headlines that appeal to the reader's problem: why should they care
- Provide concise actionable insights and easy to implement steps
- Respect the reader's time and get to the point. Cut down on prose and filler.
- Understand that readers frequently skim and only read if what they skim meets high-level expectations.
- To make skimmable content: break up your text into small chunks with punchy callouts and subheadings. Think of subheadings as mini titles.
- Adapt content to a wider audience. Each subsection heading must clearly articulate the point. Go wide and deep. It’s ok if they don’t read the entire article.
- Summarize the content to make it easy to share.