Why Words Still Matter
We consume an incredible amount of information online visually: social media is dominated by photos, funny stories are made into memes, even recipes are transformed into videos. In some ways, we don’t have the same attention spans we once did. They’re shorter, moving from one interesting piece of content to the next.
That means that every word on your website matters to potential customers.
I was working on catalog content for a client a few weeks ago. Here’s the original story I wrote. I was pretty happy with it:
Amleset and her family lived in a busy city in Ethiopia when they learned about HIV on television. Her husband was sick often, so he decided to get tested. He tested positive, and so did Amleset.
The stigma around HIV and AIDS in the city was so daunting that Amleset’s children were afraid to go to school. Amleset did not want her family to feel like outcasts, so they moved to the mountain town of Entoto, where almost everyone is living with HIV/AIDS. Though they no longer felt discriminated against, they also didn’t have a job. Amleset would beg on the mountain, something that made her feel hopeless.
The family experienced a turning point when they learned about an artisan cooperative. Both Amleset and her husband began work there. “I am happy when I come to work.” She said. “My heart and eyes are open. My life has been changed.”
Without the resilience to push through adversity, Amleset never would have found the peace she has now.
Then the word count was cut way down. I edited it to this:
When Amleset and her husband were diagnosed with HIV, the stigma in their city was so prevalent that they were afraid to send their children to school. They moved to a more accepting village, but had to turn to begging.
The family’s resilience paid off when they found an artisan cooperative. “I am happy when I come to work.” Amleset said. “My heart and eyes are open. My life has been changed.”
And ya know what? I like it better. The background information isn’t the important part, the quote is. It stands out more in a shorter story.
But there’s an even better reason the second version is preferable: because people will actually read it. The first version might tell the story with more detail, but the number of people who will invest the time in reading it is so small that it’s value actually diminishes. The second story, however, is 4 sentences. It takes seconds to digest, and then you’ve gotten the message across.
“Amleset and her family lived in a busy city in Ethiopia when they learned about HIV on television. Her husband was sick often, so he decided to get tested. He tested positive, and so did Amleset.”
…turned into this:
“When Amleset and her husband were diagnosed with HIV…”
When crafting copy for your website, social media, and newsletters, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
1. Revisit each individual word to see if it carries weight.
2. Many words with four letters or fewer can be discarded as “fluff” (is, that, to, the, who, from, very…). Look out for strings of ‘em.
3. Cut down to the bare bones of a sentence (noun, subject, verb) and then add words back in one at a time. Only keep the words that enhance the meaning of the sentence.
4. Look out for passive voice; it’s a huge word suck. (‘The apple was bit by him’ is passive. ‘He bit the apple’ is active.)
5. Ask for help when you need it. Cough.