Monthly Archives: December 2009

Rdrs wnt lss sez AW

As king of the one-sentence paragraph, not surprisingly I agree with Ann Wylie. Shorter is better (usually) when it comes time to engage and inform stakeholders. As she noted recently:

“Size does matter. All things else being equal, your readers would rather read a short piece than a long piece.

In writing — as in eating, imbibing, reality TV viewing and so much else in life — it’s good to set limits. In other words, establish an appropriate length limit for each piece you write. Here are some ideas for inspiration:

  • The recommended length of the average press release has dropped from 400 words B.I. (before Internet) to 250 words A.I. (after Internet), according toB.L. Ochman. What have you done to respond to the obstacles of screen reading in your PR and other communications?
  • What’s the best length for a tweet? While Twitter cuts you off at 140 characters, the better limit is actually 129 characters, according usability expert Jakob Nielsen. That allows for the average 11-character attribution that gets added whenever anyone retweets your status update.
  • Sandra Oliver, a researcher at Thames Valley University in London, found that employees would read about 400 words of their CEO’s message. How long is your CEO’s message? If it’s longer than 400 words, did you put the words you don’t want employees to read after the first 400?

The right length for each piece, of course, depends — on the topic, audience, medium, vehicle, budget and other matters of judgment. But using these ideas and observations, you can establish general copy length limits.”

And if you aren’t convinced, see this post from Ann:

“How long is too long?

When it comes to paragraphs, the shorter the paragraph, the better, according to The Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack III study.

“The bottom line is that stories with shorter paragraphs got more than twice as many overall eye fixations than those with longer paragraphs,” the Poynter researchers wrote. “These data suggest that the longer-paragraph format discourages reading and that short-paragraph format overwhelmingly encourages reading.”

That’s not really surprising to anyone who’s studied the effects of paragraph length in print or online: People tend to skip long paragraphs in either medium. What is surprising is what constitutes a “short” paragraph on the Web.

The Eyetrack researchers measured this way:

  • Short paragraphs: one or two sentences long
  • Medium paragraphs: up to six sentences long
  • Long paragraphs: up to 18 sentences long

Bottom line: Online, hit return every paragraph or two.”

Nudging people to find the middle path

Since finding compromises is often the hallmark of a good coalitionist, I thought this from The Frontal Cortex might be of interest…

“I found this minor anecdote, from Peter Baker’s authoritative NY Times article on Obama’s decision-making process for Afghanistan, to be quite fascinating:

On Oct. 9, Mr. Obama and his team reviewed General McChrystal’s troop proposals for the first time. Some in the White House were surprised by the numbers, assuming there would be a middle ground between 10,000 and 40,000.

‘Why wasn’t there a 25 number?’ one senior administration official asked in an interview. He then answered his own question: ‘It would have been too tempting.’

General McChrystal, it turns out, is a shrewd student of decision-making. He realized that the introduction of a compromise option – say, a troop buildup of 25,000 soldiers – would have been irrationally attractive. This is known as the compromise effect, and it was first documented by Amos Tversky and Itamar Simonson.

Here’s an example of the compromise bias in action: A group of sixty undergraduates received descriptions and pictures of microwave ovens taken from an actual catalog. They were asked to choose between an Emerson oven priced at $110 and a Panasonic priced at $180, which had a few more features. Both items were on sale, a third off the regular price. In this scenario, 57 percent of subjects chose the Emerson and 43 percent chose the Panasonic.

Now let’s consider a second scenario, faced by another group of undergraduates. They were presented with the same two microwave options, but given a third choice as well: a $200 Panasonic oven at a 10 percent discount. Of course, this Panasonic oven is a clearly inferior choice, since it comes with a much smaller discount; it’s mere presence in the catalog shouldn’t influence our decision. Nevertheless, the introduction of this new alternative dramatically increased the attractiveness of the other Panasonic oven, so that 60 percent of subjects new chose it.

Retail stores have long manipulated this bias, as they constantly present consumers with deliberately mediocre and expensive options, just so other options seem more reasonable. (The easiest way to make a $50 T-shirt seem like a good deal is to surround it with $100 T-shirts.) When it comes to decision-making, context is everything.

The point is that most of us are natural compromisers, eager to find a middle-way. (There’s some suggestive evidence that the tendency to pursue the compromise option is mediated by culture, with East Asians more likely than Westerners to show the compromise effect.) Furthermore, our compromising tendencies can be skewed by the audience: when American subjects were told that they might have to defend their choice in front of a whole classroom, they shifted towards the safety of the middle option. Obama, of course, needed to justify his decision to an entire planet.

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(Via The Frontal Cortex.)