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Three tips to help you write for a distracted world

Masterclass trainer and writer Kate van der Borgh tells us how to get and keep a reader’s attention

Illustration by Julia Wytrazek

Our inboxes are full, our phones are pinging constantly and Twitter rolls relentlessly on, so how do you catch a reader’s attention and keep it amidst all the noise? We asked Masterclass trainer and award-winning copywriter Kate van der Borgh her three tips.

Pencil-winner van der Borgh leads D&AD’s Masterclass ‘Beyond Ads: Brilliant Brand Writing,’ which focuses on how to improve all forms of written communication from board reports to press releases and think pieces. Here, she tells us the importance of focussing on one big idea and cutting out points that may be interesting to you but not your audience.

Focus on one big idea

Effective writing knows exactly what it wants to say. Rather than getting lost in multiple points or wandering off down a tangent, it’s clear, concise, and knows exactly what needs to be communicated. “The connection between writing and thinking is so strong,” van der Borgh explains. “Often, when people are struggling with a piece of communication, it's because the thinking is not quite ironed out.” After (ideally) taking the time to sit with the idea for a little longer, van der Borgh recommends trying to distil what you want to say down to one core message or takeaway, rather than a long list of bullet points. “What would it be if you only had the luxury of one sentence?”

Once you’ve got your ‘big idea’, then it’s time to ensure every part of the structure  from the headline to the narrative flow  provides the right kind of signpost for the reader. If you’re writing a corporate text, for example, don’t just rely on the usual formulas. “You have really long reports that have headings like ‘summary’, or ‘introduction’, or ‘context,’” van der Borgh says. “There's no reason why that sort of heading couldn't sum up what you're about to read in the next page in a really powerful and compelling way and help guide the reader through what might otherwise be an intimidating document.”

Conversely, in a piece of marketing material, a headline might be used to pique interest by posing a question or enticing consumers to read on. “If it's a cup-of-tea type comms, then you might have more space to be playful with a headline and slightly more click-baity.” It’s all about knowing who your reader is and matching your tone to their expectations. “Remember what your big idea is, and what you’re trying to achieve,” van der Borgh recommends. “Use that idea to guide you through these decisions.”

Sharpen your copy

Once that ‘big idea’ is firmly in place, it’s time to strip back the prose to make the main points shine. “Those George Orwell rules about using the shorter words and cutting unnecessary words end up in a lot of tone of voice guidelines, [but they are] perennial good bits of advice for writing.” Van der Borgh suggests taking a step back from the text and assessing whether each word is “genuinely adding meaning to the line.” Get rid of the stock phrases and clichés. Separate yourself as the writer from the text. You might find a particular point interesting, but does it matter to your reader? Breaking it down into manageable chunks also helps. “People don't read things as we write them: line by line, paragraph by paragraph. Wherever we can make it easy to scan, that's probably closer to the reader's reality.

Time is at a premium.“If we're talking about writing for a distracted world, we have to try and make what we're saying as concise as possible,” van der Borgh explains. “Think of the reader’s point of view and imagine that they've already got enough to be dealing with. The less attention we can demand, the more likely we're able to reach people.”

Never take your reader’s attention for granted

“I quite often write as if I expect the reader to stop reading at any point,” van der Borgh says of her own work. “I’m expecting them to switch off. It’s this threat hanging over me. But it forces you to think, well, if they did switch off at this point, have they got what I wanted [to convey]?” As much as you can hope that a whole page newsletter might command someone’s attention right up until the carefully crafted punchline, there are a million other things competing for your reader’s attention. Think about your structure not just in terms of narrative flow, but also order of priorities. How quickly do you get to the point? If they only read the first couple of sentences, would they take away any key insights or calls to action? Our attention is more easily maintained when we’re reading something we care about. “Are you saying something that actually matters to them?” 

Beyond Ads: Brilliant Brand Writing is a four-part workshop that looks at all aspects of communications. Structured to help you write clear, compelling copy, it looks at brand writing across a variety of mediums and contexts from social posts to internal communications. Taking it back to basics, Kate van der Borgh’s engaging sessions will help you develop a distinctive, effective voice that will make your writing flow, whatever the brief. You can also explore do at your own pace courses here, as well as upcoming in-person and online teaching here.

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