Feb 18, 2021
3 mins read
Digital life is changing the way we read. Smart business writers are responding by frontloading their content…
Life lived permanently on the scroll is changing the way we read. An increasing number of academic voices are highlighting the details of this shift and what it may mean for society. The foundational text within the field is The Shallows, written by Nicholas Carr before the advent of social media.
In summary: humans are drifting away from sitting down with a book and losing ourselves in long text, uninterrupted by a person or a device. Less deep reading could be lowering our general ability to absorb and understand information, while – a little counter-intuitively – ubiquitous embedded links might actually reduce the quality of our comprehension of factual text. The loss of deep fiction reading could have particularly interesting implications given the genre’s unique demands on (and rewards for) our mental machinery.
This throws up interesting questions for professional communicators. The most obvious of which is, how should we approach writing when it’s no longer safe to assume people are actually reading?
Written back in the '80s, Barbara Minto’s The Pyramid Principle offers a tactical trick that’s relevant to the current age of shallow reading. Minto’s book is a strangely challenging read for a guide on how to structure content for improved comprehension, but its essential insight is nonetheless powerful.
Minto’s take is that when it comes to business communication writers should ‘frontload’ content. Which means: summarise your argument up front and then explain it. This gives the reader the opportunity to assess an idea immediately and decide whether they’re interested in exploring the logic behind it, before they read on.
(Interestingly, frontloading is already entrenched in the world of pop music, where song structures have evolved to catch and hold Spotify attention spans. See link below.)
This is the opposite of the deductive tradition we are used to. In deductive writing, an argument is built through a number of related steps that eventually reveal a logical conclusion. But Minto says start with the conclusion, and then reveal how you came to it.
This concept illuminates much of the conceptual muck of our post-truth world. Whether on Twitter, Fox, CNN or anywhere between, many of today’s sharpest ideological clashes manifest the frontloading paradigm. An ideological case is made, with data and facts then presented to support it. Deduction, if it features at all, is a secondary cast member.
The pyramid structure is an excellent business writing tool
Minto’s pyramid structure is an excellent tool in the increasingly challenging field of organisational communication. We’re all forced to wade through a mind boggling number of words per day, and our ability to digest what we’re scrolling past is decreasing fast. Writers who structure their information for maximum impact and retention will not only form better information connections with their readers, they’ll also help their organisation address the risk of drowning in a swamp of 21st century verbiage.
Minto’s pyramid structure is especially effective because it focuses on frontloading the entire concept within a piece of writing and then repeating the process throughout the text too, nudging the reader forward with compelling conclusions supported by affirming arguments, and making the whole piece far more likely to be read.
In the creative world of screen plays, art and literature there are clear benefits for writers who adopt frontloading as a core technique. They will engage digitally distracted audiences more quickly than those throwing up wandering deductive narrative arcs, and will therefore be able to offer a more predictable business case to the publisher / producer by ensuring the reader / watcher has less mental work to do to be involved in a story.
But at what cost?
The heavy metaphorical lifting inherent in laying out or following a deductive argument is in many ways what defines the deep relationship that has grown between writers and readers over the hundreds of years since Gutenberg re-invented movable type.
We need to be careful of completely sacrificing this mode of writing and reading in favour of a digital friendly approach that could ultimately see us becoming a little slower in our ability to put the miracle of our metaphorical brain to work.
As the saying goes, we either use it, or ...