Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Six Things You Need to Know about Your Reader’s Brain—Before You Write Anything

Yellowlees Douglas

The next time anyone thrusts Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style into your hands and suggests you treat it as the Bible of writing, you may need to resist the urge to page straight to Strunk and White’s Rule 12. You can point out that rule—Choose a suitable design and hold to it—is about as useful to a writer under a deadline as a Buddhist koan. And that the advice gets more like a koan, the more you read in the elaboration that follows, as in “…the best design is no design.” You might want to avoid trying to follow this bit of advice, the next time you’re submitting that multi-million dollar grant proposal. In reality, the help you need to improve your writing might lie closer to home—as close as the inner workings of your own brain, as revealed in my forthcoming book, The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer.

Neuroscience can teach you everything you need to know about how to make your writing easily readable and immediately comprehensible. More important, insights into your readers’ brain can ensure readers remember only what you want them to—and forget details you must disclose but would rather employees or clients don’t remember. In fact, research on how readers make sense of marks on a page contains valuable and surprising takeaways for writing:

1. Prime your readers

“Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them.” Few of us realize this advice has its roots in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. By telling readers in your first sentences what they can expect, you’re priming them for the content to follow. In recent decades, researchers have discovered that priming is a form of implicit learning. By merely exposing experimental subjects to lists of random words, researchers discovered the earlier exposure triggered accurate recall a day later—even though the subjects were unaware they would be tested later on the list. When you tell readers your purpose in the first sentences of a memo, email, or proposal, you bolster their ease of comprehension and increase their recall of content later.

2. Recency packs a punch

The last item in the “Tell them” triad refers to what psychologists call recency effects, which influence our ability to remember the last items we read. Recency effects extend to both short-term and long-term memory. Readers remember final sentences in paragraphs, items in lists, and paragraphs in documents more clearly than anything else they read. Carefully compose that call to action paragraph in a proposal and concluding paragraph in your next report. And that final sentence in every opening paragraph in your emails? Dedicate that sentence to whatever action you need your readers to take—and when they should do it.

3. Deliver unwelcome news without destroying goodwill

You can benefit from the strength of priming and recency effects when you have to tell a client you’re unable to meet a deadline or inform an employee she’s not getting the position she applied for. How? Priming and recency effects create a “dead zone” in the middles of lists, sentences, paragraphs, and entire documents.

4. In delivering bad news, structure is everything

You can prime the reader with a neutral opening paragraph, one with content that’s neither misleadingly encouraging or straight-to-the-point bad news. Clinical studies attest to the impact of negative news in a first paragraph creating resistance and hostility to the rest of the message. Open your second paragraph with a rationale for the unwelcome part of your message—the cause for the effect you’re going to explore. Then embed the most lethal content in a minor clause in the dead center of the paragraph. Close that paragraph with a neutral sentence, mentioning whatever benefits you can conjure to offer your reader. Then craft a short, positive paragraph as your document’s closing that’s forward-looking, maintaining your readers’ goodwill by using the document’s recency position. Your reader will get the message, without getting hostile toward you.

5. We see cause and effect everywhere

From an evolutionary perspective, our tendency to see cause and effect everywhere is essential to our survival. When you place the rationale for a negative decision before you tell your reader the decision itself, you leverage the power of causation. In studies dating back to the 1940s, participants invariably described footage of simple, animated squares and triangles in terms of cause and effect. By the late 1980s, researchers discovered even infants as young as six months recognized causation. But your reader is also highly susceptible to seeing causation. When you turn sentences into micro-narratives of cause and effect, you make your writing easier to read and recall.

6. Put cause and effect on the page

You’ve probably already heard about the evils of passive construction, even if you couldn’t recognize it to save your life. Passive construction involves placing an outcome at the beginning of your sentence, in the grammatical subject, using a non-action verb, and generally burying the actor responsible. But English is a subject-verb-object language, and readers also expect language to obey what linguists call the iconicity assumption. In other words, we expect the order of items in a sentence to reflect the order in which they occurred in the world. When you use passive construction, readers’ brains show more activity—and reading speed slows down, no matter how simple your content.

Together, psychology and neuroscience can teach us everything we need to know about writing. You just have to connect the data to its implications for arranging your words on the page.

About The Author

Yellowlees Douglas

Yellowlees Douglas is the author of The Reader's Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer. She is Associate Professor of Management Communication at the University of F...

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