Information Overload: A copywriter’s worst enemy and 8 ways to avoid it
We live in the information age. And boy do we get blasted with information. It’s dumped on us by the truckload.
Three pounds of stuff in the mailbox a day. 507 TV channels to flip through to find the weather report. 623 email messages selling male enhancement pills.
And that’s only a fraction of the information that bombards us. There are billboards along the highway, news broadcasts on the radio, memos and telephone calls at the office, instruction manuals for office equipment that won’t work, family schedules to remember, bills, books, seminars, random conversations at lunch time, business meetings, it never ends.
I even feel it when I walk into the supermarket cereal aisle and have to choose from about 200 boxes screaming with bright colors and promises of low fat and high fiber, when all I want is lots of sugar and a cool little plastic prize wrapped in cellophane.
It makes my head hurt.
There’s just too much information to process these days. And when people feel overwhelmed, they react in ways that aren’t good for your copywriting.
Whatever your copy is about or whatever you’re selling, it boils down to information, usually in the form of words people have to read. But people will avoid reading when they feel overloaded, or they’ll filter out difficult information and look for information that is easier to understand, or they’ll simply misunderstand what you’re talking about and wont’ respond in the way you want.
Or, worst of all, they may just ignore your copy altogether.
You can’t alter the flow of information out there, but you can do some simple things in your writing to make the information you present clear, simple, and easy to understand.
Make clarity your #1 objective. You can’t communicate or persuade someone if that person doesn’t understand your point. Don’t write to show off or call attention to how smart or clever you are. Simplify your message. Make it easy to understand. Get to the point and say exactly what you mean to say.
Good writing is like a clean pane of glass in a storefront—you don’t notice the glass, but you can clearly see what you want on the other side. Take a look at my headline and first paragraph on this article. No fluff. I get right to the point and you know what this article is about instantly.
Decide what you want to say before you say it. Don’t just hope something sensible will reveal itself as you write your copy. Plan and outline. Think about the point you want to make. Determine the tone or emotional feel. Know where you’re headed before you start.
This helps you stay on point and avoid distracting ideas. It also helps you organize your copy so that it reads in a clear and logical way from beginning to end.
Organize your information visually. Don’t be one of those copywriters who thinks subheads, bold face, and bullets are just for designers. They’re really for visual organization.
Take this article, for example. I’m using 8 bold subheads because I have a list of separate tips about my main topic. If I were explaining a process, I would have probably used a numbered list. You can also use italics, block quotes, underlines, sidebars, and other techniques for emphasis and organization.
Link information with familiar ideas. If there’s any chance for misunderstanding, use a simple analogy that relates to something your reader is already familiar and comfortable with. For example, if you’re trying to explain how anti-virus software works, say it’s like a doctor that checks your computer for infections, and when it finds one, it quarantines the bug and makes your computer feel better. That’s accurate and easy to understand.
Inject emotional content. Ideas are easier to understand and remember when they are linked with emotional content or intense feelings. If you’re writing copy for a political group striving to change the American tax system, don’t just explain economic theory and reel off dry statistics. Talk about how the IRS takes money from our wallets, how the government makes us work two hours every day to support a bloated government, or how frustrating it is to fill out all those confusing forms every April. People process emotional ideas more easily than intellectual ones. Make people feel so they don’t have to think so hard.
Avoid making counterproductive associations. Clever analogies, puns, and wordplay might make you look bright, but they will sabotage clear communication. This goes for gratuitous graphics, effects, and images that are used because they are trendy or cool looking.
I once saw an advertisement with a photo of a clown handing papers to a guy sitting at a desk. The headline makes a pun about the boss being a clown. You have no idea the copy is really about office equipment until you read all the way through. It makes sense if you spend the time to figure it out, but most people won’t. Be clear, not clever.
Focus on one big idea. Don’t dump too many messages on your reader at once. Start with a simple idea. Then build and reinforce that one idea, adding information paragraph by paragraph, always linking back to that one big idea.
In this article, my big idea is information overload. Each point I make refers to that one point. Even if one point isn’t as clear as I’d like it to be, the reader will never be lost or feel overwhelmed because I’m really only talking about one simple idea.
Present your main idea at the beginning and end of your copy. People tend to remember what comes first and what comes last. Things in the middle are usually forgotten. If you have a list of product benefits, for example, put the best up front, but have a few good ones for the end, too.
Follow the rule for good public speaking: Tell ‘em what you’re going to say. Say it. Tell ‘em what you just said.
The supermarket can’t do much to overcome my feeling of information overload in the cereal aisle. And I’m pretty sure we’re all on our own with channel surfing and deleting email spam.
But if you apply these ideas to your copy, you can reduce the feeling of information overload for your readers. If your copy becomes an oasis of clarity and simplicity in this sea of confusing information we live in, people will actually want to spend more time reading and responding to what you have to say or sell.