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Secrets of Writing Professionally in an Era of Information Sharing on Mobile Phones

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The Trend
An important trend is emerging in business communication:  People now spend more Internet time on mobile phones than on desktops or laptops, more people open email on phone than on laptops, and increasingly important, communications are taking place via messaging to cell phones, including the following:
  • Distributed decision making: communicating and coordinating with people who are making decisions in geographically different locations
  • Remote workforce management: highlighting schedules, preparation needed for a project, project success criteria, just-in-time coaching and information sharing
  • Recruitment: identifying candidates as 70-90% of job searches start on mobile. 

The Implications

This trend highlights the importance of teaching new skills for this medium. As brevity reigns, learning how to fit a clear and accessible message on a single cell phone screen may become as important a general business norm as limiting emails to be read on laptops to two screens and memos to be read on paper to one page.

This post describes how readers comprehend information less effectively on a screen than on paper and then explains principles of content, organization, and design that will help writers compose email messages that readers can easily comprehend, store, and retrieve. It illustrates these principles with a series of graphic objects, created in Adobe Illustrator, so writers can see how these of document design are critical to readers of cell phone messages.

Its learning objectives are to make writers aware of 1) how business messaging is evolving as people increasingly use cell phones as their primary way of reading email messages, 2) how reading on a small screen impedes comprehension; 3) the document design and organizational principles hey should use to create mobile-friendly messages; and 4) to write and edit email messages that enact these principles

How Small Screens and Reader Habits Impede Comprehension
Both screen size limitations and mobile phone user habits can impede reader ability to comprehend mobile phone messages.

Screen Size Limitations
First, comprehension is limited by reading on a laptop versus on paper and even more so on a small cell phone and phablet screens.  In replicated tests, subjects took longer to read messages on a screen than on paper and comprehended only half as much information.

One reason is the demands put on the readers’ memories. Information on a one-page memo read on a laptop typically has half above the fold and half below on a subsequent screen, requiring readers to recall what was read on a prior screen. The content displayed above the fold on a laptop or PC screen requires 5 screenfuls on a 4” cell phone.  As a result, cell phone readers have to spend more time to access the same amount of information as in, for example, a one-page memo, and have to depend on short term memory to recall information on prior or subsequent screens, leading to information overload in a mobile medium.

We recently demonstrated the importance of this fact at a workshop for a professional sports team during which we asked the 40 participants to send an email they had sent to a client to their own cell phones.  All were astonished at how little of their text fit on each screen, how unattractive it looked without visual design elements, such as headings—and of the importance of conciseness in writing text that would be read on mobile devices.

User Habit Limitations
In addition, as Benartzi in The Smarter Screen points out:  “When it comes to how much information we can process well we are limited.  . . by the scarcity of attention, by our ability to focus on more than a few things at a time (13).”   Both the typical time spent on a screen and the nature of the cell phone as a medium contribute to users’ lessened comprehension of cell phone messages. A mobile session lasts average of 72 seconds versus 150 seconds for desktop.  And cell phones are an Interruptible medium: Answering phone calls can extends the time it takes a reader to recover the information they were reading when they answered a call.

When the 40 workshop participants were asked if they would answer a phone call while in the middle of reading an email message, all indicated they would—and that they would have to read the email from the beginning as they thought they could not recall what they had read prior to answering a call.

What We Teach
We teach that writing for mobile makes it essential that the message be well-designed—that it creates a positive first impression and upon subsequent views is comprehensible when read word for word, while also designed so readers can easily recover context and resume attention to the written message—what we identify as the readers’  initial and subsequent “moments of truth.”

Guidelines for Writing for Mobile
Benartzi points out that “Good design can speed up the learning process.”(30) We particularly stress the importance of designing messages with strong visual appeal. Benartzi provides evidence of “very high correlations between ratings of visual appeal after extremely short exposures and ratings after much longer exposures…We know what we like even before we know what we are looking at.” (39) In short, readers’ first impressions of a message predict how they assess its importance and trustworthiness upon reading it word for word

In line with research on visual appeal, we teach writers to use a limited number of high impact visual design tools to win the first moment to truth, specifically, use

  • Headings and subheadings, the table of contents of a message
  • Lists, indicating how many points are being made and where they begin and end
  • White space, to give visual relief between sections
  • Short paragraphs, no more than five lines on the screen to prevent information overload

To win the second moment of truth, with a goal of maintaining the reader’s attention, we stress

  • Make it personal, with a brief greeting
  • Make the organization and content simple to understand in a single reading
    • Start with purpose and timing: What, Whys, and When
    • Relate information in the body to the message’s purpose
    • Close with next steps: Who does What and When
  • Prioritize the essential, while making it easy to access additional information in contexts with larger screens or where a longer, more complete message can be printed for further analysis.

To illustrate these principles, we use two before and after graphics so writers can see the differences between a message that does not enact these principles and messages that do.

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We also briefly review some principles of email etiquette, again shown in a cell phone graphic.

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Conclusion
Writers enjoy learning about writing in an age of cell phones for a number of reasons.  First, they gain an understanding of the evolving environment in which mobile phones are increasingly becoming the medium of choice for many professionals to read their email messages.  Second, the representations of before and after emails on cell phone screens allow them to see the impact of sending email messages that are not organized or designed for a mobile phone screen –and how first impressions are created almost immediately and have lasting effects on reader perceptions of their communication ability.

EXERCISE
Compose an email which follows these organizational and design patterns

  • An introduction that addresses What, Why(s), and When
  • One or more body paragraphs that provide information that helps the reader understand the writer’s ideas or provides information that supports and action
  • A closing that indicates Who should do What, When, if appropriate, Why.
  • Edit your email so it has good document design: It should include some headings and, as appropriate, other elements of visual design, such as list, short paragraphs and white space between sections.
  • Send the email to yourself and open it on your cell phone.
  • Imagine you are the reader: would you view as meeting both moments of truth?

Contact us to learn more about how you can improve your writing skills or host a writing workshop for your organization.

 About Thomas Clark, PhD: Dr. Thomas Clark is the President of CommuniSkills and Professor of Management at Xavier University, has been a writing and oral communication consultant for a wide variety of businesses including Procter & Gamble, “the business writing capital of the world,” where he has led over 300 business communication workshops. He has published three books on business communication and one on career strategies.

Topics: Experts, Consumer, Professionals, Professional Development, Gig Economy, Flexible Resourcing, Memo, Professional Writing, Email, Business Communication