The University of Florida recently announced a new book, aimed at giving people guidelines on how to communicate well in writing.
Yellowlees Douglas is an associate professor of management communication at the University of Florida. She wrote The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer (Cambridge University Press, 2015), drawing on data from eye-tracking, EEG brain scans, and fMRI neuroimaging.
Some of it gives scientific backing to the usefulness of old standbys like thesis sentences and active voice. However, the book also dispels many well-worn myths, like avoiding beginning sentences with “and.”
The Reader’s Brain also provides insight into where to put information you want readers to remember—and where to stash disclosures you’d rather they forget.
So, here are some highlights:
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. 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. USE ‘RECENCY’ TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
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.
3. DISAPPOINT WITHOUT DESTROYING GOOD WILL
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. BURY BAD NEWS
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 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. HARNESS CAUSE AND EFFECT
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. When you turn sentences into micro-narratives of cause and effect, you make your writing easier to read and recall.
6. DON’T LET PASSIVE VOICE DRAG YOU DOWN
You’ve probably already heard about the evils of passive construction: 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 have to work harder—and reading speed slows down, no matter how simple your content.
You can check out Douglas’ book on Amazon.