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Does your content pass the five-second test?

David McGuire of B2B copywriting agency Radix Communications shares a quick, easy trick that can change your writing – and maybe your business

Sometimes, a simple trick is the most powerful.

Like, that bit of the B2B Marketing copywriting course when I flash up a case study text, then take it away again after five seconds. That’s how long your reader might glance at your copy – so what did they learn?

Usually, of course, the answer is “not a whole lot”. So we look at the text in a bit more detail, to see how a few simple changes can help your reader to get your most important message – whether they read the whole thing, or simply scan for five seconds flat.

It’s a quick, easy thing to do (both the training method, and the changes you make to the copy). But it works, and it’s something people remember and start using as soon as they get back to the office.

Next time you’re writing or reviewing B2B content, read it back while you count to five, then stop. If you didn’t get everything across, this blog post is for you.

But be warned: the process may take you somewhere you didn’t expect.

“It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense." 

Han Solo, Star Wars

The more senior your reader, the busier they are

In all my years talking to B2B marketers about their target audiences, nobody has ever said the decision-maker has lots of time on their hands. Everyone – but everyone – is busy. And the more senior the audience, the less time they have to spare.

The reality is, most of the content you write or review won’t get read. If you’re lucky, it’ll get a cursory scan. But for some reason nobody talks about that. We agonize over the text line by line, and never ask what someone gets if they don’t read. What if they scan?

This disparity gets more pronounced when you’re writing for senior audiences. “They’re experienced and educated”, the argument goes. “We need to go into detail”. And yes, maybe some of them will appreciate that, and the content certainly needs to be compelling when you read it in full. But your reader is also busy as hell. So give them the quick version too.

There are two easy ways to do that.

“Why yes, I have time to sit down and digest this lengthy text in detail. I’m so pleased they didn’t make it quick to read."

No B2B decision-maker, ever

Technique 1: fix your titles, subheadings and captions

When you glance at a page quickly, your eyes are drawn to the subheadings, picture captions, and other breakout text. If they say things like “Overview”, “Features”, “Challenge” and “Results”, you’ve learned nothing.

But that’s how a lot of B2B content is written (in fact, I once had a marketer tell me that unless the subheads said “challenge”, “solution” and “results”, it wasn’t a case study). You’ve been granted five valuable seconds of your reader’s attention, and wasted it.

The fix is really simple. Look for subheadings that describe the content they introduce – and explain, summarise or interpret that content. So instead of saying “features”, briefly tell your reader what those features mean for them.  

Suddenly, the subheads tell your story – and you’ve turned each bit of content into supporting evidence for your case.

(You can do the same for any other bits of micro-copy that draw your eye in the design. For example, make sure your picture captions tell the story – people are more likely to read them than your body content.)

Technique 2: the nutshell paragraph

When you see, watch or listen to a news report, pay attention to the beginning. Look out for that first sentence – the bit the journalist says before they breathe.

That’s what journalists call the “nutshell paragraph”: the whole story, in a nutshell. Sure, you’d want to read or listen on, but if you only went as far as the first full stop, you’d know everything you needed to.

“STEELWORKERS can make a good living if they retrain as male strippers, the Conservative Party has confirmed." 

Daily Mash nutshell paragraph,

If you can do the same, it’s a great place to start most B2B content. Give yourself 20 words – no more than one or two sentences. Five seconds flat. And see if you can:

  • Tell your reader what they need to know
  • Show that it’s relevant to them
  • Make them care

Whether you’re writing a web page, a blog post or an ebook, getting straight to the point respects your reader’s time – they can make an early decision whether or not what you have to say is for them.

It’ll also improve your writing overall. When you have to get all of that into 20 words, you’ll find there’s no time for tired B2B waffle like “in today’s fast-paced digital world…”

The trick is simple. The results are surprising.

Make no mistake: writing a five-second version takes work. And that is precisely the point. Because before you can say something quickly, you have to know what it is you want to say.

Apparently, Albert Einstein never actually said “if you can’t explain something simply, you haven’t understood it”. (We’ll have to make do with Nicolas Boileau’s "Ce que l'on conçoit bien s'énonce clairement”, or Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman instead.)

“I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don't understand it." 

Richard Feynman,

But whoever said it, it’s true.

Forcing yourself to explain something in five seconds flat is a quick way to check you’ve thought it through – because there’s no room for muddled thinking.

Whatever you’re working on, challenge yourself, by asking big, dumb, obvious questions. Questions like:

  • Where does our brand fit into our market?
  • What is this product for?
  • Why is that feature a good thing?
  • How is that service different?
  • What is this piece of content about?
  • Who should read this, and why?

In every case, you should be able to answer in a clear, concise way. If you can’t, you – or your stakeholders – probably have some more thinking to do.

The secret is, this is a very, very good thing.

Knowing nothing is basically a superpower

As a consultant B2B copywriter, I’m often the least-qualified person in a room full of subject matter experts. And once I got used to that, it was actually very freeing. It gives me a pass to ask those big, obvious questions without fear of embarrassment.

I’m lucky, I know. As a marketer, it’s probably more difficult for you. You’ve likely had to fight hard for every scrap of credibility from the engineers, the techies and the product geeks. It might feel like a terrifying risk to take a deep breath and ask: “Yes… but what does it do?”

I guess that’s why copywriters so often find ourselves running messaging workshops. We’ve established that writing powerful, effective content means getting straight to the point – and if nobody has asked the question before, it’s only when we come to write something that people realise they don’t really know what that point is.

Sometimes, nobody asks the big, dumb questions…

until a copywriter does.

You’d be amazed (or perhaps you wouldn’t) how often I’ve sat with sales, marketing, product and service leaders – theoretically to gather information for a new website or content project – only to find they’ve never talked about who buys from them, and why.

The five-second rule means you can’t put those conversations off any longer – because you can’t explain something until you know it yourself. And that means you might need to reach out to your stakeholders. To seek consensus. To push for answers.

A five-second glance at your content? It’s a simple trick, sure, but it’ll improve your writing. And who knows? It might just change your whole organisation.

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