Let’s start with an analogy.
You are giving a presentation to a group of people in a meeting room. You have a PowerPoint presentation on the screen.
During the course of that presentation, part of the time you will be facing your audience, looking them in the eye, and talking directly to them.
At other points, you will turn your back on the audience and speak to a slide on the screen. You might be pointing to some figures, a chart, or some bullet points.
If you are a good presenter, you’ll likely spend over 90% of the time talking directly to your audience, and less than 10% of the time talking to the screen.
Bad presenters are the ones who spend too much of their time with their backs to their audience.
The same thing happens when you are writing.
You should spend most of your time looking the reader in the eye as you are writing.
Let me explain.
So far, as I sit here writing, I’m looking you in the eye. Hopefully, you can hear my voice through my words.
Now I’m going to break eye contact with a few lines from William Gibson’s book, All Tomorrow’s Parties.
“The handles of a craftsman’s tools bespeak an absolute simplicity, the plainest forms affording the greatest range of possibilities for the user’s hand. That which is overdesigned, too highly specific, anticipates outcome; the anticipation of outcome guarantees, if not failure, the absence of grace.”
I just broke eye contact with you for a few seconds. Perhaps you didn’t notice it. And if you did, it was probably worth it. Because that is a wonderful piece of writing from William Gibson, and an absolutely brilliant insight.
But what if the quote had been ten times as long? Or what if I had decided to insert a list of 15 bullet points? Or a sequence of three different charts?
Each of these would have created a break in contact. It would have been as if I had turned my back and was talking to a PowerPoint slide.
You have probably noticed this yourself. Maybe you are reading an email, an article, or even a sales page. Your read the first few lines and are then presented with a long list of bullet points, or some quotes or testimonials, or a long list of figures.
You suddenly find yourself scanning down the page. You are skipping over this “inserted content”, and are looking for where the writer next picks up the narrative in his or her own voice.
When readers start skipping down the page, this is when you are spending too much time with your back to them.
This is also when you run the very real risk of losing that reader. You hold their attention as your write to them face to face, then lose it with your list of fifteen bullet points…and then maybe lose them altogether if they hit the back button.
As with a presentation, your audience doesn’t like it when you turn your back.
You may find this counter-intuitive.
After all, isn’t it smart to break up large blocks of text with bullet points, lists, quotes, testimonials or diagrams?
Yes, that can work well.
The trick is to keep the balance right.
Don’t hit them with a long list of 15 bullet points. Break it down into three lists of 5 points each. As with my Gibson quote, keep the interruption brief.
That way, the interruption provides a welcome change in pace, but without disturbing the natural flow of your narrative.
It’s like the presenter turning his or her back to you for three or four seconds. That’s OK. It’s welcome even. But if the presenter continues to face the screen for a full minute, your attention will begin to wander.
Think of the last time you were reading a page which included a list of 15 bullet points, or ten short testimonials. Did you read every word? Or did you skip down the page?
Every time readers begin to skip, a percentage of them will lose all connection with your page and will leave.
Writing is like presenting.
You have to maintain direct eye contact for most of the time.
P.S. If you are wondering what the quote from William Gibson’s book could possibly have to do with marketing, or writing online, read this article I wrote over 10 years ago.