Friday, May 8, 2009

Don't make your readers work too hard

In an article entitled, “You Are What You Measure,” Ryan Rasmussen of the Zócalo Group discusses impressions – a widely used marketing measurement.

Unfortunately for the reader, the article is constructed so sloppily as to be almost indecipherable. I’ll discuss only the opening paragraph:

“There is an ever-present metric that looms over meaningful engagement. It is an artifact from the industry that long ago accepted its flaws, but continues to sell campaigns and drive efforts to make brand messages measurable.”

At this point, the reader has read the title and the opening paragraph but still does not know what topic the writer is talking about. The writer discourteously holds the reader in suspense until three paragraphs later, when he finally discloses that the topic is impressions.

And even then, he discloses it indirectly – not in the main clause but in a prepositional phrase: “Trust is not a factor in calculating impressions.” The reader could be forgiven for concluding that the writer is toying with him.

Furthermore, the reader cannot be certain that impressions is the mysterious “ever-present metric” mentioned in the first sentence. And, because the reader does not know what Mr. Rasmussen means by “looms over” or by “meaningful engagement,” that sentence appears to be nonsense.

And what is an “artifact” in the sense used here? The only dictionary definition that could possibly fit the context is: “An inaccurate observation, effect, or result, especially one resulting from the technology used in scientific investigation or from experimental error: The apparent pattern in the data was an artifact of the collection method.”

If that is the definition the writer intends, then we must ask: What was the inaccuracy? What was it, specifically, about “the industry” that caused the inaccuracy? What industry is it (the context of the home page suggests marketing or public relations)?

Is “that” used in a restrictive sense, as it appears to be? If so, then the writer is saying that the industry(ies) that did not accept “its flaws” somehow did not take part in creating the artifact. What could that mean?

What is the subject of the verb “continues”? Is it “the industry” or is it the “ever-present metric”?

Mr. Rasmussen makes a valid and useful point in his article, but he buries it so deep that the reader must work very hard to unearth it.

The Takeaway: Anyone can write nonsense. To write sense, you need to learn a lot about words: What they mean. What they can and cannot do. How they can and cannot be combined. Some of this knowledge is subtle. To acquire this knowledge, you must read a lot – especially from the work of careful writers. We learn how to combine words by watching careful writers combine words.

A Good Resource: In my opinion, the best book on the subtleties involved in combining words is Simple & Direct by Jacques Barzun. It will inspire you to write more carefully and considerately.

No comments:

Post a Comment