After more than a year of publishing on LinkedIn, I’ve learned a few funny things about readers: They respond well to personal stories and controversial stances, and they adore numbers. But whatever you do, don’t yell at them in headlines.
This week, I looked for recurring trends in my LinkedIn articles with the highest click-through rates to our blog, and I discovered another surprising fact about readers: They appreciate simplicity.
For example, the headlines “What 4 Little Letters Can Tell You About Your Team” and “4 Simple Lessons From Conversations With Smart People” racked in some of the highest percentages of click-throughs, likely because they positioned the material as easily digestible.
But it wasn’t until I looked into the psychology behind “simple” writing that I truly understood what this means for readers and the role it plays in decision-making, perceived intelligence, and the appearance of truth.
For every 10 people who read your headline copy, only two will read the rest of the article. That’s a grim statistic, especially considering the time and resources content creation demands. This also makes uncovering the elements of compelling, clickable headlines crucial to your content’s success.
To understand what triggers readers to click on a headline, we need to analyze how people make decisions. We face thousands of choices each day — food-related decisions alone account for more than 200 — but we also make many more subliminal decisions, especially when we’re scanning publications. To compensate for the limited time we have and the endless stimuli tempting us, our minds have adapted a mechanism to weigh the importance of written material.
With no contextual information available, readers evaluate the complexity of a headline’s language, or its fluency, to gauge an article’s value and decide whether to click through. You might assume that using complex words makes an article seem more important, but this misconception can derail your content creation efforts in an instant — literally.
It’s completely understandable that people want to sound smart in their writing. However, the false association between intelligence and abstract vocabulary has conditioned people to inflate conversations, emails, and even headlines with flowery language.
In fact, according to research at Princeton University, regurgitating every big word in your secret stash will not only make you appear pompous, but also less intelligent. Through a series of three experiments, researchers manipulated the complexity of texts and saw a negative relationship between complexity and judged intelligence.
Fancy words also make readers disengage. You can probably recall a few cringeworthy conversations when people threw around unnecessary jargon and you struggled to keep up. Do you remember anything they said? Most likely, you trailed off, making sure to nod every few words to appear attentive. However, overwhelmed readers won’t be so gracious. You need to use simple, concise language to keep them interested in your content.
Simplicity improves the odds that readers will click through to an article. But what if I told you it also shapes the way people perceive the accuracy of your ideas?
Research from the University of Texas found that when participants were asked to rate the level of truth behind statements, auditory cues (such as rhythm) dictated perceptions. And while your readers don’t necessarily hear headlines, the way they read works just the same.
For example, participants tended to see rhythmic phrases, such as “Woes unite foes,” as more inherently true than nonrhythmic phrases, such as “Woes unite enemies,” even though they have the same meaning. This rhyme-as-reason effect not only makes it easier for readers to absorb written material, but it also validates the content.
Now, I’m not suggesting Dr. Seuss-style rhyming in your headlines, but this finding alludes to something bigger: the power of rhythm and flow. When you come across the word “enemies” in this phrase, it forces you to pause. On the other hand, “Woes unite foes” reads with a much more seamless flow.
Let’s take a second to relate this to the idea of quick comprehension — a key player in fluency. Even the smallest pause can trip readers up and mean the difference between a click and a pass. More importantly, it affects your content’s aura of truth.
For brands craving credibility and trust, paying attention to rhythm and flow is paramount. How often do you analyze the variety of sentence structures and lengths in your articles? Do you read them aloud to judge whether one sentence melts into the next? You probably don’t spend time picking apart each sentence like this, but improving the flow of your headlines and overall content can enhance comprehension and credibility.
When readers have to work to understand an idea, it tells them that you can’t clearly articulate your message. It not only undermines your intelligence, but also decreases the likelihood that they’ll click through to your article.
Do your readers a favor and break your articles down into digestible snippets that they’ll actually retain. Don’t clutter headlines or articles with needless adverbs and descriptors that don’t further the conversation or enhance comprehension. Let your experience and advice speak for itself. Readers will not only see you as a more credible source, but also a smarter one.