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Structure Content to Engage and Inspire

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Structure written content for easier understanding.
  • Ensure your message is clear and accessible to everyone.
  • Explain the benefits of storytelling to make a point.
  • Describe ways to keep your message positive and inspiring.


The joy and challenge of writing is that there are countless ways to make your point. To go back to the cake analogy, you can say “happy birthday” with cupcakes, a two-layer cake, a sheet cake, even pancakes. And while there’s no single “correct” way to deliver your message, the form it takes can make it easier to grasp (like a cupcake). In this unit you learn how to serve up your ideas for better understanding and how to make the content easier to consume.

Consider Cognitive Load

There’s a learning theory known as cognitive load, which says that people can only keep a small amount of information in their mind at a given moment. Overloading a person with too many details at once is like stacking dishes too high. You risk toppling them over, losing most of what you tried to build. So it’s important to give your readers a moment to absorb each concept before offering up the next one. Here are some ways to make your points without overloading your reader.

A person is holding a stack of plates that is dangerously tall, and the person looks worried.

Use shorter sentences. Each period is an opportunity for readers to stop and think. Make the hard decision to highlight one idea at a time, even if a concept is multifaceted. Capturing everything in a single sentence in an attempt to do an idea justice risks losing the thread entirely.

Break up blocks of text. A wall of text can be intimidating, leading some readers to give up before they start. Smaller blocks of text let you focus on specific, bite-sized ideas. Chunking content also lets you add information-carrying titles and headlines. They give readers an idea of what’s to follow. There’s also the added benefit of being easier to scan, so readers can find what they’re looking for faster.

Give just-in-time information. Wait to share conceptual information until it’s most relevant. You don’t need to know the whole cast of characters and how they’re related before a story begins. Introducing an idea in context slowly builds connections organically, making them stronger and easier to remember later.

Include short, bulleted lists. Lists don’t need to be complete sentences, and you can usually cut out repetitious words. Bullets get to the point, fast. They also visually convey how much information is part of the whole set. That lets readers clear enough mental space before starting. When you use lists, put the most important points first. They’re remembered more often and easier to find when referenced later.

Add graphics and visuals. Often a single image can convey an idea more succinctly than even the most carefully crafted words. Artwork can add personality and fun to your content, while giving your audience a break from reading text. Just remember to add alt text to your images to keep your content accessible.

All of the things you do to reduce cognitive load have the side benefit of making your content easier to browse. Readers can quickly scan to find the one relevant bit of information they need. It also lets them use spatial memory when returning to the material later. For example, they might think, “I know this information was in a bulleted list under a graphic.”

Finally, changing up the way you format your content makes it more visually interesting. A change of pace while reading can be enough to keep the reader engaged.

Broadcast Loud and Clear

Have you ever been in a meeting when someone casually drops an acronym you’ve never heard before? You ponder what the letters could possibly mean, and oops, now you’re not paying attention. Even if you don’t let your mind wander, the acronym is still a missing piece of information. So as you write, take these few steps to give your audience what they need to make sense of your message.

  • Expand acronyms and initialisms when you first use them, no matter how obvious the meaning is to you.
  • Avoid jargon and technical lingo. Industry-specific terms can have a lot of meaning behind them that’s lost to beginners. If you must use jargon, define it.
  • Use plain language. There are a lot of big, wonderful words, but keep things simple so everyone knows what you’re trying to say.
  • Remove needless words. At best, extra words add to the cognitive load. At worst they can be a distraction. Rephrasing a thought to use fewer words is hard, but almost always worth it.
  • Use exact names for user interface elements. For accessibility reasons, everything in the interface should have an official name you can reference. Sure, the name may sound formal, but people using screen readers rely on matching terms.

Follow these guidelines to write content that’s simple, clear, and accurate, and your message will travel far and wide.

Use Storytelling to Relate

For thousands of years we’ve told each other parables to teach the benefits of good behavior, and the consequences of bad behavior. But why use stories when you could just list the rules? Because stories are much more persuasive. We naturally imagine ourselves in situations we hear about, helping us develop a deeper understanding of the outcomes of our choices.

A person holding a book, reading a story to a group of children sitting on the ground.

You can use storytelling in your writing too. Your story doesn’t have to be elaborate, in fact too much detail can be distracting. But even a basic situation (like a toddler pulling a tablecloth) is enough to evoke the feeling you’re looking for. Also, a relatable, real-world experience can make a complicated concept easier to understand by building on what your audience already knows.

When you do tell a story, make your audience part of it by using “you” and “we.” Not only does it make for a stronger connection, it adds to the natural, informal tone you’d use with a friend.

Storytelling engages readers better than facts and figures alone, and they’ll appreciate that your content has some variety to it.

Accentuate the Positive

Your content can be more than just informative, it can be encouraging. Highlighting the positive aspects of your message keeps your audience engaged, and inspires them to act when they’re done reading. Here are four ways to pump up the positivity in your writing.

Before diving into the informational aspects of your content, tell your audience how your content can affect them in a good way. Some call this the value proposition, which answers the question, “What’s in it for me?” It’s sort of like a sales pitch to quickly get the reader interested in learning more.

Second, tell readers what they should do, not what they shouldn’t do. For example, here are two similar messages.

  • Fold your laundry while it’s still warm.
  • Don’t leave your laundry in the dryer.

The first is concise, telling what to do and when to do it. The second leaves a lot of room for interpretation. The reader might follow directions by taking clothes out of the dryer after they’ve cooled, or leaving them to cool in a basket. The clothes will still be wrinkly.

In the same way, if you’re describing features of your product or service, highlight what can be done, without drawing too much attention to what can’t. If you’ve recently improved what you offer then focus on the benefits of the new features, not the problems that were addressed.

Third, the word “please” should be reserved for exceptional circumstances. If you’re asking for something inconvenient, like waiting for a long process to complete, then it’s good to say please. But if it’s something routine, like entering data, then don’t say please. Doing so gives the impression that something normal is an undue burden on the reader, and you don’t want that association.

As for saying “sorry,” save that for when you’ve caused a serious problem to occur. For example, an error message about data loss is the right time to say sorry. But saying, “Sorry, you need to enter your security code” is unnecessary. It’s not your fault, and it dilutes the value of apologies when they’re actually needed.

Finally, a well-placed exclamation point is great for showing enthusiasm or being extra encouraging. However, limit how many you use so that each delivers maximum impact. Too many gets exhausting, and starts feeling unnatural. Use a period for error messages, confirmation messages, or instructional text, and save exclamation points for the most upbeat, inspirational parts of your content.

Putting a positive spin to your writing will leave your readers feeling good about what they’ve learned, and more willing to act on it.

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