Whew. You finally finished your paper.
Actually, it’s a performance letter, analytical report, position piece, investment proposal, due diligence document, or maybe even a grownup white paper. But getting it done sure felt like adolescent agony.
Here’s the difference, though. Your high school history teacher got paid to read the work you handed in. The people you now want to read your text have a thousand other job demands. Even if, technically, Ms. C-Suite’s salary covers the time she spends with your report, it’s competing with a stack of documents on her desktop and a raft of reminders on her smartphone.
Congratulations: You are now, to use the vogue term, a content marketer. And your marketing content needs a facelift before it heads out to inform the world.
On HGTV they call it “curb appeal.” The house may be great inside, but prospective buyers won’t take a look unless the winding slate pathway, sexy red door, and flower-filled planters lure them out of the car.
Same thing for your big hunk of business text. Headlines, subheds, callouts, captions, sidebars, boxes, blurbs of various sorts, provide the curb appeal that pulls readers into your article.
These words written last, by you or your editor, are the ones people read first. Sometimes they’re the only words that get read at all. So they are the most important ones in your finished product.
Headline. This is your address plaque, only more so. Not only does it let readers know they’re in the right place; when appropriate, it can function more like a storefront sign—positioning the business, teasing passersby, capturing their attention, promising them a good time.
Summary Blurb. On page 1, this block of copy above or beside the main text summarizes your piece or the main argument therein. It goes by various names; in academic settings it’s the abstract. (When in doubt, call it a blurb.) It’s a mercy to readers, as well as lure, to graft one onto any long report.
Subheds. Another way to be kind to your readers. Subheds are one-line summaries of what’s coming up in the next section of text. Literal is fine; witty or provocative is even better, if appropriate. One of my clients comes up with subheds for his fund performance reports that actually make me chuckle once in a while.
Callouts (also called pull-quotes). These sentences are “called out” from the main text to appear in larger typography, typically one per page. This, of course, means you need a page design that includes white space—often, a narrow column running alongside the body copy—to make room for a callout. This blurb is no mere afterthought that fills up space. Someone reading your callouts should be able to pick up most of the key points in your report. Accordingly, I’m not too strict about pulling exact words from text to appear on exactly the same page. The callout just has to be findable by someone who wants to read more about the idea it presents, so roughly the same text in about the same neighborhood is fine.
Captions. These little gems apply to charts and graphs as well as pictures. Readers eat them up because they’re drawn in by the attached art. So provide more than a label; consider each caption a micro-essay.
Sidebar. Now we’re getting ambitious. A sidebar is a short separate story accompanying the main text. It can be a good way to handle an idea that doesn’t fit in neatly, or deserves better treatment than burial in running copy. Sometimes I find I can pull paragraphs directly from main text, but even then, sidebar status usually requires a new lede and close. And your main text mustn’t get jealous, when that alluring shorty gets more readership than the mother ship.
Boxes. This is a distinction more of format than content. Typically a box uses a rule (i.e., line) rather than white space to separate a summary from the main text. So It’s essentially callout in a box or sidebar in a box. (Stop smirking, please.)
Inline Emphasis Text. Use with caution. Ideally, your paragraphs should be short enough and topic sentences obvious enough that readers can find them. When stuff gets tough, there’s nothing like bullet points. But for some complex, intricately argued critiques, highlighted sentences within paragraphs help readers navigate. The trick is, avoiding the temptation to highlight almost everything.
There’s one more HGTV analogy here. DIY is better than YID (Yikes, I Didn’t) if you have skills and time. But a professional edit/design team usually does the job better and faster.
Efficiency isn’t just a matter of experience. Objectivity factors in, as well—fresh eyes often see the shape of the piece better than its author. So does pain—professionals feel less of it, since they haven’t been living with your words for weeks as you have.