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Don’t print this – unless you want to understand it

I regularly receive emails that admonish me to ‘think about the environment, don’t print this email unless you really need to’. I sometimes wonder if, without this reminder, people would really print out reams of back-and-forth email threads with perhaps two new sentences in each round, or print all their junk email to glance at before throwing it away. Don’t we all just read off the screen now?

Lately, however, there seems to be growing evidence to support the idea that reading from screens isn’t the same as reading from paper. Academic studies suggest that we don’t get the same level of understanding, engagement or retention from reading on-screen, even on dedicated e-reader devices. Commercial market research continues to solidly support the idea that transactional and marketing documents are far more effective when paper is involved; printed catalogues are making a comeback because the paper-and-online combination delivers the biggest return.

It’s not just pre-internet fossils that have a preference for print when understanding and engagement matter, either. Naomi S. Baron’s recently-published book ‘Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World’ reports that university students prefer hardcopy books, even when a free digital alternative is available. The reasons given in this and other studies are that as well as engaging more of the senses than screens do, paper wins because it lacks the distractions of the electronic environment such as links, flashing ads and pinging email and social media update alerts.

Paper cuts through the digital clutter. As digital marketing has become the norm for many businesses, direct mail has decreased, so there’s less competition there. Print reaches everybody, not just those with computers, smartphones and i-Things. Print production values provide tactile support for quality and reliability claims (whether merited or not), through the simple physical presence and permanence of paper.

Paper also gives a physical context to the content. You might remember that an appealing offer was on a left hand page, a useful diagram was about a quarter of the way into a book, or an interesting leaflet had a tri-fold shape. These locators don’t have much meaning in on-screen alternatives where text and layout scroll endlessly or are reformatted by every device which shows them.

For quick notifications and confirming plans, email and other electronic media are ideal because of their speed and reach. But if you’re trying to convey a message that takes more than a second or two to absorb and act upon, perhaps you should think about putting it on paper.

The language of business

How we speak has a big impact on how we’re perceived. We all make judgements about people, sometimes subconsciously, depending on how they speak, their choice of words, their grasp of grammar and use of idiom. It’s the same in writing – poor grammar or punctuation, clumsy sentence construction and unfamiliar usage can all combine to undermine customers’ perception of your marketing materials, and therefore of your business, no matter how clever or effective the product or service you’re trying to promote.

Once when on holiday in Morocco, I was accosted by a teenage boy who was clearly hoping to sell something to the obvious tourist walking through his town. In broken English, he tried to extol the virtues of his wares but, fearing a rip-off, I was immediately on the defensive.

Seeing he was getting nowhere, he asked if I spoke French. I did. When he spoke to me in fluent French, it wasn’t just the transfer of information that improved dramatically – so did my perception of him. Suddenly he wasn’t a vaguely threatening street boy trying to sell junk to tourists, he was a young man trying to raise some money to help his family.

That’s perhaps an extreme example, but fluent, idiomatically correct language has a huge but often underestimated value in marketing communications. If you want people to buy from you, they need to feel comfortable with you. Speaking their language properly is a crucial first step in that process. Showing you understand the customer’s language and the cultural references and assumptions that come with it is part of understanding that market.

Many who speak English as a second language don’t realise that although their grasp of the language is sufficient for practical day-to-day matters, it’s not quite good enough to convince native English speakers and may even be misunderstood by non-native speakers who have a different first language. A final-pass localisation by a fluent native speaker adds a polish to the words that increases both comprehension and comfort for readers.

And that’s got to be good for business.

Forget simple, let’s be clear

So many promotional efforts seem to revolve around the idea of making things simple or easy. There’s a whole series of ‘for dummies’ books covering everything from SQL to GCSE revision. But if these things could really be done by dummies, there wouldn’t need to be books about them.

Some things are just complicated. And when technology is involved, many of them are. What we really need is clarity – and not just in the language used to explain ideas or describe products, but in the order in which the points are presented.

Some ideas follow a linear logic. Provided you get it all in the right order and are careful with the choice of words, anyone paying attention should be able to follow. Sometimes you need to introduce several thoughts at once in order to make it possible for everything to fall into place; you have to say “trust me on this, it will all make sense later” and put them in as sensible an order as you can find, perhaps starting with the most familiar.

And sometimes there are ideas that can’t be split up into simpler bits. I remember an afternoon at primary school when I was introduced to fractions. I could see there was an idea here but I couldn’t grasp it, no matter how many different ways the teacher tried to explain it to me.

I did get fractions eventually, and years later was able to sympathise with my own children when they grappled with new concepts. It made me realise that some ideas have to be grasped whole and can’t be simplified any further; the best you can do is set up all the right pieces in advance and let them click into place naturally.

So let’s not worry too much about making things ‘simple’ when they’re not. Let’s be clear instead, and simple will take care of itself.