Nobody Reads Anymore? Don’t Believe It.

I heard it yet again, just the other day, in a client meeting. Make that two times, from two different people, in two back-to-back meetings. It’s the same thing I’ve heard so many times before: “People don’t read” or “People won’t read” or “People don’t like to read.”

If that’s really true, it’s a complete reversal in the biggest driver of human culture and progress since Guttenberg. Which could spell trouble for our species.

But I’m not buying it.

A conservative estimate of the number of pages indexed by Google is close to 45 billion. A conservative estimate of the number of searches on Google is more than 5 billion per day, nearly 2 quadrillion per year. It can’t be all YouTube and Instagram. Words are still the dominant form of content – overwhelmingly.

(I wonder how many people have said “People don’t read” and “Content is king” in the same meeting? Ah, the power of clichés.)

Not only are people doing a lot of googling for a whole lot of words; they’re also writing them. Texting, tweeting, facebooking, blogging, commenting – just about everyone is a writer now, every day. And – this is just speculation on my part – I’m guessing the more people write, the more they’re motivated to read.

Maybe the primary motivation is just to check whether their tweets are raising the intended hackles, but I suspect it goes deeper than that.

Reading at Risk is not a report that the National Endowment for the Arts is happy to issue.” That’s the first sentence of a 2002 study, based on Census data that found rates of literary reading had been in steady decline for two decades. But just six years later, a new report, Reading on the Rise, marked “a significant turning point.” The NEA found that “after decades of declining trends, there has been a decisive and unambiguous increase [in literary reading] among virtually every group measured.”

And just a year ago, the Pew Research Center found that this strong upward trend had continued, especially among the young, with 83 percent of Americans age 16 to 29 having read a book in the previous year. Could these findings have anything to do with the rise of social media and the explosion of online content in the decade from 2002 to 2012?

I don’t know, but I do know that wherever I go I seem to see noses buried in books and magazines and screens all around me. And to say people “won’t” read is absurd on its face. Language is what we do as humans, and reading/writing is how we communicate when we can’t do it face to face.

In particular, businesses that want to communicate effectively need to trust in the power of the written word. Think about it. Maybe it’s possible to assemble IKEA furniture with only pictures, but someone who’s evaluating an automation control system, or a dental tool, or hazardous location lighting, or an ultrasonic inspection system, is going to want some words to go along with the pictures.

Here’s an analogy: If you’re buying a household appliance on Amazon, are you going to look at the reviews? Of course you are. In fact, you’ll probably look for the longest, most detailed reviews – positive and negative – and read them first. Now imagine you’re looking to buy something that is orders of magnitude more complicated and costly, something that you need to get right for the sake of your company’s competitiveness and profitability. I imagine you’ll do your homework, and that will probably entail some close and careful reading.

So when I hear, “People won’t read,” I want to know what they won’t read – or more importantly, what they will read. I want to understand how they will read. And I want to figure out how to make what I write as useful to them as possible.

Consider another nugget of conventional wisdom we sensitive writers seem to be hearing more and more: “Long-form writing is dead.” In my research, I come across a lot of long pieces that do, indeed, seem DOA – victims of institutional neglect. But is the form itself dead? Although the readership for a particular white paper or case study may be few, you have to assume that those few readers are highly motivated. They’re far along in the decision-making process, and the content you serve them at that point had better be as informative and readable as it possibly can be.

Short content often suffers from the opposite problem – not deadly dull, but so lively as to be lacking in any substance. The derisive term for it is “fluff.” I’m all for clever, engaging copy, but just about everyone I’ve ever met in the B2B world has a very finely tuned BS detector. Overpromises, appeals to emotion, insincerity, fact-free blather and the like are a sure way to be eliminated from serious consideration if you’re trying to sell something more mission-critical than, say, salad dressing.

Like Aristotle’s poet, the copywriter’s job is to delight and instruct.

If someone came to a particular web page or document, let’s assume they came expecting to do some reading. Our job is to make sure their effort is repaid with content that is informative, clear and relevant to the problem they’re looking to solve or the knowledge they’re hoping to gain.

As a copywriter, whenever I hear someone say “People don’t like to read,” here’s what I think they’re really trying to tell me: “Please, please, for god’s sake, please don’t write crap.”

I promise I’ll do my best.