The words you use have real impact. Forget all that nonsense you hear about words being unimportant and that body language and tone of voice are the most important features of communications. It’s tosh. After all, you have no real idea of my body language or my tone as you read this. You only have the words to go on.
And so it is true for all your web site visitors as well. Even though the pictures on your page may entice them to stay a while, it is the words that count. But which words? New research on how we process words when reading suggests that you need to use plenty of big words, rather than small ones.
This doesn’t mean you need complex words, it just means you need to use words that represent big things more frequently. Researchers at the University of Glasgow have found that if the word we are looking at represents a big object we process it faster than a word that resembles a small object. For instance, your brain will be able to understand the word “elephant” more quickly than it will be able to get the word “bacteria”. Even though both these words have the same number of characters, your brain will have processed “elephant” faster than “bacteria”.
It seems that when the word represents something big, we are able to conjure up the necessary mental images more quickly than if the word represents something small. So, for instance, you will be able to process the word “whale” more quickly than the word “bug” – even though “whale” has almost twice as many letters.
Clearly, the context of the word carries some importance too, but in general terms this research is significant for the kind of words you could be using on your web pages. Online you need to get people to read quickly. Generally, that means writing at a reading age appropriate to young children – this article, for instance, has a reading age of 12 (and that’s higher than my usual writing). However, this new study points to the fact that the images the words convey are also important in getting the speed of reading up.
For instance, imagine you are using your web site to sell some kind of service. If you were to describe your attention to detail as “microscopic” that would be slower for your readers to handle than describing yourself as someone who focuses on errors like a “searchlight”. You make the same point, but one gets your message across more quickly than the other.
So when you are writing articles, web pages, headlines or even Tweets for Twitter, consider using words that convey big pictures. That way you will boost the speed with which people are able to read and understand your material, making it more acceptable.