How to turn scanners into readers

Last week I beat up on the idea of making your emails easy to scan by using formatting like section headers and bolding to make the main ideas stand out.

Scannable emails encourage scanning.

Instead you want to make your emails looking inviting to read, like the page of a good novel.

Well, here's a caveat to that:

No matter what, some people WILL immediately go into scanning mode on you, especially if it's on the longer side.

And ironically, you can use formatting to help grab their attention and get them reading again.

“Huh? But you just said… Wh… How?”

Here's the truth:

When someone starts scanning an email, it means that whatever they've seen so far isn't grabbing their attention.

Maybe the lead wasn't super interesting for them.

Maybe they're really distracted right now.

Basically they're doing a quick scan to make sure they aren't missing anything by skipping the rest of the email.

What you want to do, then, is throw something in their way that pulls them back into the flow.

One example of this would be bolding a line that's a pivotal moment in a story.

Or turning an intriguing and counter-intuitive statement into a section header.

When you do this, it's almost like you're creating a second, third or fourth subject line to try to hook them in to read the whole thing.

I've seen this happen on screen recordings of people reading my long-form sales pages.

They're scanning, scanning, scanning, and suddenly they pause to read a subheadling… And then frantically scroll back to the top and start reading again.

See how this is different than giving your reader an easy “cheat path” that makes them feel like they're getting all the goodies out of your email without actually reading it?

(That sentence is an example of something you could bold for scanners. Note how the sentence is incomplete. If you hadn't read the preceding paragraphs, you'd be tempted to go back to see what the heck I was talking about.)

Here's a couple of simplified guidelines to keep in mind:

Early in the email, you want to get them reading. Formatting “above the fold” can be distracting and encourage scanning.

Further down, you can consider using formatting to highlight attention-grabbing bits—especially incomplete ideas that direct a scanner's attention to what comes before.

Avoid formatting that highlights all of the important parts and makes reading your email seem like a waste of time.