By Ann Gynn published October 31, 2019

5 Writing Tricks to Treat Your Audiences

Do you view numbers as something akin to Frankenstein’s monster? Does the thought of doing math send you running into the night to escape hideous calculations?

I often hear content marketers say, “I went into writing (or a creative field) to avoid numbers.”

To help you get over the fear, you need an “exercism” – a workout that will train your writing muscles to wrest all benefits from numbers. (If you missed the two earlier writing workouts, How to Make Your Writing More Powerful and 5 More Exercises to Make Your Writing Powerful, add them to your routine before the end of the year.)

But before we begin, please do one thing. Replace that picture in your head of the green, hideous monster with bolts in his neck with the magical, perfectly pleasant Glinda, the Good Witch. She can inspire you to craft spells of better content with story magic that will both entertain and illuminate your readers.

1. Turn numbers into people

ORIGINAL: Over 80% of dentists surveyed recommend sugarless gum.

REVISED: Four of five dentists recommend sugarless gum.

WHAT CHANGED: The revision converts the percentage to the number of dentists.

WHY: Translating percentages into numbers of people (or things) allows the reader to better visualize who or what is being counted or affected.

Translate percentages into numbers to allow readers to visualize who/what is being counted, says @AnnGynn via @cmicontent. #writingtips Click To Tweet

TIP: Every time you write a percentage, ask whether the story would be more powerful if readers envisioned the person or thing being measured. If so, you can simply say the “percent number” out of 100.

In the example above, it could have said 80 of 100 dentists. But that big number is still hard to visualize, so simple math can reduce the percentage to the smallest whole number. The phrase “four of five dentists” is much more relatable – readers may visualize where their dentist would be among the five.

2. Use percentages to show pervasiveness or lack of pervasiveness

ORIGINAL: About 8 million American workers use public transportation to travel to their workplace.

REVISED: About 5% of American workers use public transportation to travel to their workplace.

WHAT CHANGED: Instead of quantifying the number of people, a percentage was used.

WHY: If you want to show how common or uncommon something is, citing a percentage can be more effective. In this example, 8 million people sounds like a lot. A reader could be impressed by the number. But when the 5% is used, the reader realizes that relatively few workers use public transportation.

If you want to show commonality (or lack thereof), use a percent figure, says @AnnGynn via @cmicontent. #writingtips Click To Tweet

TIP: If you want to show commonality (or lack thereof), use a percent figure. Now, if you want to demonstrate pervasiveness (or lack thereof) AND put it in real people/things terms, use both a percentage and a number. About 5% (8 million) American workers use public transportation.

3. Count down

ORIGINAL: The best movie of 2018 is Death of Stalin. Read on for my second through 10th place picks.

REVISED: The 10th best movie of 2018 is Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Read my countdown to discover what leads up to the year’s first place winner.

WHAT CHANGED: The original piece from CBS News counted in sequential order, while the version from Vanity Fair started with the highest number and counted down to No. 1.

WHY: If you reveal the best right away, readers don’t need to continue reading to see the payoff – what is No. 1 on the list.

TIP: Use the countdown effect to create suspense for your reader. Readers appreciate and expect a payoff (a la David Letterman’s Top 10 lists). But don’t just write a list that could appear on the same screen. Craft compelling content that prompts the visitor to keep scrolling.

A countdown creates suspense for your readers and keeps them scrolling, says @AnnGynn via @cmicontent. #writingtips Click To Tweet

BONUS TIP: And if you want reasons to do top 10 lists, check out the Top Things About Top 10 Lists published by The New York Times a few years ago. (And see which method the author uses to reveal them.)

4. Count up

ORIGINAL: Building a new home is an exciting opportunity. To get it in move-in condition, you must pick your interior paint colors, buy the roofing materials, get it framed, and build a strong foundation.

REVISED: Building a new home is an exciting opportunity. To get it in move-in condition, you must:

  1. Build a strong foundation
  2. Get it framed
  3. Buy the roofing materials
  4. Pick your interior paint colors

WHAT CHANGED: The to-do list mirrors the order in which they need to be completed – they’re in sequential order.

WHY: By incorporating the 1, 2, 3, your readers can easily see how the big picture comes together and/or follow it themselves.

TIP: If you’re educating your reader on a process or informing them on how to do something, use numbers. Writers often use outlines to craft their content. Outlines are really a formal numbering system. If you think it makes sense to do an outline, it may make sense to do a sequential list.

BONUS TIP: Even if you don’t have a process or a top list to share, think about using numbers. Labeling ideas with numbers – and noting that in the headline – creates an expectation for the reader on how much they’ll learn. Plus, a numerical list is easier to scan. Readers who are familiar with some tips can move on to the next.

Labeling ideas with numbers – & noting that in the headline – creates an expectation for the reader on how much they’ll learn. @AnnGynn via @cmicontent #writingtips Click To Tweet

5. Sell the story in 150 to 160 characters

ORIGINAL: Dressing up in costumes and trick or treating are popular Halloween activities, but few probably associate these lighthearted fall traditions with their origins.

REVISED: Few probably associate the lighthearted traditions of Halloween with their origins in Samhain, an ancient Celtic pagan festival.

WHAT CHANGED: In the original, the lede became the de-facto meta description. In the revision, a meta description tailored for search was written.

WHY: The intent of a searcher often is different than the intent of the on-page visitor. While the lede should be written to grab the attention of a reader, a meta description should be written to capture the attention of a searcher. (And if there isn’t a meta description, Google often showcases the beginning of the article.)

A lede grabs the reader’s attention. A meta description captures a searcher’s attention, says @AnnGynn via @cmicontent. #writingtips #SEO Click To Tweet

TIP: The act of writing a succinct, intent-based meta description (150 to 160 characters) before writing the article allows you to recognize what the focus of the piece should be.

Overcome your fear of numbers

Now there, that wasn’t so bad, was it? You’ve got five non-scary ways to use numbers in your content that will benefit your audiences.

Just think of the magic you can create – you can turn numbers into people and things into numbers. You can conjure up countdowns that create suspense and spells to help people get things done. And finally, you can help conquer the Google monster and get the right content in front of your audience.

And all that can happen without a magic calculator.

Exercise every weekday to strengthen your content marketing. Subscribe – and read – the free CMI newsletter. 

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Ann Gynn

Ann Gynn edits the CMI blog. She also serves as the Tech Tools editor for Chief Content Officer magazine. Ann regularly combines words and strategy for B2B, B2C, and nonprofits, continuing to live up to her high school nickname, Editor Ann. Former college adjunct faculty, Ann also helps train professionals in content so they can do it themselves. Follow Ann on Twitter @anngynn or connect on LinkedIn.

Other posts by Ann Gynn

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