This guest post is from one of our regular contributors Dan Bruneau. Here he explains some of the best ways to write for mobile devices and the research behind why you need to adapt for your audience and how they consume information.

More people than ever read on their mobile devices

I winced inwardly a few years ago when I realized I was reading most of my news on my cell phone. As someone who came of age writing and editing for print media, it was disconcerting to find I had allowed myself to depend so much on a device I could carry in my pocket.

Fortunately, I found comfort in knowing I had plenty of company.  A study released last year by the Pew Research Center found that 86 percent of adults in the U.S. said they get news from a smartphone, computer or tablet “sometimes” or “often,” and 60 percent said they do so “often.”

The numbers were significantly lower for other media.  Only 40 percent said they get news from TV often, only 16 percent from radio and only 10 percent from print publications.

This and other research on brought me to a real “duh-uh” moment.  If our audience is reading primarily on mobile devices (phones, tablets and laptop computers), shouldn’t we be writing with that in mind?

Write for your readers

During my career,  the inverted pyramid—writing from the general to the specific--became second nature to me.  

I still recommend it as a tool in my writing classes because it is helpful in organizing longer pieces likely read in hard copy or on a large screen.  However, it won’t serve you well for readers using phones, tablets and laptops, for reasons such as:

  • Less content is visible on mobile devices.
  • Readers scan more and read less on such devices.
  • Scrolling may quickly become tiresome.
  • Images can be smaller and less compelling.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, reader comprehension is lower.

Scientists are studying why comprehension is reduced, but for our immediate purpose it’s enough to know it’s a real problem we must address as communicators.

Our objective is to communicate our messages effectively, so we write for our readers, not because we’ve always done it a certain way or to gratify our egos.  How do we do that for users of mobile devices?

Mobile devices affect how we can best reach audiences

Same objective, different strategy

Stacks of research papers show very few readers finish online articles and substantial numbers bail much earlier.  By using a more layered approach than the traditional inverted pyramid, we can ensure we get at least our basic messages to readers who don’t go beyond the headline and reward those who do with additional information.

Here’s an example:

Rural Veterans Get PTSD Care Near Home
Study Tests VA Telehealth in Remote Areas

The headline and deck convey the gist of the story to readers who go no further.  The lede that followed offered a bit more detail and reinforced the headline:

A study at 12 Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) clinics is evaluating whether remotely delivered psychotherapy for PTSD is as safe and effective as care delivered in person.

Then a nut graph provided context:

John Smith is one of nearly 700 rural veterans participating in the study.  He hopes it proves remote therapy can help eliminated the need for rural veterans to travel to VA medical centers—hundreds of miles in some cases—for treatment.

From there, the story elaborated on the time, expense and stress associated with traveling for medical care.  Subsections that followed explained the design and goals of the study, provided background on VA’s PTSD care and directed interested readers to more detailed information.

I’m sure most of you can see this is not a complicated shift.  It’s just a different way to structure content that considers the way today’s readers receive information.

Standing the Test of Time

An additional benefit of this layered approach to writing, at least for me, is it still allows use of the techniques learned early in my career for making content more user-friendly.  Writers and editors still can and generally should use:

  • Simple language of an appropriate level for the target audience
  • Short paragraphs of 1-2 sentences
  • Bold-faced text
  • Bulleted lists
  • Subheads to break up blocks of text and assist readers who scan

These all are as helpful online just as they are on the printed page.

Adjusting how we organize our writing is merely another challenge presented by changing technology and audience behavior.  As professional government communicators, we all have good stories to tell about our agencies.

We will continue to share those stories effectively as long as we adapt to serve our readers. 


Find more about Dan Bruneau here and connect with him on LinkedIn. Dan is managing director of Bruneau & Associates, a consulting firm in communications and professional development.

June 29, 2022
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