How Not to Waste Your Audience’s Time


The average human lifespan is 75 years, or 657,000 hours. That is not very long, especially considering almost a third of those hours are spent sleeping. And unlike the money we spend, the hours of our lives can never be replenished.

So when you produce something for an audience, remember that you are asking them to give you a treasure: their time. To help you maximize your audience’s precious resource, here are some tips to consider. I hope reading them will be time well spent.

Keep it simple. Elaborate sentence structure and complex imagery are well-suited for certain works of art—but probably not for professional communications. (The Economist has an excellent style guide for this purpose.)

Consider the news. Most news organizations write copy at a level suited for middle schoolers. This isn’t because news audiences are stupid. It is because audiences are busy. Most consumers of news do not want to take time to appreciate intricate writing or visuals. They just want to be informed.

Chop until you drop. Most paragraphs and sentences you write can likely be shorter. Most videos do not need to be as long as they are. And does that PowerPoint deck truly need 30 slides?

William Faulkner once said: “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” We are naturally attached to content we create—in part because of the time we spend creating it. But if you are serious about saving your audience’s time, you must put aside this attachment. Hunt down every spare word and second of your work. If it doesn’t serve a purpose, delete it.

But don’t lose your point. Simplicity must be in service of communication. Many government documents need to be complex, whether by law or because the nature of the subject. If you shave too much content off your work, you may fail to communicate vital points to your audience.

For example, many people are bewildered by the U.S. tax code. Many Americans would likely appreciate a “plain English” explanation for how taxes work. But they would not be well-served by an oversimplified explanation that skips over such details as tax credits and deductions.

And even when you do convey all the relevant facts, shorter is not necessarily better. You may need to present several forms of support to build a case, or to explain an unfamiliar process. Some amount of repetition may help your audience retain knowledge—which can, of course, save them more time in the long run.

It’s not about seconds—it’s about respect. If you try to produce and edit content with the sole intent of shaving off words or seconds, you may well end up with something incomprehensible. Instead, focus on the big picture, and always ask yourself the question—am I respecting my audience’s time?

Everyone has their own concepts of an hour wasted and an hour well spent. Many people waste quite a bit of time at work, or feel that meetings are a waste of time. But these choices and sentiments are out of our control. What we can control is the quality of our own work—and the time it takes for audiences to consume it. Use their time well.

Adnan Mahmud is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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