So this happened today.
A couple of months ago I wrote a post inspired by a piece in Slate all about literal titles and how they may or may not destroy narratives. We got around to talking about the Slate article and my interpretation of it during a team meeting at work today. It was a really interesting chat – one that covered a lot of ground and ultimately ended with me declaring “the internet sucks” just as time elapsed and we all went back to our work.
Cheery proclamation for a web consultant, no?
Anyway, I wouldn’t do the discussion proper service if I tried to capture it all here. Suffice to say, we spent some time pondering the role of things like SEO and intuitive labeling in a world where the volume of content published far exceeds our own ability to digest it all. It dovetailed with my previous post but took on some other dimensions as well, which ultimately prompted the outburst described above.
On further reflection, my objection really isn’t to the internet itself, of course. That rage is really just a manifestation of something I’ve long known about myself.
I really, really like words.
I love the way an artfully-turned phrase can elicit wonderfully nuanced reactions. I love the way that good storytellers use language to draw you into their narratives. The best know how to give you just enough context to serve as a common baseline but leave gaps so the audience can inject their own reality.
Wherein the author picks the easiest contrast in the world to make his point
Compare, for example, pretty much any song from The Weakerthans‘ extensive catalog of awesomeness with, say, Rebecca Black’s “Friday” (easy target, I know, but I’m citing the extreme example to make the point more digestible).
The Weakerthans’ John K. Samson is more poet than songwriter, crafting these really beautiful descriptions but somehow leaving enough room for you, the listener, to inject yourself in his words. Even as he describes something as specific as commuters biting their gloves off to hand over a bus transfer (how Canadian is that image, by the way) he still somehow makes it possible to imagine you’re the jilted bus driver in “Civil Twilight.” Or the heartbroken Greenpeace shill in “Pamphleteer.” Or the curler in “Tournament of Hearts.”
Then there’s Rebecca Black. Literally describing each and every step in its most banal form.
Both artists (ahem) are telling stories. Both take fairly classic narrative formats. But only one seems to make you part of their story.
The numbers don’t lie
And I guess that’s where we come back to my first post, the Slate article and the spirited discussion around the meeting room table.
As it becomes easier and easier to publish, more and more people are taking the opportunity to do so. And as companies and organizations follow suit, they spend more and more time thinking about how to cut through the clutter. Time and attention are a precious commodity and so conventional wisdom is to front-load your messaging. Get them there with a title that makes a promise that’s easy to keep, then deliver before they lose interest and move on to the next item in their newsfeed.
There’s no incentive to take a risk. To deviate from the expected. In fact, not only is there no incentive, there’s an active disincentive in the form of bounce rates, low time on page numbers and the dreaded abandoned conversion.
It’s safe and, more importantly, it’s measurable.
I can’t stay mad at you, internet
So is that it? Do we throw in the towel and accept that A|B testing of calls to action has forever replaced the sweet satisfaction of leaving some sort of kicker that rewards the reader for having read your work to the end?
Tempting as it is, the reality is that this isn’t a new problem. The internet didn’t invent this debate and while it seems the pendulum has swung decidedly to one side, the reality is that it is indeed a pendulum and things will even out at some point.
In fact, even the pendulum metaphor makes it too stark a contrast; too blatantly black and white. I believe it’s still possible to craft stories that cater to both interests. An intuitive title doesn’t preclude a whimsical or artistic approach to the content. The challenge is to force ourselves to be better than simply falling back to what’s easy.
So every once in a while, delight your readers. Throw them a bone for making it to the end.
We long-form advocates will win them back one kicker at a time.