One of the questions that frequently pops up in class when we’re talking about organizing written material is, “Does the most important thing come first, or last? I was always taught that you’re supposed to put the most important thing at the end. Because that’s the last thing they read, they’ll remember it. Is that correct?”
Well, no, yes, and it all depends. Here’s my take on the question:
1. No. But it all depends. The supposition here – that the most important point should be in the last paragraph – assumes that your readers will read the entire piece, all the way to the end. And, I suppose, there was a time that this might have been the case. Long ago. Before the Internet became the major source of information for many, if not most readers. Long ago, before the apparent development of the new “digital brain,” changed our physiological reading process.
Today’s reader, what Marianne Wolf, Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist calls the “scanning and skimming” reader, does not read with traditional deep reading skills. (Click this link to read the May 4, 2014 blog post.) Today’s reader “…may click on a promising link, look for a juicy tidbit or two, and skim off to the next.”
This process, speculate cognitive neuroscientists, is changing the traditional reading process into “scanning and skimming” for paper reading as well as for reading online.
With these thoughts in mind, it appears highly unlikely there is any certainty that today’s reader will even get around to reading the last paragraph. In fact here’s what many studies show:
Readers read with varying amounts of attention to various parts of the piece throughout the entire process. Maybe 80% here, 15% there, 36% the next place. Our best chance/the best place to get the reader’s 100% attention to any part of our writing comes, with one exception, to the first paragraph.
That exception is when we have the opportunity to write a cutline – a caption for a visual element, such as a picture, graph, or diagram. That caption has a likely probability of scoring somewhere around 100%.
2. Yes – well, kinda. So yes, the last thing one reads is the most likely to stick with him or her. But the point here is that for today’s reader, it’s very likely that the last thing he or she reads – with 100% attention –will most likely be that first paragraph!
So…Lead with your most important information, right there in the first paragraph. It couldn’t hurt to work it into the final paragraph as well. Who knows, someone might read that far, and it would be a great reinforcement – even if only at a lesser attention level!
Let Gail Tycer show you how to write less, say more – and get results! Bring a Gail Tycer business writing workshop to your organization, or recommend Gail for your next meeting. Executive coaching, consulting, and writing and editing services are also available. To see how we might work together, call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email firstname.lastname@example.org