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Decks That Work

Posted on Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 1:07 PM

They persuade you to care.

By Jan V. White

All those reasons why "people nowadays don't read" may well be true, but they are not a patch on the real question: "Why should I bother?"

Given the screaming for attention all around and the plethora of so-called information, the immediate reaction is "I don't have the time," which is a euphemism for "I don't care enough to make the time." Or that sneaky excuse, "I'll look at it tomorrow," which is an attempt to preserve self-respect while that stack of ‘to-be-reads' next to the bed grows -- until it is dragged away for recycling.

Self-interest -- "Hey, that's useful!" -- is the irresistible motivator for anyone to start reading. (Always has been. Two thousand years ago, the Romans had three words for it: Sine qua non. Without which, nothing.) Plain curiosity -- the "Wow!" factor -- works nearly as seductively.

The solution to handling our material in a way that maximizes the beguiling capacity of our thoughts and words lies in the way people examine stuff in print. First, they scan it fast, skipping around and searching for value-to-themselves. They are investing time, treasure, and effort -- and are ready (hoping) to be caught.

Our persuasion strategy must therefore have two simultaneous aims:

1. Speed. Exposing the topic so conspicuously, by hollering in type, that they can't miss it as they peck and flip pages.

2. Significance. Telegraphing the value-to-me of the content so it is appreciated at first glance.

Our material -- words in type -- is nothing else but speaking made visible.

This is just plain conversation:

What does it look like in type? Exactly like this article's monotonous text, which seems to flow on and on...

This is vocal emphasis:

Something vital and worth screaming? Headline, perhaps?

This is the inside scoop:

Explanation... persuasion...whatcha-oughta-know...aha! The DECK!

The "display" -- headlines and decks -- is that vital, fast verbal persuasion.

Here are the eight headline characteristics covered last month:

--Heads aren't just journalism, they are salesmanship.
--Heads are recognition signals; make them look the same.
--Heads must stand out by looking loud and aggressive.
--Heads should be set flush left, lines broken by sense-making phrase.
--Heads should slip off the page smoothly in all-lowercase.
--Heads can be in smaller type size but framed in space.
--Heads should not be in all-caps except for a few special words.
--Heads can have a key word or phrase popped out in color or size.

Headlines and decks work together.

Decks are the headlines' partners. They must be handled so that 1 + 1 = 3. Here are nine practical suggestions.

Suggestion #1 -- Emulate a Master

Study Time magazine, because it exploits decks brilliantly. I dislike the word "creative" because it is overused, but here it is the correct adjective. The decks fit into visual patterns (which help give the magazine its individuality as a product) and their wording is sharply honed (which yields a sense of active immediacy).

Suggestion #2 -- Repeated Words?

No! Please! Repeating is deadening and a turnoff. "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, then tell 'em, then tell 'em what you told 'em" was the cynical wise-guy journalism that went with fedoras hanging on the back of the head and green eyeshades. In today's rush, the headline proposes a basic idea and the deck points out its significance. Repetition of a phrase or idea in the headline, deck, and first paragraph slows down the article exactly where speed and clarity are of the essence.

Suggestion #3 -- Length

If they look too long and too heavy, they'll get skipped. No, there are no rules. The comfortable length varies. Self-test it. To swipe Larry Ragan's insight into our trade, "Would you read it if you hadn't written it?"

Suggestion #4 -- Type Font

Same as the headline or contrasting? Yes -- one or the other. The important factor is that it should be standard throughout the publication because it is an important personality signal, just like the headlines are. Time uses two versions, since they have a great many of them. Newsweek, which has fewer-but-longer stories, uses only one style. The goal: consistency for the sake of recognition.

Suggestion #5 -- Type Size

Smaller and paler in impact than the headlines, but obviously bigger than the text. Realize that heads and decks are seen and scanned at a greater distance from the eyes -- possibly even at arm's length. That is why they need to be larger as well as easily legible. Have ample line spacing between the lines.

Suggestion #6 -- Ragged-right

Where lines are short and must be justified, ugly gaps between words or even the characters are forced into the lines. Not only is the texture destroyed, but the rhythm of reading is tripped up. Both are inimical to smooth, easy reading. Setting lines ragged-right solves that annoying problem. Does justifying make it look like "poetry" to Management? Maybe, but it doesn't read like poetry, so forget that silly bugaboo.

Suggestion #7 -- Decks Can Appear Above Headlines

There is no law that specifies that decks must be placed beneath the headline. They can be written in such a way that they lead into the headline and can be logically placed above. Punctuation such as a colon (:) or ellipsis (...) can be used to indicate the relationship.

Furthermore, they can be set stacked in short, tight lines and placed alongside the text as unexpected contrast.

Suggestion #8 -- Synopses Are Not Decks

Those are compressed summaries intended for quick reference, information retrieval, and keyword search. Any whiff of "selling" is rejected. A formal look centered on the page is appropriate to their serious scholarly context.

Suggestion #9 -- Abstracts Are Not Decks

Those are conventional summaries restricted to some 120 words citing standardized structural elements in reviews or scientific reports (such as problem/method/result/conclusion). They are expected to be set in bolder or larger type than the text and placed as a first paragraph.

Jan V. White is a communication design consultant and author of Editing by Design (3rd Ed.), Allsworth Press, 2003. He may be reached at janvw2 [at] aol [dot] com.

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