Are there any audiences less forgiving than readers on the web? Many content writers ask themselves this question on a regular basis, and their assumptions aren’t far off.
According to data collected by publishing intelligence firm Chartbeat, a majority of users (55%) spend less than 15 seconds on a web page before moving on to the next one. Dang! Talk about the importance of a first impression.
After reading this report and reflecting on how hard it can be to hook and engage online readers, I was reminded of another audience with even less patience than readers on the web: the Dark Lord of the Sith himself, Darth Vader.
After all, who could forget how quickly the iconic Star Wars villain dismisses information he deems inconsequential or subordinates who have lost his confidence. If you equate “bounce rates” to “being strangled to death with the Force” then the parallels are actually pretty hard to ignore.
It’s important to note that much like Imperial officers, content writers are enthusiastic about providing their audience with valuable information. Unfortunately, our eagerness to please and grand designs for our copy sometimes can get in the way of providing the audience with the answers they are actually looking for.
So let’s take a closer look at how a handful of Star Wars characters meet their demise at the hands of Darth Vader and see what their deaths can teach us about the wrong ways to engage with a demanding audience.
Don’t Mislead Your Reader
Though technically a member of the Rebel Alliance, Captain Raymus Antilles has the distinction of being that very first person we see being throttled by Lord Vader in the opening minutes of “A New Hope.” He is quite bold in telling Vader that his ship is merely on a harmless “diplomatic mission,” considering the last scene of “Rogue One” features the Sith Lord watching them jettison away from the docks of Vader’s personal flagship. And to be fair, he isn’t lying, from a certain point of view.
However, his word choice certainly isn’t intended to guide his audience to the truth. In this way, Captain Antilles provides a great example of what happens when you underestimate the intelligence of your audience.
As a content writer, you may sometimes feel tempted to quote data or a report that doesn’t entirely support your argument. You may be in a rush to meet a deadline or feeling frustrated with the research process, and settle on quoting evidence that, at best, has some tangential relevance to the point you are making in your copy. This is the way of the Dark Side.
Taking this approach assumes that your reader not only knows less than you about your subject, but also lacks the presence of mind to check your references. If you’re found out, your credibility with your audience is shot for good and your reputation as a writer is put into jeopardy.
While this outcome may be less dramatic than your trachea being crushed by Darth Vader’s prosthetic metal hand, the consequences of misleading your audience are very real.
Don’t Get Personal or Political
Admiral Conan Motti gets choked about 30 minutes into “A New Hope” during a debate among Imperial officers aboard the Death Star about how to deal with those dastardly rebels. Ignore the fact that Admiral Motti’s extreme skepticism of the Force makes absolutely no sense given that the Jedi Council was the galaxy’s most influential nonprofit just 20 years prior. Instead, focus on his obvious misstep in anticipating the experience of his audience.
Admiral Motti might have been able to persuade Vader to his side if he had stuck to verifiable claims about the military and strategic value of the Death Star. Instead, he allowed his own personal distaste for Vader’s religious background to color his rhetoric.
As copywriters, we should always be aware of how our personal biases can influence how we write and what we write about.
First and foremost, we must remember that we are representatives of our clients. Part of our responsibility is to make sure the client’s voice and perspective trump our own when producing copy for their website or a digital asset.
We must also acknowledge the potential for our personal biases to color our writing, and that our readers are capable of seeing through our mistakes. After all, an easy way to lose your audience is to make them feel like your copy is antagonistic toward something they hold dear. If that audience includes an evil space wizard, you might lose your audience and get choked to death.
Don’t Expect a Fair Shake
If you’ve been writing for the web for any period of time, you’re well aware of the importance of the opening line. Hooking readers is key to keeping them on the page. At the same time, a carefully curated opening line can do wonders to disarm a personal bias that might prevent a reader from fully engaging with the rest of your page.
Admiral Kendal Ozzel demonstrates life-threatening ignorance of these principles in his abrupt conversation with Lord Vader in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Remember that shortly before Vader summons Admiral Ozzel onto video chat, the Sith Lord had been stewing in his personal chambers over the officer’s tactical blunders during the siege of Hoth.
It seems pretty clear that Vader is Facetiming the admiral specifically to choke him to death with the Force and promote his nearby subordinate. If Ozzel had any chance of avoiding his grisly fate, it would have to be with his opening line.
Unfortunately, Ozzel did not anticipate that his audience was entering the conversation under the influence of a powerful negative bias. He led with a bland, predictable opening that probably encouraged Vader to snuff him out that much faster. More importantly, he lacked sufficient familiarity with his audience to anticipate these negative feelings and subvert Vader’s expectations.
We as content writers must learn from Ozzel’s errors if we have any hope of improving bounce rates and user engagement on our pages. The opening line matters.
Don’t Fail to Deliver
Organization and delivery are key to producing high-quality content. These qualities are equally critical when it comes to designing and manufacturing an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Director Orson Krennic learns this lesson the hard way during “Rogue One” after reoccurring spells of incompetence lead him to a potentially deadly encounter with the Sith Lord.
As content writers, we can draw out a few useful nuggets of information by examining Krennic’s near-death-by-Force experience with Vader.
First and foremost, it is clear from Vader’s tone that Krennic had under-delivered in the past with regard to the development of the Death Star. As a result, the trust of his audience (Darth Vader and, more importantly, Emperor Palpatine) had already began to erode.
Content writers can likewise compromise the goodwill of their audience by promising one thing in titles and headers then failing to follow through in the copy.
Second, Krennic’s first reaction when confronted with feedback from his audience was to deny wrongdoing and deflect blame. This course of action results in him being strangled by a mystical energy field that controls his destiny.
Similarly, content writers have a choice when they fail to live up to the standards of their audience. They can either run from blame or take responsibility and commit to improvement.
(Don’t remember Darth Vader’s affinity for choking insubordinate members of the Empire – both by hand and by Force? Watch a “highlight reel” here.)
We’ve discussed in detail all the wrong ways to approach your audience as a content writer. But what can we take away as far as positive examples? Unfortunately, the Galactic Empire is such a dysfunctional workplace that it’s extremely difficult to find positive examples within the organization of successful, consistent communication.
Instead, I’ve devised a simple mnemonic device to help fellow content writers remember the lessons we’ve learned from the Empire’s finest:
By following the DARTH Standard, content writers can feel confident that their copy will meet the needs and expectations of their audience. Writers will have to continue to adapt their tone and style to each client, but approaching this challenge with the right mindset will make it much easier to engage your audience before they make the jump back into hyperspace.
Got some of your own tips for managing your audience’s demanding expectations? Reach out with the Force and leave a comment below!