Does Anyone Actually READ the Manual?

Once upon a time… not so long ago, people learned by reading or talking directly to other people. Commercial radio, television, videos, podcasts, the internet, didn’t exist 100 years ago.  People read for news and for entertainment. Frankly, there weren’t a lot of options.

Fast forward to the 1980s when cable TV and MTV in particular changed America’s (and probably most of the world’s) attention span. Videos of bands standing around playing their songs weren’t quite interesting enough. Videos started illustrating the story told by the song. Telling a story in under five minutes didn’t allow for much character or plot development. The story had to be told quickly and that is done by the use of short scenes to give you a quick, general idea of the message being relayed followed by a cut to the next scene.  Quick cuts.

Commercials, TV shows and movies followed suit. Think about it. We spent a lot of time in the squad room with Barney Miller and in the living room of Rob and Laura Petrie (you’d think he would have moved that footstool). Compare the pace of today’s TV shows or movies to a show created before 1980.

Books are the same way.  I recently worked my way through a John D. MacDonald novel published in 1984. It was a little over 400 pages comprised of 21 chapters. A week later, I read a current James Patterson novel of just under 400 pages with 124 chapters. 124 CHAPTERS!! That’s a new chapter every three pages. Quick cuts.

Now I’m going to throw in one little statistic that blew me away when I first read it:

Most readers don’t read past page 18 in a book.

Not coincidentally, this also correlates with the average time before someone disconnects from a podcast:  22 minutes.

Some writers might find that statistic disheartening. I look at it as a challenge – especially since I specialize in manuals and home study courses.

MurderThere’s a reason why detective books, movies and TV shows start off with a murder. It’s an attention grabber. Since I have yet to find a reason, much less a method of killing off a character in the first three pages of any how-to manual I write (mostly because there aren’t any characters to speak of, much less one that is expendable), I have to grab the reader’s attention in some other way. That could be talking about the results readers will have if they follow the directions in the manual or giving them some activity to do right away so they feel they are already making progress. 

50 pages into MacDonald, you’re on Chapter 4 and slogging through. 50 pages into Patterson, you’re already on Chapter 17. Look at your progress! My, you’re a fast reader! It may be crude psychology, but it works. People like to think they are getting somewhere, moving forward in the process. In my mind, I think they deserve to feel good about keeping at it and making progress. I am okay with that.

So how do I do that?

I break up the text with pictures, charts, worksheets and break out boxes. Even avid readers need breaks when working through non-fiction. It’s the nature of the beast that people don’t read manuals straight through. I once had a client growl at me, “Does anybody really read these things?” I looked him in the eye and said, “Nope.”  (His deposit had already cleared my account.)  “But a manual does a couple of things for your students. First, it literally gives them something to hold, tangibly, in their hot little hands. They got something for their money. Second and more importantly, it holds the answers to their questions. This does two things. It gives them reassurance and confidence, and they now have something to refer to when they need an answer to a specific problem. They might never read the entire manual, but they’ll read the parts they need.”

I have spoken before about using different modalities to reach more of your market. People learn by reading, listening, watching, doing. Home study courses that incorporate videos (or audios) along with a manual cover a large part of your market. A quick start guide puts your reader into action mode. The manual gives him more details if he runs into an obstacle.

All of these components work together to help your client get the information he needs to be successful. In the end, that is why they bought your course or book and why you are sharing your knowledge: to put information into the hands of the people who need it in the easiest way for them to understand and use.  After that, it is up to them.