Subscribe to Annie's Substack

Q&A with Todd Rogers, Harvard behavioral scientist and coauthor of “Writing for Busy Readers: Communicate More Effectively in the Real World”

Why the biggest mistake we make is to try to write well when our job is actually to write effectively, which means writing in a way that makes it easy for the reader

Todd Rogers is a Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. In just a decade and a half, he has contributed to a remarkable amount of game-changing research on behavioral interventions encouraging energy conservation, increasing voter turnout, and improving school attendance, just to name a few.

He has also cofounded two social enterprises: the Analyst Institute which focuses on improving voter communications, and EveryDay Labs which partners with school districts to reduce student absenteeism. He is coauthor, with Jessica Lasky-Fink, of Writing for Busy Readers: Communicate More Effectively in the Real World, which comes out today, September 5, 2023.

This book will make me a better writer, helping me to get my message out more effectively. And I am confident it will help you, too.

Thinking in Bets is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

The (unexpected) path through behavioral science research to insights about writing

Annie: Your work is in public policy and behavioral science. You are not a writing teacher or in the English department. Can we start by talking about your academic and research background, so we can better understand how you became the coauthor of a book on writing?

Todd Rogers: I started as a political pollster and realized there was a science of behavior change not being used in politics. So, I went to Harvard to get my PhD basically in the science of behavior change.

But I left early. I withdrew to move to Washington to start a research institute called the Analyst Institute, where we translate behavioral science insights into political strategy using large-scale field experiments, things like persuasion, fundraising, volunteer recruitment, get out the vote. All of it was about communicating to busy voters. And the Analyst Institute is still the hub of data science and behavioral science on the left.

Then, I decided I wanted to do education, and so I shifted back to academia and shifted my research program to how we mobilize and empower families and social networks to support kids outside of school. Similar to mobilizing voters, now we’re mobilizing families. In the process, we started EveryDay Labs, an organization that reduces absenteeism in K-12 school districts around the country. It sends millions of communications every year and runs dozens of randomized experiments on how we communicate to busy families about reducing absenteeism and getting kids to school.

Then, during the pandemic, the work entirely shifted, but seems to have the same theme, which is now about advising state and local leaders on communicating to busy constituents and stakeholders. Over time, Jessica Lasky-Fink and I realized that there are a small number of powerful tools that are backed by a lot of behavioral research on how we write to get through to busy people.

The big TL;DR takeaway is the easier we make it for our readers, the more effective our writing is and the kinder it is.

Annie: You worked for a long time, I think a decade, on Get Out the Vote. What was the number one change that you were able to implement that had the biggest impact on getting people to vote?

Todd Rogers: I’d say the most powerful thing, that is almost universally used now, is prompting people to make a voting plan. When you talk with people, almost 95% say they intend to vote, but then about half of them actually follow through. It turns out that when people say they intend to vote, it makes a big impact on whether they follow through by also asking them, “What time will you vote? How will you get there? Where will you be coming from?” Adding that planning battery more than doubles the effectiveness of the Get Out the Vote contact. It has now been so widely adopted, it’s almost universally part of messaging for every campaign. Make a plan to vote. But at the time it was not a part of anything.

I think that we can relate that to writing. The reason it works is some people really do intend to vote and fail to follow through because there are a lot of taxes on people’s attention. What tools do we have to make it easier for people to follow through on such an intention? With voting, that’s about helping them go through the cognitive process of thinking through, “What time will I leave? How how do I make cues so that I remember the right time?”

The way busyness and distractedness manifest themselves in busy readers is in not reading at all and skipping or skimming what they’re reading. Making writing easier for readers cognitively makes it more likely that in this case we’ll achieve a goal of them understanding what we’re trying to say.

Annie: Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t there also an aspect of your work on absenteeism about maximizing the impact of the teacher’s or school’s communication with parents?

Todd Rogers: Having run a bunch of experiments, I think it’s about capturing parents’ attention long enough to deliver the key message. The key message in education for attendance is that parents lose track of how many days their kid has been absent. My kid has missed 20 days, but I think my kid has missed 10. Easy to correct that. And when you do correct it, they become much more motivated to get their kid to school.

But a written message that is inaccessible or punitive or hard to read is just not going to get through. It’s going to get thrown away instantly, so you don’t even get the first three seconds of attention they’re going to give you.

Annie: As we ask, “Why is this dude writing a book on writing?”, it seems like there’s a line, running through your research program for a long time, to try to figure out how to break through, to get people’s attention.

We all get tons of emails. I get texts from a billion things I didn’t even know I signed up for. I get tons of political communications in my email. You have had to figure out how to actually get somebody to stop and read your messaging. How to capture their attention when there is so much competition for it.

Now that I think about it, you might actually might be the foremost expert on getting people people’s attention because you’ve had to refine how you do that within the research that you’ve done in other areas.

Todd Rogers: Yes to that. I have thought about it as what everything I’ve ever done professionally has been about, how do we communicate to people whose job is not to read and respond to me? I like your term, “break through.” How do we get through to people when we are not their top priority?

Often, we think about the content of the message, the persuasion principles. But what I realized is that the first step is, do we capture and maintain their attention long enough to get to that next step of delivering our message?

The most common version of reading, which is not engaging at all, is not doing it.

Basically, when we are not people’s top priority, how do we get through to them? Whether we are cold communicating to them, or even warm where we have a relationship with them personally or professionally, we’re in their queue of things that they have to get done. But they’re just not going to view our messages, read what we write, read our reports, or respond to our messages as the first thing they do, or do it quickly.

What’s the biggest mistake writers make communicating with busy readers?

Annie: Now we’ve figured out why we should be paying attention to your book. You actually are an expert on this. You lay out in the book six principles for great writing. Before we talk about the principles, what would you say the biggest mistake is? I’m writing, I’m trying to communicate to you, I may have asks in there, I may be communicating information to you, whatever it is that the content of the email or the flyer or the text is. What’s the biggest mistake that I’m going to make?

Todd Rogers: Writing in a way that would please your English teacher in high school means writing well. Full stop. The biggest mistake is that we think that our job is to write well when our job is actually to write effectively, which means writing in a way that makes it easy for the reader. Everything flows from that.

I honestly think that it’s the big goal of everything that I’m working on now. The book is the intellectual center, but everything else is built around it. How do we get everyone writing anything to have a round of editing where they ask, “How do I make it easier for the reader?” That’s different than the writer asking, “How do I make this written better so that it reads well?” Because that’s just not how people are reading it.

Annie: What’s a common way that we think we’re writing well, and how we would change it to writing effectively?

Todd Rogers: The easiest thing to do is to step back and ask, “What is not absolutely necessary?” The most common mistake in writing is probably including too much. This is true for reports and memos and briefings just as much as it is for a text message and an email.

One of my favorite parts of teaching is teaching executive education for government leaders. At one point while teaching this, somebody raised their hand who was an assistant secretary in another country. He told a story about when there was a crisis in their country. The secretary, at the request of the president, asked this person to write a memo telling me what’s going on, and he spent a week writing 10 beautiful and complete pages.

The chief of staff instantly was like, “There is zero chance the president is going to read this. Please summarize it in two paragraphs, preferably one.” I asked the whole class, “Has anyone else experienced this?” Every single person raised their hand. They’ve all had this experience of thinking that their job is to be complete in the writing without accommodating the reality that the reader has lots of other priorities.

One easy thing to do is ask yourself, after writing everything you think you should include, “How much of this is absolutely necessary versus how much of this is useful but not necessary?” Then, you have a judgment call. There is not a right answer. The goal is not to eliminate all useful but not necessary content, but it is to be aware that the more content you add, the less likely it is someone is going to read it at all. There’s just a tradeoff all the way down.

Principle 1: Less is More

Annie: This brings us to principle number one, Less is More, which is about using fewer words and including fewer ideas, along with making fewer requests. When we think about cutting out ideas and cutting out words, that definitely goes to, “Don’t write 10 pages.” But I think we worry that people aren’t going to get the complete picture, that maybe what we write isn’t going to be coherent.

How strong is this tradeoff in terms of getting people to actually pay attention to what you’re writing? How much should we want to be doing less and not worring so much about whether we’re getting every little detail in there?

Todd Rogers: Great question. It depends on your goals as a writer and your understanding of the reader’s goals and the priority that they’re going to give your writing. But I can tell you two quick examples. One, I did an experiment where we were writing to 7,000 school board members, most of whom were elected and were very busy during the pandemic. We had six sentences of introductory gratitude: Thank you for all your important work. We’re so grateful. I know you’re busy. Kids appreciate it. Parents appreciate the work you’re doing. Then, “Will you please fill out my survey?”

In the other condition, we just said, “You’re doing important work. Thank you. Will you please fill out my survey?” People read both and 93% thought the longer one expressing more gratitude would be more effective. But the shorter one doubled response rates.

Similarly, we worked with the Democratic Governors Association, which has 750,000 donors, and they wrote a six-paragraph fundraising email. With their permission, we arbitrarily deleted every other paragraph.

Annie: Wait? So the shorter version wasn’t even coherent?

Todd Rogers: Exactly. People read both and thought the version deleting every other paragraph was kind of incoherent. It still increased donations by 16% over the longer version. Think about the experience of the reader. This is another political fundraising appeal, it’s unsolicited, and they’re not reading it closely in that context. They’re like, “What’s the gist? Am I motivated enough to donate money to this cause?” And most of the time the answer is delete.

Annie: It’s so interesting because, first of all, I think that we all assume nobody’s going to read something that isn’t coherent. But then what’s really counterintuitive is, and I know I’m guilty of this, that I’m expressing gratitude all over the place in my emails, particularly when I’m making a request. And you’re saying that, as much as I want to let them know how grateful I am, that it’s probably worse for them to be doing that.

Todd Rogers: “I’m so appreciative, given how busy you are, that I would like to express how appreciative I am more and more times and take more of your time because I appreciate how busy you are.”

Annie: That’s a good way to put it.

Todd Rogers: You can still express gratitude and signal your own intelligence and competence, but just do it succinctly. Ultimately, there are tradeoffs and there isn’t a right answer on any of this.

In another experiment we did on behalf of a school district, we were texting people, asking them to fill out a survey. It was 20,000 people, and for half of them, we said, “We’re really grateful that you stuck around. We know it’s really hard in this summer in remote learning,” whatever. “Will you please fill out the survey?” The other said, “Thanks for the summer. Please fill out the survey.” People were 6% more likely to respond to the shorter message.

But the school district, after they saw the results, said, “We’re going to stick with the longer one,” because they have lots of goals. One of the goals is to rebuild these relationships with families that are in tatters after the pandemic. A 6% improvement is not worth it, but for a doubling, maybe they would have reconsidered. They have to balance lots of competing priorities. As does everyone.

Annie: The last piece of Less is More is to make fewer requests. Sometimes, when we’re writing to people, we’re just conveying information. Sometimes, we’re making requests, like we’re asking them to fill out a survey, but sometimes we have multiple requests. What’s the advantage of making fewer requests in any single communication? First of all, doesn’t that mean we’re less likely to get our requests done if we don’t ask for them?

Todd Rogers: There are two parts of psychology that help make sense of why adding more requests is bad. The first is that people are often procrastinators, and so when they see a lot of things, they’re like, I’ll just deal with it later. The second, which is also related to procrastinators, is that they do the easier thing first. When you add multiple things, if your priority is the hard thing, adding an easy thing means what you’re probably going to do is either get them to defer doing any of it or do the easy thing and undermine the hard thing.

From a reader’s perspective, it’s not that I don’t do it in a malicious or self-aware way, realizing we’re not going to get to it. I want to be helpful. So I’ll do the easy one first. Yes is the answer to that first request. With regards to the second, where you wanted me to think about it for 10 minutes and write a full response later, later becomes never.

Again, that means you’ve got to prioritize. If there really are two urgent, necessary things, then maybe keep them both in. But what it has led me to do after we’ve seen these experiments is I often just write a full message the way I normally used to write, and then I go through it and edit. Part of the editing on this front is, which of these is more important? Then just cut what’s not important, what’s not the priority. And often, I add it back if the person actually responds. If the person does the first thing, then I give them the second thing. But again, it’s my goals.

What Jessica and I are focused on is, how do we help writers achieve their goals? The beautiful, elegant part is we help writers achieve their goals by helping readers achieve theirs, and reader’s goal is to move on as quickly as possible.

Annie: Is there an order effect? If the harder task is the thing that I really want them to do, but I wanted to include both, could I put the task that I really want them to do at the top, and make sure that’s highlighted for them? Then add, “If you have extra time, could you do this other thing?”

Todd Rogers: You absolutely could say “most important” in brackets. Jessica and I stay exactly at half a level higher than that level of tactic, because people habituate to different tactics over time. What we’re describing is the reality of how people read. The strategy for getting through to people who read that is going to change as the equilibrium changes.

The example of this that we always talk about is Obama’s most successful email fundraiser of his reelection campaign. Do you know what the subject line was? It was lowercase, h-e-y. “hey.” That by far dominated in 2008. What obviously happened is everyone started copying it.

Annie: I see emails with “hey” all the time, and I ignore them now.

Todd Rogers: Exactly. The equilibrium changed. At the time, that stood out. But the thing that example captured was, we want people to read what we write, and, in that scenario, they were tricking people into thinking that this was a personal communication. But now people have caught on to that so the equilibrium has changed. What we know is that everyone’s trying to move on as quickly as possible so just because a tactic worked in the past doesn’t meant it will work now.

Principle 2: Make Reading Easy

Annie: That brings us to principle number two, Make Reading Easy, which is thematically very much in the same place. Can you walk through what it means to make reading easy for somebody?

Todd Rogers: Making Reading Easy means using short and familiar words and short sentences that are straightforward and easy to read. What it all means is I want to decrease the amount of effort required to understand what I’m conveying. Using a highfalutin, esoteric vocabulary is worse than common, short words.

Making Reading Easy does two things. One, it makes it less effortful to read, so people are more likely to stay with it before giving up. And remember, everyone’s goal is to move on from whatever you sent them. Two, it makes it accessible to more people. The median US adult reads at a ninth-grade reading level. That means that often the things that we write are inaccessible to the majority of adults. Twenty percent of US adults read at a fifth-grade reading level or lower. Writing simply is less effortful and faster for people who are comfortable reading that way. It’s also accessible to people in a way that more complex language is not.

Annie: A recurring theme seems to be that the writer should put themselves into the head of the person they’re writing to, and that writers don’t do that enough. Should writers elevate that as a goal?

Todd Rogers: One of my big takeaways from all this work is we need to teach writers to write in a way that reflects the reality of how people read. Writing has at least two purposes, and I think people sometimes conflate them.

The first purpose is to clarify our thinking.

The second purpose is to effectively communicate my idea into your head.

The first purpose is great. But then the next stage is, just because I’ve written all that, does that mean that someone else needs to consume it? From that question, I can craft it into the second purpose, which is efficiently getting an idea from my head to your head. And it’s magical that it can ever even get there.

Writers are taught to write as if people read closely, which is sometimes what they do. When we compel people to read closely in labs, and we have them hooked up to computers with eye goggles, and we can do eye tracking, we see they go word, word, word, word, period, and then they pause. That’s when they’re making sense of the sentence. Often, they have to go back and reread in order to understand.

We want to minimize the number of times readers have to go backwards. Writing long, grammatically complex sentences increases the chance they have to go backwards and increases the time they have to spend waiting to synthesize.

We want to speed comprehension up, even at this micro level of seconds, because again, we just want to get through to them before they quit on us. And they are going to quit. They’re not going to finish reading our beautifully written words. So shorter is better.

What we recommend is writing to reflect a sympathy for our readers, even if it violates grammar. One cool thing that we also discovered is Angela Duckworth and others have this research studying sentence length in published work over the last 300 years. There’s been this continued decline in the number of words per sentence in every form of writing, whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, newspapers. My favorite is presidential inaugural addresses. George Washington’s presidential inaugural address was something like 37 words per sentence. Biden’s was six words per sentence. It’s just this straight line from Washington to Biden. These aren’t outliers, and it makes the written form easier and accessible to more people.

Principle 3: Design for Easy Navigation

Annie: I’m guessing that you’re a little bit of a fan of listicles for the reason that, when we get to principle number three, Design for Easy Navigation, I assume a listicle is relatively easy to navigate. First of all, are you a fan of listicles? Then, can you address more generally, what makes things “easy to navigate”?

Todd Rogers: I am a fan of making reading easy. Listicles are their own genre of lists, and bullet-pointed lists can be really helpful. What’s cool about lists is that they leverage an agreed-upon understood logic.

Everything in the list should be of the same kind and as defined the sentence that proceeded the list. And if I’m not interested in the sentence that preceded the list, I could skip everything on the list and move on. If I am interested in these items, it shows me exactly how many items there are.

The logic should be that no more than one idea should be in each bullet. If I’m not interested in the first one, I can just jump to the next. Whereas if it was a continuous paragraph, I’m not sure if the next sentence is related to the previous idea or a new one, or I have to skim around to find where the sentence is.

Using lists makes it easier for the reader.

The point of this principle, Design for Easy Navigation, is that a common form of reading is what vision psychologists call scanning, which is just darting around trying to orient what this document is about. It’s reading headings, seeing a word that’s familiar, looking at the images, going backwards, forwards, not reading at all, but scanning to orient.

Given that that’s how people initially orient in a lot of written things, especially when they’re going fast, let’s make it easy for them. Let’s add structure. Let’s add headings. Let’s use lists. Let’s put similar ideas next to each other.

Let’s also make it super easy for someone who’s jumping around to immediately know what the point of this thing is. It could be the subject line. It could be the first sentence. It could be the title of the document. It could be the executive summary.

I work with a federal agency that puts out long reports and by mandate they have a summary. But over the last 20 years, the summary has expanded to seven pages. They’re now putting another summary on top of that.

Annie: A summary of the summary.

Todd Rogers: The summary has become this bureaucratic requirement and norm, and instead of fighting with people to get rid of it, they’re just adding a summary on top of the summary at the top of the report. But that’s because the summary lost its purpose, which is, how can someone who’s quickly trying to navigate through lots of things and this document being one of them, figure out what this thing has done and whether it has what they’re looking for?

Principle 4: Use Enough Formatting, But No More

Annie: You mentioned headings as a way of making navigation easier, which leads us into principle four, Use Enough Formatting, But No More. Clearly, you’re a fan of formatting because you want people to use headings, but now what you say is, “use formatting, but only just the right amount.” Can you explain this principle? What is the sweet spot, and how are we supposed to get to it?

Todd Rogers: If we start with the understanding that our readers are skimming and that the most common form of reading is quitting, then the question is, how do we make sure that even our succinct and ordered and carefully effectively written thing still has sentences flowing from one to the next and paragraphs flowing from one to the next, and a conclusion and an opening? How do we make sure that the key information that we want to convey gets through?

Formatting, things like highlighting, bold, and underlining, can be useful for that. Readers interpret bold, underline, and highlight as the writer saying to the reader, this is the most important content. They understand that. And we have experiments showing that it will double the likelihood someone leaves your message with the key information.

But there’s a dark side to that, which is it also licenses readers to skip everything else because, again, their goal is to move on as quickly as possible. If you draw attention to some things, they’re like, “great, I’m 80% there,” or for some people, “I’m above 20% understanding. Time to move on.” If you draw attention to some parts that are not the key information, you decrease the chance that people are going to pull the key information away. That’s Point 1. Point 2 is if you use a lot of formatting, it dilutes the benefit of any of it. If you underline lots of things, and we’ve all received emails like that, then it’s not clear at all that the writer has priorities.

Everything can’t be a priority.

Annie: I guess in the extreme case, if you put the whole email in bold, there’s no purpose to the bold.

Todd Rogers: Exactly. Jessica and I have a study where we highlight every sentence except one, or we highlight only that one sentence and no others. Readers read it the same way both times. The writer wants me to draw attention to the thing that is different.

As a writer myself who is obsessed with how people read, but also writes about writing, even I am wary sometimes of bolding a sentence in, let’s say, an email to someone I don’t know, because I am worried it’s going to come off a certain way. There’s just constant balancing. If I bold that sentence, it is definitely the case that the person is going to read that first. It also is going to have other consequences for the kind of attributions or beliefs the person has about me. There’s balancing, which you have said a couple of times.

Annie: Most of what we’ve talked about is from the perspective of an individual writer trying to figure these things out. With a lot of this happening in organizations, either communications between members or how members of the organization communicate with the outside world, what are the kinds of ways that organizations can set rules for writing, standardizing some of these ideas?

Todd Rogers: This thing that I love what the US Army does, putting the bottom-line up front. It’s a rule. Bottom line up front, a general writing to an enlisted person, an enlisted person writing to a general. Always, the first sentence is the bottom line.

What’s amazing about that, it makes it more efficient for writing. It saves time for readers and writers. But it also protects lower status people from some of the consequences of writing in that way, where they might be interpreted or misunderstood, or people might think they’re aggressive or too direct or things like that. By making it unambiguous how we write, this is how we write in our organization, it protects readers, writers, and especially lower status people from the vulnerabilities they have from things that are ambiguous about how we write. Because the safe way to write is the way most people write, which is ineffectively and long-windedly and in beautiful flowing sentences that are a pain to write, a pain to read, and often don’t work.

I like this organizational application, that we establish norms of how we write. It helps writers, readers, and especially the more vulnerable in our groups. It is about being more effective, kinder, and more inclusive.

Annie: I love that. Formatting can help us do that. Headings can help us do that. Grouping ideas together can help us do that. But sometimes it’s just the norms of the organization that can also help us do that. If everybody’s on the same page, it actually reduces cognitive load for every single person in the organization. It doesn’t really matter, as long as it’s the same for everybody. They then know how to navigate the communication because it’s standardized across the org.

Todd Rogers: Exactly.

Principle 5: Tell Readers Why They Should Care

Annie: The fifth principle is Tell Readers Why They Should Care. I think this goes back to whether you are sitting in the reader’s shoes or you’re writing because you want to write well, as opposed to effectively. I assume most people think when they write their seven-page, beautifully-written document that it’s implied in there why readers should care. Why does this need to be a principle? Aren’t we all trying to tell people that anyway?

Todd Rogers: I think it’s part of this perspective-taking exercise. I’ve spent five years working on how we write so busy people will read, and there are so many fascinating things and we’ve learned about how to write more effectively. It’s kinder, it’s more effective. I could say all those things, but from the reader’s perspective, my audience’s perspective, I should just emphasize that this will make you more effective at whatever your goal is. Whether you’re texting your mom trying to figure out what we’re doing for Thanksgiving, or you’re communicating with your staff, no matter how we’re doing it, this will make you more effective.

I’m obsessed with the details. We’ve talked about a lot of the studies we’ve run and the things we’ve learned from them, and I love doing that. But just to make sure that I’m zeroing in, this is about making you as a writer more effective. A consequence of that is that it’s kinder for your readers, but I know that from a writer’s perspective, the primary goal is you want to be more effective. I also care that it’s kinder and more inclusive.

Annie: I think there is a theme throughout here: whatever the most important idea is, don’t leave it implicit. Make it very explicit. Don’t leave it implicit why the reader should care about what you’re saying. Make it explicit for the reader. Again, it’s just making it easier for the reader.

Todd Rogers: We have this great example with Rock the Vote, where they were trying to get young people to volunteer to go to concerts to register other people to vote, That’s a pretty sweet gig. Their subject line was, “register people to vote.” They ran an experiment where a different subject line was, “go to a free concert and register people to vote.”

Annie: The second one clearly did better.

Todd Rogers: Seven times better! We care because we want you to register people to vote. We care because we want people to vote. But from your perspective, you probably would care more if it’s at a free Nicki Minaj concert.

Annie: Just be very explicit. Why should they care? And also add, why should that specific person care? Why does it matter to them?

Todd Rogers: Why is this valuable from the reader’s perspective, but also which readers should not care? Which readers are released from reading? In a one round game, freeing you is not that consequential as a writer. But it turns out you communicate to people a lot and you establish goodwill if you release them early. You’re like, “for students of the class of 2026. Everyone else is released.”

Principle 6: Make Responding Easy

Annie: That brings us to the last principle, which is Make Responding Easy. Because you have it as a principle, I assume we’re not doing it very well. Can you explain that?

Todd Rogers: Your readers will be familiar with a bunch of it through behavioral science. The benefits of reducing friction are way higher than we think.

Here is a very concrete micro example that everyone can relate to. There are four people on an email chain, and we say, “Let’s find a time that works. Here are five that work for me.” Then, Annie Duke responds and says, “I can do the second one that you listed.” Then, the next person responds, “I can do the third and the second.” Then, we’re waiting on the fourth person. The only way the fourth person can figure out what’s going on is by rereading every communication that has proceeded the chain that they’re on. An easier way to do it would be for the third person to say, “Annie and Todd and I can do this date on this time. Does that work for you?”

The mantra here is, if it’s important for us, we want to make it easy for them. It’s just way more likely someone’s going to read and respond if it’s easy. We have lots of experiments that illustrate this. For example, when you’re trying to get people to sign up for something, do they have to do several steps or can they just say, “Yes”? We have a study with a large urban school district where if they have five steps required to sign up, 1% of people sign up. If they can just say, “yes,” you get something like a 10x improvement in signups, by just simplifying the opt-in process.

Another example is pre-populating forms we want people to fill out. If we want people to fill out federal financial aid for college, have the forms be pre-populated from IRS data. It turns out that’s outrageously consequential for getting low-income kids to go to college.

Is there a place for emojis in effective writing?

Annie: The last thing I’m going to ask you about is emojis. I’m a big emoji user so this questions is selfish.

Are emojis helpful? How should we be using emojis to make our writing more effective? Can they make it less effective?

Todd Rogers: The SEC, Canadian courts, and some recent federal judges have actually ruled that emojis have contractual meaning, which is incredible. If you have an upward sloping graph, a dollar, a little bag of gold, and the moon, then apparently, in the crypto world, you’re contractually committing to going to the moon with the investment.

There are two dimensions to it that I think are important. One is for humor. Nick Epley has this amazing study on egocentrism. Say I have you write something sarcastic and ask, “How likely is it that someone else reading it will understand that you’re being sarcastic?” What he found is that you’ll say 90% likely, but the reality is hardly better than chance. Just assume no one understands you’re joking. Emojis can help that or “jk,” but it just turns out that writing is a tough medium for humor.

The other dimension is the meaning of emojis is tough. The Wall Street Journal surveyed emoji users and reported examples of where different generations interpret the same emoji as meaning something different. Older people interpret a smiley face as good, thank you, good vibes. A young person interprets a smiley face as sarcastic. The same emojis may have different meanings across cohorts.

Know your audience. And if you’re communicating in a professional setting, probably don’t put emojis in. Some of us can’t resist trying to add humor, even at the risk of our children reminding us that we are not 10% as funny as we think we are.

Annie: That is absolutely true. Most of my knowledge of what emojis mean are because of my children. That is how I have learned to interpret them.

Todd, this conversation has been really wonderful. I know that if people buy the book, it’s going to help them individually. And it’s going to help someone who’s interested in implementing this in their organization as well. Your and Jessica’s work has really improved my writing already. Thank you.

Thinking in Bets is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.