Five, Five-Second Rules for Delivering Your Message

Recently I went on a little road trip—about a thousand miles—and was amazed by the number of completely ineffective billboards. In the same way a reporter may only give a press release a five second glance, billboards must communicate its entire message in the same amount of time. While not traditional PR, in order to communicate effectively, billboards should follow the same 5 Five-Seconds Rules:

1. Stick to ONE message. When traveling between 55 – 70 mph there is not much time to fully digest a message…let alone multiple messages.  Choose your strongest message, and when possible, that message should contain a call to action.

2. Use fewer than 15 words (25 words for a first sentence of a press release). During my drive I had a lot of time to evaluate billboards and concluded they should have fewer than 15 words.  Any more than that and the billboard is messy and too difficult to read.  At school while learning how to write news articles, my ex-reporter professor encouraged us to write lead sentences using fewer than 25 words.

As PR pros, we oftentimes feel the need to get the entire gist in the first sentence.  I once saw a lead sentence with more than 80 words…that’s a paragraph!  Long sentences are harder for readers to digest and when your message only has five seconds to do the job, it’s important to make the message easy.  Take the time to pare down the words in the first sentence, make every word count and you may be surprised that people will continue to read rather than give up on the run-on lead sentence containing every idea and nuance of the message.

3. Use only ONE web address. I saw a single billboard with three web addresses.  People are not going to remember three web addresses.  Pick the most important web address and print only one.  Same goes for a press release or interview.  While you can—and should—use hyperlinks in press releases, it is unlikely for a reporter to include more than one web address.  Do not let the reporter choose which web address to feature, provide only one spelled-out web address in a press release.

4. Choose supporting images carefully. It’s a personal pet peeve of mine to see stock images of people, especially office images.  Stock images are rarely memorable, unique or communicative.  To me, stock images are place holders not effective communication aids.  Instead, choose bold, high contrasting images that support your message.  If no images come to mind, consider a “Got Milk?” type ad.  It’s memorable, easy to read and communicates everything necessary in TWO words…no images!  When providing images to reporters to include in their story, be sure to use clear, high-resolution images that support the message.

5. Select high contrast colors. One billboard I saw used a light beige background and white font.  It was impossible to read.  In writing press releases and email pitches white space is as important as short lead sentences for readability.  Be sure to use full spaces in between paragraphs and keep paragraphs short. In my opinion (and I know this is debatable), it’s better to use a two-page press release rather than 9-point font using half-spacing between paragraphs and quarter-inch margins.

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About Jocelyn Broder

Jocelyn Broder is vice president at Robin Tracy Public Relations. She has managed the communications efforts of one of the world’s most recognized brands–Coca-Cola–and launched turn-key communications initiatives for some of the world’s most respected ministries, non-profit organizations, authors and publishers (including two book campaigns that made all four national best-seller lists). Before finding her love for PR, Jocelyn was a writer at The Oregonian, a top 25 newspaper.

(Image Credit: I NEED YOUR HELP! by rrunaway / Flickr)

1 Comment

  1. A 15-word billboard is way too much for people speeding down a highway to comprehend. People have, on average, four seconds to read a billboard in optimum conditions. The rule of thumb I was taught was seven words, preferably less. If you include a web address – hopefully one that’s short and easy to remember – or phone number you’re down to six or less words to communicate a message or call to action. Think of it as a Tweet on steroids. “More Mocha, Less Bucks” plus the McDonald’s logo speaks volumes. Also, font and size are paramount in making a billboard readable. Can’t think of how many times I’ve gotten stuck on a word in a billboard I can’t read because of some fancy type or script or font so small it’s impossible to read from the moving car.

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