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Finding the “Signal” Versus the Noise in Your Writing

Table of Contents

In engineering, the signal-to-noise ratio measures the strength of a signal (such as a radio signal) versus the amount of interference or background noise present with the signal. If you’ve ever heard a garbled, almost incomprehensible radio transmission, you’ve heard a signal that’s being overwhelmed by noise. 

This concept has since expanded into the realm of information. The Nielsen Norman Group, a consulting firm that researches how consumers interact with businesses’ products and services, says, “Relevant information is ‘signal,’ while irrelevant information is ‘noise’.”

Some examples of signal-to-noise ratio include:

  • Social media: the posts you truly care about are often buried in posts that are meaningless to you.
  • News: news that affects you is usually bundled with stories that don’t interest you.
  • Email: the messages you want to see can be overwhelmed by spam or other undesirable emails.

Your writing should always strive to maximize its signal strength.

The idea of the signal-to-noise ratio can be applied to writing. Documents that are uncluttered and communicate only the information the intended reader really wants and needs offer high signal strength. This content is more likely to perform well and achieve its intended objectives. 

By contrast, “noisy” writing can cause serious problems in that it increases the likelihood readers will get confused and lost, maybe even miss or misunderstand the main points. When the signal-to-noise ratio is too low for readers to justify the time investment, they’ll abandon the document before finishing it. Worst of all, noisy writing is less likely to be persuasive or compelling.

To increase the signal strength of your writing, you must understand your reader.

Notably, one person’s noise can be another person’s signal. In the news, for instance, you might care only about Story A, but for someone else it’s Story B that matters most. 

To ensure you’re delivering content your readers really care about, you need to get clear about who those readers are before starting on the project: 

  • What do they care about? 
  • What arguments or messages will resonate with them? 
  • What do you need them to understand or believe? What do they need to know? 
  • What do they already know?
  • What vocabulary do your readers use and expect? 

One pitfall to avoid: ensure you’re  not writing for or to yourself, because what you consider signal vs. noise may not be what the intended reader thinks.

To avoid noisy writing, unclutter yourself. 

William Zinsser, author of the classic writing guide On Writing Well, writes, “The answer is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English.”

The NNG puts this into more practical terms: “To improve the signal-to-noise ratio, start with a clear content strategy to help you prioritize the information you want to convey.”

In other words, leaping feet first into a writing project may inadvertently lead to content that’s noisy from the start. Instead, before committing pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard!), take a few minutes to think through what your purpose is and what information your readers need for that purpose to be fulfilled. A little pre-planning can go a long way to strengthen the signal in your writing. 

Another pre-writing step you can take? Figure out strategies for building the “signal” directly into your organization’s writing process and workflows. Contact Hurley Write for a consultation to evaluate your writing processes and identify easy areas of opportunity and simple methods for improvement.

Finding the “Signal” Versus the Noise in Your Writing

Contact Hurley Write, Inc.

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Prefer to chat? Call us at 877-249-7483
Prefer to chat? Call us at 877-249-7483

(172 Reviews)