Sit down and get comfortable – why long-form content matters

In a world of information overload, Rupert Cornford argues in favour of long reads and audio, and the consideration, depth, and respect, which people and topics deserve

A good story will carry the reader from beginning to end, delivering them safely to the other side – more informed, perhaps inspired, with a desire to know more, or take action. It will allow us to experience a world, not just the information on a page, pictures on a screen, or the sound in our headphones. Emotive language and human experience will be combined with facts and perspectives to help us relate to what’s being shared.

Stories can help us to develop real knowledge, empathy, and respect.

Narrative content is central to our lives and plays an ever-increasing role in our complex world, but also varies greatly in length. I recently watched a sports documentary that covered an athlete’s life story in 15 minutes; and later the same night I read a book with my six-year-old son, which took half that time. Short stories can be engaging, books can lose the reader – but engaging long-form content can be transformative.

We hear a lot about people’s attention spans reducing, and the binary influence of social media on opinions and knowledge, but at the same time book sales continue to do well; people are still buying magazines, and businesses often publish reports to help their communities. US podcast host Joe Rogan recently signed a deal with Spotify and was hailed for helping to make ‘long form’ popular again.

Long-form content provides an opportunity for stories to breathe. The space afforded across multiple pages, online, or in our headphones, offers the chance to gather multiple viewpoints. It sets the discussion in context and allows for sections of narrative about the people involved. It offers the chance to step away from the hard-hitting structure of news and seek a platform for discussion, explanation, and analysis.

The format often proves that debates aren’t binary, but much richer, with multifaceted stories to be explored and understood.

It also helps you to learn because your brain is at its most relaxed when paying focused attention. This means that when you allow yourself to concentrate on something for a period of time, and are drawn deeper into a story, you are more likely to give it the time and space it deserves. In return, a good piece of writing or a podcast will take you on that journey and reward you with an experience you will remember.

If you are constantly switching between bits of information or short-form pieces, it is harder to get a feel for what’s happening. Your brain is going to be reacting constantly to different stimuli and the effort of moving from one thing to another could impair your ability to remember. Yes, you will likely recall a headline or quote, but not much more. Remember that famous line from George Bernard Shaw? “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Authors talk about books being windows into new worlds and places to escape. I think the same is true of good long-form writing. Podcasts and long reads provide similar space to explore topics in greater depth. They move beyond the headlines and build a deeper relationship with you. All the elements that help to make a good story can be used to take you on that journey.

Your brain will thank you for the experience, as it won’t be constantly distracted, and your ability to pay attention will not be compromised. It will feel right to read, because it will hold your attention by combining narrative, analysis and stories that are useful and memorable. You are more likely to refer to it, and if it’s been helpful, then you will feel more informed and inspired to find out more.

But because a story will feel right, does not mean it will convey just good news. The topics might be challenging and difficult to cover, but set with the right context and back story, the reader can make up their own minds about the information being shared, alongside possible solutions or ways to solve problems. Long-form content should respect the reader; and in turn, that respect will go back the other way.

You are more likely to read or listen to more on a particular topic and, in turn, this will have a compound effect on your understanding. One you have been delivered safely to the other side, real communication will have had a chance of taking place, and hopefully, real change.

Here are five building blocks that you might want to consider when putting your own long reads or audio together:

  • People remember people. Use narrative and human experience to bring an issue or story to life. It can be the most technical topic in the world but talking about it through the eyes of an individual, or related story, goes a long way to help people connect and remember what you are sharing.
  • Put the issue in context. Explain why they are reading about or listening to this story and the bigger picture behind the topic. Setting an issue in context, and perhaps over a long period of time, helps to build understanding as to why something is important now.
  • Go behind the headlines. Lifting the lid on experiences and information that your audience did not know before helps them to retain interest. They might have read about a certain individual or business but learning something new about what they think or what makes them tick, creates empathy and understanding.
  • Think about the structure. Good long-form content wins you over early, and then starts rebuilding the narrative. This sometimes means starting with a story to illustrate a wider point and inviting the reader to pay attention. This can then be followed by historical context, multiple viewpoints, and discussion, before returning to the start – either by linking in with the first story, or by signing off with a related, but memorable tale.
  • Consider sections and graphics in written work. Long reads are, by their very nature, thousands of words long. They need to be, to give you depth, experience, and perspective. Using sections can help the reader navigate the piece, take a pause, or scan the piece before committing to read it. Data infographics and visual story cues can also play a role in communicating what is inside and complementing the words.

If you are interested in exploring long-form content for your business, have a look at our projects page and some of these publishers for more ideas and inspiration – The Guardian long read; Tortoise; and Delayed Gratification are all example of the slow journalism movement.