November 4, 2013
The value of concise and targeted written communication should not be overlooked, especially for association management professionals. Whether drafting position papers on technical industry issues, or trying to summarize a year’s worth of activities in an email to the Board of Directors, we always seem to be placed in situations where our written output will be read primarily by those who have little time on their hands, but also a host of other issues vying for their attention. To make the hours of drafting worthwhile from our side, and to make sure the key messages are easily comprehensible from theirs, it’s essential to get the balance right between level of detail and efficiency of communication.
The problem is, this process of fine-tuning usually takes a lot longer than just splurging all known facts about an issue onto the paper. It’s also a lot scarier – at least when we’ve written everything we know to support our argument, we can be sure no key detail has been missed that might sway the case. However, simply producing an encyclopedic account of an issue usually makes it a lot more difficult for the reader to discern what the key details are, and risks that they are overlooked altogether.
Taking this into account, below are some straightforward things to remember for improving the readability of content-heavy documents.
- Less is more – From a psychological perspective, your recipients are a lot more likely to engage with a document or email when they can immediately see it’s of a manageable length. If, contrarily, they receive a 150 page report or a blackberry message that stretches across several screen lengths, it will be a lot more tempting to overlook.
For this reason, it’s worth adjusting margins or font-size to make sure your statement fits onto a single page, or only including detailed information as an attachment to the much shorter email. If a high level of detail does need to be included, for example with a technical study, then also draft a 1-2 page executive summary to give something more manageable to capture the reader’s attention.
- Shorten sentences and paragraphs – While longer multi-claused sentences might give you the impression you are fitting more information into your paper, they can be difficult to follow for the reader. It’s too much to ask for them to be entirely in-sync with your train of thought, and so sentences should express one key idea, without deviating too much from that focus. Periods, commas and semi-colons provide readers with a welcome signpost that you are changing subject.
Likewise, there’s nothing more daunting than a page-long paragraph. While you might find it unnatural to chop a section in half, your reader will be grateful for the break.
- Use straightforward vocabulary – The temptation is always high to increase your written authority with embellished vocabulary, sumptuous descriptions and/or overelaborate diction. Sentences like the one I’ve just written might give personal security, but they can also work negatively to distance the reader from the key arguments. In general, readers don’t like to feel stupid, so written work should always be pitched to match their level of understanding.
This is especially true for technical information, where non-specialist readers might need time to research unknown acronyms or terminology. Try to be considerate by not including too many of these in a single sentence or paragraph, as it might otherwise just be too much work for them to slog through.
- Highlight key points – If you have key points to make, don’t rely on your reader being able to separate them from the rest of the text. Especially for persuasive documents, it’s worthwhile to add some extra formatting so they clearly stand out as the essential arguments. This can be as simple as underlining or italicizing important sentences, or putting the concluding paragraph into a text box to separate from those that build up to it.
A general point to make here is that if you want to emphasize a key point, it should be outlined at the beginning or end of a paragraph, rather than being stuck somewhere in the middle where it might be lost by readers. To extract key points from a long document, it might additionally be worth including a bullet-point “summary box” at the end so they can be easily picked up in one go.
- Reread and edit – Although you might have been successful in including all required information into your paper or email after a 1 hour typing frenzy, it’s still worth spending time to thoroughly edit what you have produced. Take a coffee, look at your writing with fresh eyes, and try to imagine how it will be received by someone else.
At this point, non-essential information can be cut out from the text, the structure can be standardized and improved, and you can consider whether reordering of certain paragraphs would make more sense in regards to the overall line of argument.
These points may seem obvious, but taking them into account can help to ensure that our members only receive information they can process efficiently, and that we communicate their industry-specific messages in a comprehensible way towards non-specialists.