Friday, February 24, 2006

Audio vignettes bring subjects to life

In addition to writing and editing, I do a lot of instructional design work, which means I create course and seminar materials for businesses. The two types of work have many things in common, not the least of which is concern that the information is understandable and interesting to the audience.

Hands up if you've ever sat through a business-related seminar that was dull. You know the kind I'm talking about: seminars on topics that are of interest to you, or at least that had the potential to be of interest to you, if only the speaker or instructor managed to engage the participants.

There are many reasons a seminar can end up so boring that all participants focus on is making it to the break and praying that the coffee is still hot and strong enough to keep them awake.

If you were to write a Top 10 list of reasons seminars are boring, I'll bet high on the list would be "the subject is dull". To that I say, NONSENSE! I'll grant you that some topics might not be inherently interesting to you -- and I realize there are seminars you might be forced to go to (we'll leave philosophic questions of free will for some other posting) for work -- even so, there's no reason for the seminar to be boring.

Indeed, there would only be one item on my Top 10 list of reasons seminars and presentations are dull: the person creating it didn't try hard enough to make it interesting. I know that sounds harsh, but it's true.

Engaging the participants
Though it takes a lot of work to put together any kind of presentation, mere work isn't enough. You have to put time and effort into making the presentation interesting -- and I'm not talking about merely adding humour or modulating your voice. I'm talking about finding ways of engaging those attending so that they are transformed from mere audience members to participants. (After all, as the seminar creator, if all you care about is conveying information, why not write it down and send a report?)

There are a variety of techniques you can apply to make a session interactive. One of my favourite ways (and one that isn't widely used yet, so it also benefits by seeming innovative) is using audio vignettes to pose a hypothetical that forms the basis for a discussion of the topic.

My introduction to audio vignettes was a seminar for a company's high-level managers. The session began with a two minute voice mail message regarding an urgent problem that had supposedly just come up. When the vignette ended the seminar leader asked the audience what they'd do if they got a voice mail like that. Hands shot up around the room, with participants eager to share their experiences and offer their two cents. The seminar leader -- who was the subject-matter expert on the underlying issue -- then led the participants through the subject, directing them toward conclusions based on corporate policies and procedures they'd be expected to apply if they were faced with such a situation.

Crafting audio vignettes
Audio vignettes can be voice mails (a series of voice mails works especially well to introduce conflicting issues or to build the hypothetical), or short speeches (for example, presentations to a board of directors), or even conversations overhead in the coffee room!

Crafting audio vignettes requires creativity, both in terms of coming up with the hypothetical and in terms of scripting it so it sounds real. If you'll be using the vignettes a number of times, it's worthwhile hiring professional actors to record them. The key is that the vignettes must sound sufficiently real that the participants buy into it. (Caution: if the vignette sounds cheesy -- or if the voice is recognized -- participants will not concentrate on what's being said.)

Audio vignettes help focus attention
Audio vignettes help bring the topic to life by giving participants a real-life situation to consider. I've found they're a particularly effective way of beginning a session (or new topic) because they almost immediately focus the participants on the issue. They can also be effective after technical information has been presented, helping to re-engage the participants after they've passively absorbed the information presented.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Having something in common with Dick Cheney

It pains me to admit I have anything in common with Dick Cheney -- but I do. We both use bullets. Of course, the bullets I use are very different from the bullets (oops, I mean "birdshot") Dick Cheney uses.

The bullets I'm talking about are lists set out in text in such a way that the reader's eye is drawn to it. The official Plain Language terms is "vertical lists" -- a generic term chosen because such lists can begin with:
  • numbers,
  • letters,
  • characters, or
  • symbols.

I generally just refer to such lists as "bullet lists", based on the idea that dots -- like those used in the vertical list above -- sort of look like bullets. (Or at least this is what I imagine a bullet looks like when it's coming at you!)

Vertical lists are popular in business writing because they add visual appeal and variety, and they can help in avoiding repetition. But, they have to be carefully crafted and some information does not lend itself to such lists.

Crafting vertical lists -- the preamble

There are two parts to vertical lists. The first part is what I call the preamble. Because there's often (though not always) a colon just before the items listed, think of the preamble as the text before the colon.

The preamble must directly relate to every item listed. In crafting a vertical list, the writer should go back and read the preamble followed by every item to make sure the thought started by the preamble is completed by each listed item.

In the example above, the preamble is "... such lists can begin with:". As can be seen below, the preamble followed by each bulleted item forms a complete thought:

... such lists can begin with numbers,
... such lists can begin with letters,
... such lists can begin with characters, and
... such lists can begin with symbols.

[Disclaimer: the word processing capabilities on are limited and it won't allow me to indent the above list, as I normally would to draw further attention to it.]

Crafting vertical lists -- the items must be similar

The second part of a vertical list is the list itself. Though it sounds obvious, the items listed must all be similar. Not only must they fit with the preamble, they should all be parallel in grammatical structure.

The easiest way of showing what I mean is by example. In the following list the items are not similar and do not all fit with the preamble:

Analyze the transaction to determine whether it was:
  1. arm's length,
  2. pursuant to a written agreement,
  3. the result of a court order, or
  4. the market conditions dictated the sale.

Item number 4 clearly does not fit with the other items. It is different structurally and it does not work with the preamble. The simplest way of fixing the list would be to remove item 4. (You would want to include number 4 in a sentence following the list.)

Using bullets with care!

Clearly bullets have their uses in business communication. But, as Dick Cheney learned this week, you have to use them with great care!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Words versus pictures

Given that I'm a writer, in a debate pitting words versus pictures, you probably think I'd choose words.

Well, you'd be wrong.

But you'd also be wrong if you think I'd choose pictures.

Instead, I'd advocate for re-framing the issue. (What can I say, every now and then my legal training comes through.) More and more business communications now feature diagrams and charts. This phenomenon started as a result of research that showed some people absorb information better through pictures than words. And the trend is likely to grow, as computer users become more accustomed to, and comfortable with, icons representing things. (Ten years ago, who would have guessed that a cartoon paper clip would come to graphically represent a means of getting help (or an annoyance, depending on your point of view)?)

But using diagrams and charts is not without its perils -- and I'm not just talking about charts and diagrams that are sloppy or misleading. The best way to illustrate my point (pardon the pun) is by way of example.

I was reviewing a document recently when I came upon a statement that was very vague. When I questioned the client about what was meant by the comment, the client pointed out that my question was answered in the (fairly complicated) diagram in the middle of the page. Naturally, I felt stupid because it seemed quite obvious once she said it. (Of course, making the reader feel stupid is something most writers -- including this client -- should generally try to avoid, so my embarrassment was short-lived.)

But, this episode demonstrated rather nicely an important point: don't assume that everyone will look at diagrams and charts. Though it's great to include diagrams and charts to aid those who absorb information better through pictures than words, you can't ignore the fact that some people have difficulty interpreting charts and diagrams and so they routinely ignore them. (Guess which group I fall into?)

So, if you're using charts and diagrams in a document as well text, important information and conclusions should be made in both the text and the chart. The bottom line is: don't think in terms of informing the reader using either words or pictures -- use both!

Monday, February 13, 2006

Be sure the structure reflects the purpose

A firm recently showed me a two-page bulletin they planned to send their clients. The title of the document indicated that the purpose was to give the firm's perspective on a proposed change in a regulation that could have an impact on its (the firm's) clients.

The piece had been reviewed and worked on by a number of subject-matter experts within the firm, including a few who are regarded as "pretty good writers". The piece was jargon-free and very much written as though someone was speaking, which is why it had passed muster internally and was about ready to go to print.

Though there was nothing wrong with the writing grammatically, structurally the piece did not hang together -- it didn't tell a story. More importantly, from an outsider's perspective, the point of the document was not clear.

The first page featured a number of paragraphs with information generally related to how the proposed regulation came to into being. But the paragraphs on that page were disjointed and the reader was left with more questions than answers -- the most important question being: why do I need to know this? Or, how is this relevant to me?

I knew the firm's reason for putting out the publication was to help sell consulting services to clients trying to decide what steps they should be taking in light of the proposed regulation. But the approach the firm was recommending for dealing with the regulation was buried on page two. Given that the purpose of the document was to tell people about the firm's innovative approach, why bury that information on page two? (Another way of looking at it is: why take the risk of assuming the client will even continue on to the second page, especially when the relevance of the document is not clear to the reader from the outset?)

The bottom line regarding business communication is that it's not enough that it be grammatically correct. The structure of the document is equally important. The structure should reflect the purpose of the document and every piece of information should be clearly relevant to the reader.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Wave of the Future?

Business blogging: the wave of the future?

Maybe ... Maybe not ...

I'm not exactly intimidated by computers and the Internet, but when it comes to technology, I've never been on the cutting edge either. My usual approach is to wait for the wave to build, hoping that I catch it at or near its peak, rather than in the trough that follows.

In terms of business trend-spotting, I take my cue from other successful entrepreneurs and my friend Sandy -- a very talented, successful consultant and long-time blogger -- has persuaded me that now, more than ever, having a blog makes business sense. Besides offering substantive reasons for having a business blog, she had a good counter-argument to my concern that as a professional writer there's more pressure to make my blog postings "perfect". Her response was that "the half-life of the interest in any particular post is less than two days, so there's not much sense in spending more time than that writing each one." (Point taken, Sandy.)

So, convinced that the time has come for me to share some of my ideas about good business writing and clear communication, what better time than a sunny winter Sunday to enter the world of business blogging...

Stay tuned...