Are you one of those people like me who gets annoyed by long-winded articles and reports that never seem to get to the point? I find as a consultant, perhaps like most professionals these days, that there is a large amount of reading to keep up with, particularly when you are inundated with articles on Blogs, through e-newsletters, attachments to e-mails and links for various social media and websites.
I confess I am a contributor to this volume. Equally I am my own worst enemy because I subscribe to a number of these circulations as I want to be informed and keep on top of initiatives and information relevant to my industry. However like you no doubt I look for the best and quickest way to get to the meat of the message. Despite the volume of reading before us, we still don’t want to miss anything as there may be an important gem or an opportunity for us amidst all the material.
Consequently as a writer I also have a responsibility to practice what I preach in terms of efficiency of communication. How does this work?
Written communication in the modern workplace
If I am going to read a large article or report I want to know that there will be a point to it. How do I know that there will be one? There will be some signals including –
- the author will have laid a few clues in the introduction if not already telegraphing the point at the beginning.
- the layout of the article or report will make it easier to scan the key milestones leading to the point.
- the language will be simple but expressive and clear, free from jargon and obscure references.
- the structure of the discussion will be logical and provide building blocks that converge on the point.
- there will be enough detail to provide evidentiary foundation for the point but not so much as to distract from the main message.
- above all the article or report will be long enough to provide me with the information I need without being so long as to lose my attention.
Structure, Content and Style
Depending on the formality of the context in which we must write our memoranda, reports, briefing papers or proposals, our approach to the construction of our writings may be different. Authors of technical reports or government submissions may be somewhat constrained in terms of orthodoxy or tradition but even in such cases there is the opportunity to improve the effectiveness of communication by addressing aspects of structure, content and style in a way that allows the reader to get to the point as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Dr. Samuel Johnson, poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor, lexicographer and the man credited with one of the greatest ever works of scholarship – the first “Dictionary of the English Language” in 1755, once said “The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new“. In our age of information overload the other important consideration is to be concise.
Being concise is often a challenge in itself. There are many sources of suggestions for writers on how to improve their concise communication. These suggestions broadly converge into the following top tips:
- start with a clear idea of the message you want to convey and what the point of your writing is.
- consider carefully your audience and the writing style that will best communicate to them.
- preplan the framework by which you will quickly and efficiently get to the point.
- organise the supporting arguments, explanations and descriptive information so that it clarifies and not obscures the main point.
- craft the language to be simple but effective.
- draft of the peace, then re-draft it more concisely, then revise it even more concisely and get a pair of fresh eyes to review it, to ensure readers will get the point.
There are even suggestions that promote turning the usual hierarchy of report structure on its head so that the reader is presented with the point from the very beginning and the remainder of the article or report then proceeds to provide the argument and substantiation.
This “inverted pyramid” approach is illustrated by the model used by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services which promotes:
- good news before bad news
- requests before justifications
- answers before explanations
- conclusions before discussions
- summaries before details
- generalities before specifics
You can decide for yourself how appropriate that form is in your situation.
Avoiding the “Yada yada” – get to the point
Already knowing that frustrating feeling of time wasted trawling through voluminous words that don’t take you where you want to go, or in fact anywhere, we can pay forward the favour to our readers of keeping our writings succinct, clear and to the point.
Succinct however does not mean being so concise that an important part of the message is left unsaid either because it is incorrectly assumed that the audience will know what is meant or because the writer does not consider it important to achieving the point. This can mean that certain material that is otherwise significant to the audience might be omitted altogether or lost in the “yada yada” of opaque detail. The result often is that the audience will assume its own meaning which may run counter to the author’s intent.
The Phrases Dictionary defines “Yada yada” To mean “A disparaging response, indicating that something previously said was predictable, repetitive or tedious.” The phrase was popularity spawned from the famous television series Seinfeld in an episode called “The Yada Yada” from where the phrase went viral.
(Image courtesy The Daily Mail.co.uk)
Anyway my point is ………… if we want to communicate our ideas and messages to best effect; if we don’t want to waste our composing energies on material that does not present an effective point to our audience, then we need to put in the effort to see that the point is clear.
American editor and novelist Peter De Vries was a prolific writer, with short stories, reviews, poetry, essays, a play and twenty-three novels to his credit. But even then he had to work at it. “I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork” he once said.