Designing Documents for a Quick Read

Does it seem your memos or communications never get read all the way through? Do your employees simply bog down after a few paragraphs of reading? You might be suffering from "information overload writing" and I know the feeling; I do it too. We all do. Writing is a form of communication, not a place for us to drop in every opinion we"ve ever had on the topic. It's hard to unlearn, but there are tricks to help in case it's an issue.

Use Headings and Subheadings
This is a trick I learned from a marketing expert a few years ago. Breaking up long paragraphs of text with headings and subheadings helps focus a reader on reading and provides a logical path to follow through the document. It also helps a writer write faster. Outline it and then fill in the blanks. That may be a simple version of writing memos, but simple is good.

They must be able to stand alone. Your heading should do the work by itself. At one glance, your readers must know what you intend to say overall.

They should be short. Don't make them long and complicated. It"s a heading, not a sentence.

They should continue the flow. A reader should be able to trace your thought process through your headings. Then if they want to read specifics, they can read the text.

Use White Space To Your Advantage
White space is your friend. It may not seem like it, but when you give readers a chance to breathe while reading your piece, they actually comprehend it better and faster.

Break it into shorter blocks. No one will read page after page without a break. Give your readers a chance to pause if necessary and they"ll be back refreshed and ready to continue.

Use a list for emphasis. I use lists a lot. They offer me a chance to make my points quickly and succinctly.

Use white space to show organization. I'm using white space and different formatting to show organization in this post. Don't overuse all the elements (like I may be doing in order to show how I would approach this), but pick and choose and have fun.

Choose Your Typography With Care
I chose bold for the main headings and italics for the subheadings. That way anyone reading this post would know that the bold was the main ideas and the italics were the supporting ideas.

It shows importance. The bold headings invite readers. The italics offset the subheading from the text. It all works together to create a neat hierarchy.

It improves readability. A report organized like this will get much more attention than a page of single-spaced 8-point type. Trust me.

It helps a reader read faster. Didn"t you read faster? Good. See, now you know what you can do!

The End is Near

Proper time management isn't just good for efficiency's sake.  It can help you be successful, accomplish your goals, and not be insulting.  That's a lot to put on being timely, but in certain circumstances, it's dead-on true.

Seth Godin wrote "Plan for the End" recently in an entry in his blog.  By this he meant that almost always a presentation, meeting, or interview has a scheduled ending, and if you don't plan your time right, you risk missing the opportunity to convey your point.

Using a blown radio interview as an example, Seth shows how rambling on with a deadline rapidly approaching can cause you to miss your point and even be seen as an annoying person.  Another example he used was presenters who "need" a few more minutes than they are allotted.  Instead of trimming to be on time, they try to rush through the last of their presentation -- and more importantly -- their conclusion.  Or they go long, waste their audience's time, and lose the audience's attention.

A good way to avoid all of this, of course, is to make sure to work within time constraints.  Another way is a bit different: begin with your main point and work down from there.  Seemingly, it's not as dramatic to not have a big finish, but what's wrong with a big beginning?  And there's nothing stopping you from beginning and ending with the same point.

Starting big captures your audience's attention and they can follow you better as you present supporting ideas.  Then, even with seconds left, you can summarize those ideas and proclaim your main idea again, coming full circle.

Posted by George Page, Communication Specialist

How To Be An Expert at Research, Part 1

No one I know has a problem collecting information. In this Internet age, the information available to us after a few minutes of searching online is staggering. The key to researching effectively is knowing how to research judiciously. I've got a few tips to help managers or CEOs research well, so that your writing tasks don't take days or weeks (or months!).

1. Always be in gathering mode. This is easy for some who just seem to gather without thinking about it. The problem for natural "gatherers" is organizing and occasional pruning of all this information. Are you one who collects years of magazines and never seems to get around to reading any of them? You have no problem gathering; you just need help focusing. If you pitch junk mail fastidiously and read all your magazines the moment you receive them and then recycle them that evening, well, obviously, you've got everything figured out in your life (just kidding).

2. Diversify your information sources. There are so many options out there! Articles, financial statements, telephone interviews, personal interviews, the Internet, CD-ROMs, intranet databases, microfiche archives, newsgroups, libraries, textbooks, company newsletters, and the list goes on forever. Rather than just read a couple newsletters each month, why not expand your search parameters and look somewhere you've never looked before.

3. Group similar ideas together. Say you're researching a new product and you're gathering information about competitor prototypes, various R&D reports, and feedback from your clients/customers and your marketing department. Say a large part of the research you've gathered shows that your main competitor's product owns the market, but your marketing department believes your product will be superior. Gather that up and find out what your focus group of clients/customers thinks. All those pieces of research that you have supporting your expansion into this market need to be organized together. Invariably you'll have to prepare your findings to highlight why NOT to create such a product.

4. From these groupings, create a generalization about each group. This is when you prepare reports signifying that early findings indicate that moving forward with a prototype project might be a probable next step. Or does your focus group say something else? See what I mean? All this information must be organized or you're left with a pile of papers without any navigational information about how to deal with it all.

5. Compose an "organizational" blueprint for the research you've amassed. This is where mind-mapping or idea charts come into play. Use a white board and get some good company strategists. Is this an idea that you're willing to attempt even though the focus group did not think your product would replace the competition's? Or perhaps the focus group wants the product and your marketing team is struggling with how to position it against the competition. All this is research and information and before you can write it up as internal memos or marketing messages or company goals, you've got to get a handle on what you've got.

In the second half of this post, we'll fine-tune all this research into a thesis for the writing that must happen. It's more of a micro approach to research.

Your Best Presentation Tool is Your Voice

Think of any lecture, presentation, video conference, web conference, speech, or conference call you've ever attended.  What do they all have in common?  Someone is speaking.  We humans have many ways of communicating, but our voices are the main choice.  Since it's so important, how can you improve your voice to help your business?

Bill Lampton of BusinessKnowHow has a list of twelve tips to make the most of your voice.  All of them are helpful, but let's look at three in particular.  First, pauses get both pros and cons in Lampton's article, and for good reason.  Be careful not to pause too often or in peculiar spots.  A good place to pause would be at the end of a paragraph and not after each sentence – or in the middle of sentences.  These "complete thought" pauses give the audience a chance to take in all you have said.

Of course, the pauses also help to give audible cues to significant parts of your speeches.  You can alter your rate of speaking to indicate you are leading to a point. Then after you have made the point, a nice pause solidifies it. You don't want to speak too rapidly so as to lose your audience, but keep in mind that too slow will bore them.  Too fast or too slow will be a distraction from your message.

Finally, remember that no two voices are the same.  This means that as more people recognize your voice, the more unique and special it will be.   If people begin to associate your voice with good solid information or leadership, they will look forward to your speeches.  And as you notice more people eager to hear your voice, you'll start looking forward to your speeches too.

Posted by George Page, Communication Specialist

How to Write Faster

Writing Faster

The trick of writing business communications is keeping up with the high demand. There is always a pile of writing to be done on a daily or weekly basis; many managers and CEOs find themselves quickly overwhelmed.

Want to know how others do it? Read on.

1. Writing requires some thinking. You might want to not write anything (not even notes) and just stop for even five minutes and just think deeply on your writing topic. This deep thinking is like firing up the main engine of your brain. Limit distractions and don’t try to check email at the same time. You need to just stare at the wall or at the carpet pattern and think.

2. Now for something completely different. Okay, once you’ve done some thinking, now check the email, make some phone calls, read a trade magazine or newsletter. Better yet, go refill your coffee mug or water bottle. Stretch the legs, look out the window, or step outside for some fresh air. This lets the deep thinking rise to the surface.

3. Open up a new document on your computer or get a fresh page and just let it all out. This is unleashing everything that has been brewing inside your head. And I mean let it all out. No worries about punctuation or organization or even legibility. This is your deep thinking release step. There’s no pressure here, so just let it out.

4. Put it aside and move on to another task. This may be another session of deep thinking or the unending email or meetings or phone calls; this is the detachment phase of the writing. This is where you cut yourself off from the creation aspect of the writing in order to get a more critical eye. This is another no pressure step, so don’t waste it by worrying about what you just wrote.

5. Come back for a first read. Print off a fresh copy and get a pencil. Mark places that you feel are overwritten, circle places you think need more work, connect thought patterns, and generally get a feel for the flow of the piece. This first read should not be stressful and you should not be feeling any panic about the terrible shape your writing is in. That’s normal for everyone, so don’t waste valuable time fretting.

Next, check out Editing Business Communications Quickly and Effectively for a series of easy steps to finalize any piece of business writing.

3 Conference Call Habits to Improve

Making a phone call is an integral part of almost all businesses.  Even the street dog vendor occasionally needs to reorder buns.  It's a good thing then that telephones have kept up with the vast changes we've gone through in the past twenty years.  The technology may have improved, but old habits die hard.

1. How many times have you said, "I'll have to ask about that and get back to you"?  How much time has been wasted and progress halted by this phrase or variations of it?  When this happens to you again – and you know it will – hang-up, start a conference call, and outdial the person you were just talking to and the person you need to talk to.  Now all available information is at hand in the call.  Questions and follow-up questions can be asked, decisions can be made, and time isn't wasted.

2. Do you ever get a writing cramp trying to keep up taking notes on a lively discussion?  Ever miss important points on a long list?  Have you regretted not writing down a great speech?  A lot happens during a conference call and this is why most have an "auto-record" feature.

If you don't already, make sure you're conferences get recorded automatically.  It doesn't cost extra and the recordings can be easily downloaded.  The next step is to get into the habit of using those recordings.  Review a meeting to make sure everything got covered.  Listen to make sure your list matches the actual one.  If there was a great soliloquy, you've have it on tape.

3. The mute button is your friend.  It is imperative that everyone in a conference call know how to mute and unmuted themselves.  Muting cuts background noise to the minimum.  It helps avoid embarrassing situations such as kids running into a room, or a loud, suspicious leather chair squeak.  Using a group mute such as lecture mode allows a speaker to talk freely without interruption and lets you choose when to take questions.

There is a flip-side to muting to be acquainted with: mute delay.  If you and your participants are on the ball and mute whenever not speaking, then if a question is asked, there will be a delay.  Unlike a telephone where someone can instantly respond, a muted person needs a few seconds to be able to speak.  Give them that time by how you phrase your questions:

Incorrect:  "What were last week's numbers, Mike?"

Correct:  "Mike, I've got a question for you: what were last week's numbers?"

Saying Mike's name get's his attention.  Announcing you have a question for him gives him time to unmuted.  When it's time to answer, Mike will be ready with an answer.

These three habits may seem little, and they are to a point.  But despite their size, you'll find yourself having more effective and efficient conference calls if you use them often.

Posted by George Page, Communication Specialist

Editing Business Communications Quickly and Effectively

Managers or CEOs write a lot for their jobs. Many experience frustration from having to write so much and find the process exhausting and stressful. Most identify the stress as the act of writing itself, but research shows that the act of planning out the writing, organizing the writing, and editing the writing are actually the stressful pieces of the process. We'll tackle the final piece: editing.

How does one edit their writing?

1. Edit for objective. Does the piece accomplish the objective set out for it? Every written piece of communication needs an objective. What are you trying to accomplish and who is your audience? Plus, a piece of communication usually stresses an action for those reading it. If that action step isn't clear, all your communication is for naught.

2. Edit for macro issues. Instead of editing details, edit the piece of writing as a whole first. Check document design, action steps that make sense, and proper paragraph structure. Consider the logic you're using: does it flow and make sense in this piece? Consider the emphasis: are you using the correct tone for this communication?

3. Edit for micro issues. Now, you can edit for smaller issues such as wordiness, appropriate style, overlong sentences, and word choice. Remember, simplicity is best. No need to add a fancy word for a simple word that works just fine. Also, no need to make all sentences the same length; it is perfectly acceptable to mix up sentence length in a piece.

4. Now edit for correctness. This is the grammar step. If you have specific questions on grammar or punctuation, consult your stylebook. Now is the step to place all your commas correctly, to exchange semicolons for colons, and to make sure your periods and commas are inside the closing quotation mark (unless otherwise allowed).

5. Proofread carefully. Don't just read this on-screen; print out a copy and read it aloud from paper. Double-check for logic, flow, emphasis, tone, and computer-generated errors.

If you utilize the five steps of editing every time you produce a piece of writing, you'll be much more confident when sending out your memos or emails. You'll feel accomplished and professional, and the writing tasks that crowd your to-do list each day won't seem so overwhelming and insurmountable.

Careful Communication

Technology is a beautiful thing. The more you use it however, the bigger the electronic footprint you will leave. Have you ever Googled yourself? It's amazing what you will find. I once found a picture of me in Junior High School, and it wasn't an official yearbook one either – why oh why did I roll my pant cuffs like that?

Some people still don't realize that when you put something on the internet, it's out there forever. Almost all of us will never see it, but it's there. These words I type will exist on some server forever, or at least until the internet crashes or is purged.

Think about your business communications. All of your emails are still out there. Anything you ever loaded onto your website or files you've sent are saved somewhere. Hopefully there is nothing you would take back.

Now think about your personal communications. Yes, they are personal, but we all know how much personal can affect business. Don't limit your thinking to emails, social networking has become huge and it's all public. You should know that anything you put out there has the possibility to be found and used against you -- even your anonymous profile on MySpace.

Peter Shankman recently blogged about such a social networking incident involving a man who wasn't careful about communication. The man in question wrote a post on Twitter when he arrived in a town for a business presentation. The post was a relatively minor bash on the town itself, but he didn't know that several employees of the company he was to present at received regular updates on his posts through Twitter.

This might not have been a big deal, but the town was Memphis, the employees were die-hard home-town folk, they worked at FedEx headquarters, and the man was doing a presentation there on employee communication.

When it comes to communication, for business or personal, write and speak as if the whole world is paying attention. If you don't, the whole world might, but you won't like it.

Posted by George Page, Communication Specialist