I like to write, but as a writer of business communications, I'm faced with a hard truth—nobody wants to read the stuff I'm writing. Watching people use my documents, it's obvious to me that they aren't reading—they're skipping and scanning through the content, hunting for the information they need. They're in a hurry to get back to whatever they were doing, as quickly as possible.
Good writers understand this and design documents that help users find what they're looking for.
Think about how you read a novel, and contrast it with how you use a policy, procedure or reference document. Here's a table with a few differences for you keep in mind when you're writing for users.
|When you're a reader…
||When you're a user…
|you're interested in finding out more about your topic.
||you're only interested in finding the information that will enable you to get back to work. If it's not relevant, you don't need it.
|you like variety, because it amuses and challenges you.||you don't like variety, because it annoys you and slows you down. You prefer consistency.|
|you appreciate wit, humor and wordplay.||you appreciate clear, concise information that will enable you to get back to work. Anything else is just unwelcome distraction.|
|you enjoy surprises.||you're puzzled and slowed by surprises, because they annoy and distract you.|
|you want to be informed and entertained by what you're reading.||you just want to get back to work.|
It's hard to miss the recurring theme in that second column—users don't want to spend time reading. They want to find what they're looking for and get back to doing their jobs. Your challenge as a writer is to create documents that give them the help and guidance they need.
Does this happen to you too? Please let me know your thoughts.
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I used to organised economics and banking conferences and we always had the issue of maintaining a balance between the practitioners and the academics - practitioners could not justify time away from work listening to highly theoretical presentations with dense stacks of presentation slides. They wanted a list of takeaways. Ever since, and now that I present more frequently I have always taken the time to have a slide of takeaways - placed at the end of the presentation I give, but at the start of the presentation when it is made available to the audience post-conference, with links from the takeaway to the slides in question. As a result I also end up paring back the slide deck too.
No, I don't agree that wit, humour, surprises etc are not welcome: on the contrary! Far from being a "distraction", in the bad sense, they provide a welcome change from the tedious slog of working one's way through dreary verbiage. THAT is what no-one wants to read, even when they know the subject. People want a CLEAR MESSAGE, as punchily and succinctly delivered as possible. If you provide that, people WILL read what you have to say.
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