People Need Instruction, Not Just Information
When an organization changes, it’s easy to focus only on the big picture.
It’s easy, and it doesn’t change a thing.
For instance, if you want someone to have a strong marriage, you might suggest that they be kind to their spouse — but don’t expect that suggestion alone to help.
To transform aspiration into reality, individuals must take physical action — they must do something. A marriage counselor doesn’t stop with “have a strong marriage.” The counselor says, “Sit down every evening for 10 minutes and talk about your day,” “Give each other a date night every week,” or “Take turns cooking.”
Professional goals require the same approach. To make a vision into reality, move beyond information and advice to give people specific, actionable direction and make certain what you say or write is easy to understand.
This is never more important than in a time of change, when concentration is hardest because of strong, unfamiliar stresses. Here are five ways to make your communications more effective, especially in a time of change.
1. Ask What You Want to Happen When It’s Over
Begin by asking what you want to happen at the end — usually what you want someone to physically do. Put it in the form of a short sentence. Write it down.
Let’s say you’re assigned to connect employees with a new selection of retirement investments. You might write down, “At the end, I want them to know their new choices.” But that wouldn’t change anything. What do you want to happen at the end? You might write, “I want employees to go to our website and select a retirement investment based on our new choices and the latest information.”
Or this: Instead of “We want the boss to know about the staffing shortages,” write “We’ll tell the boss about the problems as part of asking him to give us advice.”
By starting at the end and thinking about action instead of just information, you will identify a practical goal with measurable impact. Thus, it will be easier to recognize the goal when you reach it, and its benefits (and your efforts) will be more valuable to the people who depend on them.
2. Be Clear, Not Clever
When I go to the grocery store to buy a can of beans, I look for a can that says BEANS on it. If the label said, “You’ll Never Guess What’s in Here!” I’d think, “You’re right! I’m here for beans, not to play ‘Where’s Waldo?’ with the bean people.”
It’s the same thing when you create a title for your communications: Be obvious. “Good Things Come to New Employees” is no match for “14 Benefits All New Employees Can Sign Up for Today.”
Is it ever wise to sacrifice a little clarity for a clever line? Try this: If you’re writing to get attention among competing titles, be clever. If your audience is already looking for what you have to offer, be clear.
3. Don’t Fall in the Fact Trap
Most of the time, people disagree because they have different priorities, not because one of them lacks facts or fails to apply logic.
For example, we all place a high priority on quality and price. Sometimes we choose a thing for its quality despite its high price. Other times we sacrifice quality to get a lower price. Neither decision is right or wrong by some immutable standard. Most matters are a question of preference: efficiency versus elegance, opportunity versus risk, character versus policy.
Yet communicators often blast away with facts on the belief that audiences will agree “if only they know what I know.” Wrong. Facts are important in persuasion but rarely are they dispositive. Motivation arises first from feeling. Don’t limit your persuasive effort to facts alone. Give people not only a reason to believe, but also a feeling to believe.
4. Insist on Structure and Stick to It
People absorb information best when it is presented in an orderly way. A library isn’t set up at random. Books sit on labeled shelves, and shelves are grouped into sections. There’s a well-defined order that’s clear the minute you walk in the door. That’s important. There’s a lot of useful information in a library, but if it weren’t offered in a way you could follow, you wouldn’t bother going inside.
It’s the same with newsletters, essays, instruction guides, speeches and all other communications: the structure helps draw us in and keeps us going.
There are many useful structures, but the most common is a beginning that introduces what’s coming, a middle that spells things out, and a conclusion that summarizes key points and sets expectations for what the reader or listener should do next. Within that structure, solutions are presented in the context of the problems they solve and the benefits they provide, and facts are presented to expand on the problem and the solution. In this way everything is easier to follow, which makes it easier to act on.
There is nothing so complicated that it cannot be structured well toward a clear explanation.
5. Use Simple Tricks to Increase Understanding
While some parts of the writing process require deep thought, some improvements come with no heavy lifting at all:
- Stop using “very.”
- Avoid adverbs. Look for superior verbs and adjectives.
- Get rid of semicolons. Not all of your readers know what they mean. You wouldn’t use vocabulary unknown to your readers, so stop using punctuation that’s foreign to them, too.
- Limit paragraphs to five or six physical lines. People read better with frequent breaks.
- As often as possible, keep it to a page. Folks don’t remember a lot of detail, so don’t worry that you’re leaving things out. Mostly we just want to know what you expect us to do and why.
At the 2020 Virtual World Conference, Michael presented a session about bringing clarity to communication. Review this session and others by purchasing one or more of the conference recording packages. View all available recording packages here.
Michael Long is the co-author of the non-fiction bestseller “The Molecule of More” (BenBella 2018), and he teaches writing at Georgetown University. Read more about him at MikeLongOnline.com.