We all read a lot of very long documents: proposals, reports, stories etc. Or at least we are asked to read them.
The truth is we don’t often read them at all. Most often, we just skim. We skim to pick up the idea, the theme or the key points. We skim to find the parts that are of most interest to us at that time.
The strange part about this admission is that we don’t think about this when we craft a document or story or report of our own. We write as if we really believe that the reader will cover it all and read every word. This is where we go wrong.
I tell all of my audiences when we discuss good communications skills, we need to put ourselves in the shoes or seats of our audience. We need to ask ourselves what do they want to hear and how do they want to hear it. If you do this before producing those pages of text you might approach the task a little differently.
You need to consider if, for instance, you have different audiences for your document. Some will want to key in on the technical parts while others will want the general overview. Understanding this is the first key to a better output.
Once we understand our audience it is time to construct our output in a fashion that is ‘skimmable’ (not a good word, but it fits), readable and easy to navigate.
This topic comes to mind today as I fly from Toronto to Montreal to visit two colleagues, one of which is my friend Benoit De Grâce. Benoit is the President of PMC – Project Management Centre and a VP with The PMI Chapter in Montreal. But more important to this discussion, he is the author of the chapter “The Power of Seven” in the book “The Keys to Our Success”
In his chapter, Benoit tells us that the key to his success is breaking his output into chunks of 7, plus or minus 2. It is such a simple but powerful message. Humans will loose attention, he suggests, if you try to cover more than 9 ideas or topics. As well, each topic should be clearly separated or referenced.
The idea of 7, plus or minus 2 is important here. But so is the formatting of those ideas. If I am asked to read a document that covers a lot of ground, I will ‘chunk’ my work, as Benoit suggests, but as well I will number and label the 7 (plus or minus 2) sections. Thus my reader has easy access to the sections that he or she really wants to read.
- Tell me up front what you are going to tell me.
- Give me the detail with the same headings as listed above
- Recap what you have told me.
Follow this simple advice and readers will find it easier to read the parts that you want them to read.
‘Skimmable’ (still not a good word), readable and easy to navigate.
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