Respect Your Readers

Have you ever wondered why plays are separated into acts and scenes? If you ever watch one live, it just seems to make sense. But, have you ever tried to read one? Better yet, have you ever had to take a class in classic literature, and had to suffer through (er, I Haley-Joel-Osment-and-Bru-006mean, enjoy reading) a great many plays, particularly those really long, fairly confusing ones? You’ll notice that they’re all broken down into acts and scenes. This helps the reader know when things are changing. A play generally only contains words spoken by the actors and not a great deal of outside information. That’s why the scenes are incredibly helpful. As this article suggests, it tells us, rather it tells me, the non-classically educated literary, when the action on one end stops and the other begins.

Okay, I know this is a bit abstract, but that’s the first thing I thought of when I read the article on user-centered design.

Its possible that someone who studies the works of William Shakespeare could easily separate the different scenes and actions simply by reading straight through, I know that I absolutely could not. I need the break and I need the structure of the written play to tell me when to stop picturing one action and view another.

It’s the exact same thing in business writing. Except, you of course will not be separating your work into scenes. You will be doing something far trickier. You have to start big, and transition into smaller and more complex ideas through the entire work. Just like the scenes in a play start and stop, you need to make transitions exceedingly clear. Otherwise, it seems like you’re in some sort of technical vortex of words and there is no easy way out.

So, how do you do this? Well, as I discussed in my last post, you need to make sections very clear. Make it exceptionally clear that you are introducing the topic, that you are giving an overview, then that you are going to jump into technical sections. But don’t just jump into those sections. When I write technically, I give a paragraph to warn, or possibly scare away, potential readers. I’ll say something like, “in the following paper, I will discuss to the nth degree of detail, this, this, and this…” Then, if someone is reading further, it’s at his or her own peril, and I can only assume that reader knows something about those things that I mentioned. The other great part about doing this is that a senior level, or non-technical person can stop at that warning and use my description of the subsequent topics to find the right person to read it for him. If you don’t do this, you’ll often get someone who reads halfway through something, realizes they have no understanding of it, get bored and/or annoyed, and give up all together. This then leaves your research and all of your hard work on an ignored stack of papers where the best possible outcome is the recycling bin.

This is very similar to the Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) idea. I used to work for a guy who would start status emails just like this:

BLUF: Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit

Where of course a single statement replaced the dummy text, which was the entire point of the summary. The brilliance of this was that it was a very quick way to captivate an interested audience. You would read the BLUF, then you would want to read the email to figure out how he got there. You read with intensity because you knew what the ending was before you got there!

It is not unlike telling everyone that Bruce Willis is actually dead in an effort to get him or her excited to watch the 6th Sense.

It seems ludicrous in real life, but in the business world, it saved so much time. If you didn’t care about the end, you knew you weren’t missing anything if you didn’t read the email.

Everyone I knew always read his status reports and it actually showed that he had a respect for other people’s time. On a side note, while this example only pertains to email, among the countless other ways your business writing can impact others, email is the most common day to day written business communication. There are thousands of ways to make your emails more readable, but this article outlines just a few. That said, no matter what style of writing you do, make it concise, and make sure your readers know what they’re getting into before they take the trouble to read it. This shows that you are respecting their time and their intelligence.

Your readers will see this, and if they know you are respecting their time and energy through your writing, you in turn will gain a great deal of respect.

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Ben Posthuma

Just a guy who loves the Colorado life! Skiing, cycling, mountain biking, camping, climbing, triathalon, you name it and I'll be there. In addition, I'm a student at the University of Colorado - Boulder working on a degree in Business Management with a goal of a PhD in Telecommunications. Oh yeah, I have a job too. I'm a research director at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in South Boulder working to rebuild our nation's public safety communications networks.

6 thoughts on “Respect Your Readers

  1. I also wrote about how in user-centered design we need to always remember who our audience is. We sometimes as writers will write for ourselves and lose track of our thoughts. I like how you referenced the acts and scenes things broken up into different sections and connected it to writing. It was a good reference and made sense, if someone is reading this and does not know much about this style of writing that reference would make it easier for someone to understand, which is the whole point of user-centered design.

  2. Ben,
    I agree with much of the advice you are giving Millennials, I think i wrote very similarly to you. If we can write with the mindset of the end user in mind, I think your writings can be very powerful and drawing. Great blog post again!

    -Aaron Berns

  3. Ben, the way you used how plays are broken down into acts and scenes to express the importance of simplifying ideas and not to jumble everything into a “technical vortex” as you mentioned. It is so important to avoid the vortex you described. For example, if you are constructing an analysis of a company your boss may want to invest in, you do not want a jumbled mess of charts, numbers, and words with no sense of direction or organization. You want the reader to be able to find relevant info with ease instead of painfully reading chunks of texts surrounded by numbers. If said reader wants to see an evaluation and reports of revenue, they should be able to quickly locate a section titled “Revenue”, and the same goes for anything else they may want to read about.

    James

  4. Ben,

    Wow, love the way you tied everything back into the way plays are broken down. I’ve read the play Macbeth once or twice, and although the language was almost incomprehensible to how we talk now, there were definitely places in the text where you knew to stop and knew they were starting a new idea. With writing you need to do this too. As I personally improve my writing, I am looking for clear ideas and concise structured sentences. Once I got my full idea out, like you said the big idea, I move to the more complex as you mentioned. Then after this, I will clearly end, and move to the next point. Learning how to do this is going to be so effective and will help not confuse people who are reading our work.

  5. Hey Ben! I really like how you used the example of plays and how they are broken down into scenes and acts, and tied this back to user centered design. I too am not well read when it comes to plays, so this example really helped to apply to concept of user-centered design to make readings, documents, etc more useful and understandable for the user. This is important to incorporate into writing as well, as it gives a better structure, flow, and understanding of the writing. I also like how you mentioned the warning you give to readers. This is a good idea like you mentioned, and I will try to begin incorporating this explicitly into my writing.

  6. Ben,

    I’m sure I am just reaffirming all of the other comments, but how you tied business writing to plays is awesome! I completely agree that that very few people can actually separate the thoughts into acts themselves. The first video on macbeth is a nice touch to reaffirm this. I also really like the idea of a warning paragraph, it really just moves the blame away from you. Great post!

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