Communication skills

Designing written communication

- January 28, 2009 3 MIN READ

When working on a piece of written communication it is easy to focus on the words and overlook the design of the message. Here’s how to craft your message perfectly.

Firstly, think of words as bricks and the house as your message. You need to design the house first before you start laying bricks.

Design to enable organisation

When we read, we build a mental map of the information streaming in to our heads. A clear structure and meaningful flow will enable readers to better access your message.

Block information into sensible chunks at the page and paragraph level. Group similar or related concepts together into sections, pages and paragraphs.

It may be helpful to think about how a recipe is structured: dish overview, ingredients, preparation instructions, serving suggestion, nutritional information and storage method.

Create a flow to your written communication that makes sense to your readers. In a recipe, you would expect to know the ingredients and how they need to be prepared before you turn on the stove.

Each set of bullet points should contain only points that belong together. For example, a list of ingredients should not include cooking utensils.

Design to help your reader find their way

Headings are signposts; so use descriptive and meaningful headings in your written communication. When read together, your headings should provide a summary of your message.

To facilitate fast scanning, you can use bolding to highlight keywords throughout your writing. Don’t overdo it as a page peppered with bolded words can quickly become distracting.

Relevant images, charts, tables and pull quotes can also be used to draw attention to important parts of the text. Put these attention-grabbers next to the relevant parts of the text.

When using bullet pointed lists, avoid overly long points. Lists are great as summaries and overviews, but if each point runs across multiple paragraphs, readers can quickly lose sense of being in a list. With that disorientation, they also lose any associations between the points on that list.

Want more articles like this? Check out the business writing section.

Design to enable comprehension

Generally, you should write from your audience’s perspective. First talk about their issues, concerns and challenges. Then present your clarifications, insights and solutions.

It is a good idea to keep to one concept per paragraph. Start off each paragraph with your concept, then use the rest of the paragraph to expand upon or emphasise it. Like headings, you should be able to just read the first sentence of each paragraph and get a summary of the message.

Use short sentences.

Don’t assume everyone knows the same acronyms as you do – business speak, slang and heavy jargon are usually counterproductive.

If your written communication is for the web, you have an international audience. Use unambiguous dates such as 5 Jan 2009 (and not 5/1/09). Use relative time indicators (such as “last year” or “next week”) carefully as your writing may not appear with a date stamp.

Use a consistent lexicon. Don’t use “Kiwifruit” in the list of ingredients, only to refer to “Chinese Gooseberries” in the preparation.

Use technical notations correctly – kms is not the plural of kilometre. Such abbreviations should not be pluralised. If measurements form a key part of your writing, provide them in both metric and imperial units.

Design tools to help hone your message

For short pieces of written communication like this article, I just write down my headings straight into Word. I spend time moving these headings around, adding or removing along the way. When I am happy with them, I start filling in the actual words.

For complex pieces, such as websites with their hyperlinked content, I use mind maps to layout my concepts. This can be done with a software tool, a whiteboard, pieces of paper, index cards or sticky notes…and string to link them all together.

I sometimes turn my headings into a set of PowerPoint slides. I can play back the slides to see if they succeed in telling the story I want to tell. This is also a great way to tweak meaningful headings.

Do you have any other tips on designing written communication?

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  • Andrew Caska

    Caska IP Patent Attorneys

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