heliotrope learning

better skills, brighter future

What’s your point?

I really enjoy delivering training courses; I’ve mentioned before about ‘lightbulb moments’ – those instances when the penny drops and a participant makes a connection and understands something.

My favourite topic is business writing; I love helping people to improve their writing skills, as it’s an area that is often overlooked in terms of soft skills. I think it comes from a love of reading, spelling, crosswords, debating and so on – the power of words is something of which I’m acutely aware.

I often spend time explaining about how best to structure documents. One of the techniques I cover is where to place your key messages, because it’s in our nature to try and absorb information quickly. As a result, we all tend to skim read – we can’t help ourselves.

Yet, if you want your business document to be effective, you want to ensure your key messages are read and understood quickly. For that reason, it makes sense to put them first, at the top of a paragraph, followed by any supporting information. After all, in business writing terms, we’re not trying to build suspense, to keep our readers guessing as though they’re reading a good thriller. We are trying to demonstrate key facts, important findings, conclusions and recommendations.

Newspaper journalists do it really well; turn to nearly any story and the key facts will be in the first paragraph. If you want the gist of a story, you can just read that and move on. But if you want to read more detail you can jump from paragraph to paragraph and read the key (or topic) sentence to get the overall story. The detail will follow the topic sentence elaborating on the facts or opinions. So far, so good.

But there’s a problem: in the education system we’re trained to prove what we know. We get tested regularly and we get marks for demonstrating our knowledge. How else can the teacher/examiner give us the credit we deserve? So, we tend to write about how we know Fact A, Fact B and Fact C and that leads us to conclude why X happened rather than Y. And because we’ve been taught that that is the way to do it, it can be hard to change. It’s ingrained. The key message – the important point – is buried in amongst the rest of the information. Examiners are expected to look for the marks and, on the whole, they want to give you as much credit as they can. But business readers can be busy, easily bored and not necessarily interested in what you have to say.

So, you need to make it really obvious. It’s often a bit of a shock when I point this out to participants, even more so when they look at their own work and realise that they’ve fallen into the trap themselves. They can rectify it easily enough – the content often stays the same, it’s the order that changes. And it’s one of those lightbulb moments, when they realise how minor adjustments can have major results.