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Plain Words - the Documentation and Training People

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Training Bulletin Issue 70

Why should anyone read your report or email?

Well, why are you reading this newsletter? Because the sender's name or the subject of the email didn't put you off in the first place. Then you felt that maybe you wanted to see what we were talking about this time. You probably made the decision to read or delete this email in less than three seconds. It's taken you possibly about another seven or eight seconds to get this far. If you're still here, then some of what I'm saying is intriguing you; you're wondering where this is going. But if there isn't some sort of payoff soon, you're going to give up and go on to your next email.

OK, here it is: the process that got you here is the same process that your reader goes through when reading – or deciding not to read – your emails and other documents. Understanding it better increases the chances that they will read your communications.

Yes or no in three seconds

If someone has decided they hate you and never want to read a word you write then you're doomed as far as that one reader is concerned. They'll see the name of the report author or email sender, curl their lip and hit delete. Luckily, few of us actually manage to annoy people enough to make them do that, so if your identity hasn't put them off, the next thing they'll notice is the subject of the email or the title of the report.

Take a moment to think about this before you send anything out. You are asking your reader to give you time that they could spend doing something else – what are you offering them back for that? Your subject or your title needs to promise the reader some return on their time. They need to know that an action or a reply is needed, or that an email includes something they need to know. A report title needs to promise valuable content. Is there anything about your subject or title that gives the reader a reason to think, I don't need to know this or I haven't got time to read this?

Your subject or title needs to tell the reader that there is something in it for them. It's also worth trying to not make the document too long: a lot of people feel they don't have enough time to devote a big chunk of it to a long email or report and will move on as soon as they realise it will take them a while to read.

Few people will read the whole thing

What goes through your mind when you start to read something? Is there something in here I can use? Does it tell me X? Clearly, the value of X will be different from one reader to the next. Think about what your reader needs from your document. This is a very different thing from being driven by what you want to tell them!

A skim reader, having spent a few seconds deciding to give your email or report a quick look, is going to want some sort of return for their time in the next 30 seconds, or they will move on.

These two tricks also help ensure readers with different requirements find what they need in a longer document without having to wade through the whole thing. Use headings or give page numbers to help readers quickly find what they need.

The detail people are still there

A worrying trend is that people share or tweet references to articles on social media without, in many cases, reading much more than their titles. We have to hope that professionals will take a different approach. Some of your readers will read more of the document than others, some may read all of it, especially if it is highly relevant to their work. They may not read it in the order it's written but, as long as they can find what they want, that doesn't matter.

Try to avoid conventions such as 'see below', 'as previously stated' because these aren't helpful when people read out of sequence or dip in and out. Replace them with 'on page n' or 'in section X'. Have a separate glossary if you use a lot of technical terms, acronyms or abbreviations – nobody wants to scroll back through a document or have to use the 'find' tool to jump to the first time you defined something to understand what it means.

We all put our trousers on one leg at a time

Think about the way you approach a long email or report. I would bet that very few of us start at the beginning and read all the way through in every case. You would run your eye down a page, and a word, heading or beginning of a list will catch your attention. Illustrations stand out even more than words. Your reader does the same things you do so ask yourself what makes a document more accessible for you?

If you feel that your or your colleagues' written communications could have more impact, look into our course on Email & Report Essentials. We've practised what we just preached by making this a half day session, but it will give you a lot of really useful tips to ensure that you structure and write emails and reports that deliver what your readers want.

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