Presentation First, Content Second

About 200 years ago I attended a company sponsored course called “Writing for the Reader”. Okay. It wasn’t 200 years ago. It just seems like it was. I think I would have been in my early 30s at the the time (possibly my late 20s) and I was starting to get involved in doing documentation for users (things like User Guides and User Manuals).

The course went for a week and I can clearly recall thinking at the time “What can this course possibly contain that is going to take five days to cover?”

I had always done well with writing. I really enjoyed it and had even written a 200 page book when I was about 14—which was done using an actual typewriter with a wet (inked) ribbon. Oh yeah! So I also thought that there was not a lot that someone like myself was going to learn from a “Writing for the Reader” course.

From memory the company I was working for was paying about $3,000 per head for the eight or nine of us that elected to take up the opportunity. I also found it hard to imagine that such a course could be worth $3,000 per person back in the early 1980s. That $3,000 then would be about $8,000 now. You could buy a fairly decent second-hand car today for $8,000.

To this day I consider those five days a landmark in my life. As it has happened the bulk of what I do for a living since then has revolved around documenting something or other. When I moved into the field of ‘enterprise IT infrastructure planning and design’ little did I know I was moving into an area requiring huge amounts of never-ending documentation. All kinds of documentation. Documentation for upper management justifying projects and obtaining funding. Documents aimed at middle management setting out charters, objectives, scopes, plans, and designs. Documentation for project management and reporting. Organisation change management (OCM) documentation for middle management, teams, and users. And much much more.

At this course there were three “principles” that were discussed every morning for the first hour or so. These were:

  1. Writing for the Reader.
  2. Presentation First, Content Second.
  3. Outline, Outline, Outline.

None of these principle are easy to apply. Certainly not when you first encounter them. When they are worked through as part of the course they become very obvious but it still takes some time before, as a writer, you automatically apply them in everything you do.

There is no way I can possibly cover the depth of each of these principles in a short post here but to give you some idea taking the first principle “Writing for the Reader” as an example; the starting point for this is, obviously, working out who your reader is (or readers are). Then you have to consider what they want to know and how they want to see the information presented to them in the documentation. You also have to factor in the outcome you want to achieve: is it just education; is it instructional (do you want them to do something); is it input (in a process for the next step); or is the objective to get a favourable decision on something?

The second principle seems wrong at first: “Presentation First, Content Second”. But the point is made a number of times during the course using some powerful examples. For example at the start of the course three A5 sized 10 page or so booklets were handed out, with no explanation. At the start of day four (the second last day) the instructor asked without any prior warning “Hands up those who think Alice’s mother is Martha”, then he asked “Who thinks her name is Wilma”, and “Who thinks her name is “Janet”, and finally “Who has no idea at all about Alice or her mother”.

The three A5 books that had been provided were a story about Alice. Each story was exactly the same except in the last third section of each book the name of Alice’s mother was revealed to be different. The two people in the class of about 20 who had no idea who Alice or Alice’s mother was had not read any of the three books right through. The remainder of the people in the class though Alice’s mother was either Martha or Wilma. Nobody thought it was Janet.

All books were black type on white paper with no images used.

The book in which Alice’s mother was Janet was the worst presentation. From memory it just had “About Alice” as the title in the middle of the front page and the font used in the book was mono-spaced Courier. It contained no table of contents and no page numbers or headers/footers. The line spacing and general use of white space was irregular and ugly. There were many other presentation and layout ‘mistakes’ about the book as well.

The book in which Alice’s mother was Martha had the best presentation and was well set out with regular predictable use of white space and the text was in a serif font.

Without going into pages of detail, the point here is that of those people who randomly decided to flick through the 10 page book and see what it was about chose either the pleasingly formatted book (where Alice’s mum was Martha) or the average presentation (where her mother was Wilma). Nobody had read the badly set out and presented book. Not a single person in the class thought Alice’s mum was Janet.

The primary point being that, unless they are forced to do so, people will either completely avoid or only grudgingly and sparingly consume something that is badly presented. And if this happens to your work then it matters little how good the content was because it isn’t going to get consumed.

This post got a bit longer than I intended, but as I leave it, do you know how to use Outlining in Microsoft Word?