Tag: document design

Older people write better digital content

Posted on February 2nd, by Thomas Heath in writing. 2 comments

I’ve just turned 41. I played football on my Birthday, ruptured my Achilles tendon and now I’m here with my leg in plaster. So I thought I’d mention one benefit of getting older.

How to explain first time

Posted on July 5th, by Thomas Heath in writing. 1 Comment

‘If you’re explaining you’re losing.’ That phrase recently came out to bite President Obama, after he gave a 17-minute answer to a short question about healthcare and taxes.

Healthcare and taxes, human rights, banking, the environment … too many of the most vital messages get beached like whales in our attention deficit disordered world. People have to understand first time. Get it? Got it. Good. If not, you lose.

To avoid losing, answer these questions before you try to explain:

1. Who cares and why?
2. How will I make a difference?
3. What’s the big idea?

We use this approach for scripting everything except Post-it notes. You can too.

Step One: Who cares and why?
Who’s your audience? What are they thinking? And why exactly would they be interested in you? Great if you know these people as individuals. If not then imagine them into life — … Read More »

How computer code can improve your writing

Posted on June 1st, by Thomas Heath in writing. 2 comments

As a writer, more and more of my words are published online. The more I work with web developers and designers, the more I see of the dark arts of coding. And do you know what? Writing code is just the same as writing words.

Developers and writers are doing the same things – the only difference is that while I want to communicate clearly to my reader, my developer is communicating with a web browser. Either way, we’re both using language to create specific outcomes.

Not convinced? Well, let me give you a few things that a good writer can learn from their web developer:

1. Know your outcomes

When a developer starts writing a piece of code, they’ll always have an outcome in mind.

They might be adding a sign-up box to capture email addresses. They might be adding more navigation links to a … Read More »

Unusual advice on how to begin a proposal

Posted on February 4th, by Thomas Heath in writing. 5 comments

Decision makers love to say ‘I only ever read the executive summary’. And the way you start your proposal tends to seal its fate. It’s your Dragon’s Den moment: 45 seconds to convince a tough audience. Better make it good.

But I see many proposal writers get overwhelmed by the occasion. The point gets lost in a parade of corporate niceties, with much cap doffing and polite procrastination: ‘we’re delighted to submit this proposal for your attention… the company is committed to…’. That kind of thing.

Look up advice on writing executive summaries and you’ll find differing lists of items you might want to include: mission statements, team members, and so on. Combine those lists together and you’ve got a monster. Meanwhile, your dragon’s flown away.

What to do? First be clear what ‘executive summary’ means:

1. You’re summarising an idea, not a document.

2. … Read More »

Why you should start at the end, and why we don’t

Posted on November 20th, by Thomas Heath in writing. 11 comments

Remember science at school? That’s where I learned to dice rats, mix volatile substances, handle electric shocks and melt biros with a Bunsen burner. It’s also where most of us were conditioned to save the main point until last.

Writing up experiments was always the same: start with objectives, talk through the method (saying ‘this was done’, never ‘I did this’), set out the results, analyse them and … finally … give your conclusion. It was similar but more vague for essay subjects: start by saying what you’re going to say; say it, then say what you’ve said.

This format is ideal for Teacher, who already knows the conclusion and wants to see how well you’ve understood.

(Heath! See me about the Bunsen burner…)

But in the real world our reader won’t know the answer until we tell them. And they need to be told … Read More »

The writer’s job: looking after gorillas

Posted on November 12th, by Thomas Heath in writing. 3 comments

Tell me if this sounds familiar: you write a report in which you carefully deal with items A to Z, then your boss or client asks why you didn’t mention item G. ‘It’s there, you idiot’ you say (to yourself) ‘all covered on page 17, third paragraph, with a diagram too.’ Why did your reader miss item G? For the same reason that most of us can miss a gorilla.

Since 1999 the Harvard psychologists Simons and Chabris have been making news with their gleeful demonstrations of human perception. In one test they got participants to watch a film of a basketball game and count the number of times one team passed the ball. During the clip, someone in a gorilla suit strolls onto the court, faces the camera, does a little jig then slowly walks off. And guess what? 70% of subjects … Read More »

Don’t blame the messenger

Posted on September 18th, by Thomas Heath in writing. 3 comments

Professor Michael Shayer of King’s College London recently repeated a study first done in 1976 to test the problem-solving abilities of 800 secondary pupils. He found they’ve got better at quick-fire descriptive responses, but worse at more complex reasoning.

Text message culture is widely blamed for this ‘dumbing down’, but let’s not accuse the medium — telegrams never made us stupid. What matters is the writer’s intent. More than 350 years ago, Blaise Pascal felt compelled to apologise for a long letter because he hadn’t time to make it short. Being concise is hard; it takes effort to pack a tight snowball.

Texts, Twitter and other messaging services force the writer to be brief, so we inevitably use them for speed. But what happens, what has always happened, when you ration the words of a writer with creative intentions? You get poetry. … Read More »