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Is your writing more like a sonnet or a striptease?

August 3, 2012

Information Architecture. That’s what I would have called a ‘beginning, a middle and an end’ when I was learning to write stories at primary school. Now, someone has given it a fancy name. (That’s what happens when corporate people get involved.)

But it’s a useful way to think about how we structure information if we are trying to sell a story or an idea.

The order of information – and the way it looks on a page – has a big impact on how well we take it in. But do you give it a lot of thought?

When it comes to writing, we have to start with the premise that people don’t like reading – well, maybe they like reading Booker prize-winning novels, or they like reading Fifty Shades of Grey. They are less excited to read media releases, research reports, discussion papers or any of the countless materials that PR people spend their lives writing.

I read an article recently that said radio listeners will give a song 8 seconds to decide if they like it before flicking the dial. Listeners, readers, viewers – they are much the same. If you don’t give them a reason to stay, they’ll leave you.

I was taught to structure a media release so that if you only read the first paragraph, you’d still know the whole story. Actually, you should know it from the headline.

Being taught to write media releases by an ex-journalist, our releases read like newspaper stories. If you think about how we consume newspapers, we skim the majority of information and deep dive into a couple of pieces.

Most people are taught to write the opposite way at school and university. They feel like the reader should have a little teaser upfront, then stick faithfully with them until they reveal something wonderful at the end of the piece.

Sadly, most corporate writing lacks the poetry of a Shakespearean sonnet, so the reader will not stick it out until the clever and whimsical turn in the last two lines.

They key is put it all out there at the beginning. It’s like the opposite of a strip tease: start with everything on show. Make your point quickly, then explain and elaborate. Break up long pieces of text into paragraphs. What the hell, throw in some bold words if you like! Crack out some text boxes, insert a little SmartArt – whatever you can do to jazz up the page and keep the reader with you. Maybe go easy on the old-school ClipArt though…

And of course, keep your language simple and clear. Good information architecture is wasted if your building blocks are long and tortured sentences filled with jargon.

Structure isn’t that difficult to get right, and yet it’s not always given a lot of thought. It helps to approach it from the point of view of the reader. What is the most important piece of information that reader needs to take away? Then work back from there.

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2 Comments
  1. Just saw your response to my tweet and thought oh! I haven’t looked at your blog for awhile. Would you believe I was just about to start working on an information architecture recommedation for a client I’m working with. Now as I work for this Christian NFP I’ll think – strip tease – strip tease – keep it to a strip tease ;o) Thanks for these tips.

    • Thanks Gemma! I am very happy to think that I have contributed to some questionable striptease references for a religious organisation 😉

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