Insure readers understand your message with the right content

Workplace readers often say they want short documents. But shorter doesn’t always equal an easier reading experience. Consider these jury instructions:

A fact is established by direct evidence when proved by documentary evidence or by witnesses who saw the act done or heard the words spoken. A fact is established by circumstantial evidence when it may be fairly and reasonably inferred from other facts proved.

Got that? Here’s a revised version of the same content:

Direct evidence means a fact was proved by a document, by an item, or by testimony from a witness who heard or saw the fact directly. Indirect evidence means the circumstances reasonably suggest the fact. Indirect evidence means that based on the evidence, you can conclude the fact is true. Indirect evidence is also called “circumstantial evidence.”

For example, suppose a witness was outside and saw that it was raining. The witness could testify that it was raining, and this would be direct evidence. Now suppose the witness was inside a building, but the witness saw people walking into the building with wet umbrellas. The witness could testify that it was raining outside, and this would be indirect evidence.

juryWhen these two versions were tested in a mock trial, the jurors who received the longer version thought it was simpler than those who got the shorter version. And the group with the longer version also scored better on comprehension questions about the content of the instructions. So shorter isn’t necessarily better.

If you haven’t spent much time in a white-collar workplace yet, you likely have little experience writing for readers who know less than you do. Instead, you’ve delivered documents to teachers, who normally know more than you about your content. Plus teachers are obligated to read whatever students write. I promise that won’t be the situation at work! You will have to carefully develop the right information to make your message clear to workplace readers. You’ll have to know your audience well enough to predict what information they need.

Developing informative prose (that means definitions, comparisons, examples, etc.) is briefly explained in Chapter 3 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using the book in an academic setting, you’ll find tons of exercises in that chapter. They’ll help you practice identifying and fixing problems with the supporting details in professional texts. Here are some additional resources:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if you want to suggest how to make the resources more useful.

Sample Document

Read this executive summary for a business plan adapted by me based on a sample available from the Center for Business Planning (businessplans.org).

  • Writer: the owner of a manufacturing company
  • Readers: potential investors (like venture capitalists)
  • Bottom line message: the company is a good investment because they’ve got an innovative product at reasonable cost with high market demand

Here’s a revised version of that executive summary with better content development.

Video Tutorial

The business plan’s executive summary is included in this video about informing readers in workplace documents. My goal is to provide a guide to the essentials, which takes ~13 minutes.

Related Readings

There are posts here at Pros Write that deal with developing effective information for workplace documents. Enter “information” in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, you might check out the following sources.

Garrison, L. et al. (2012). Designing evidence-based disclosures: A case study of financial privacy notices. The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Summer, pp. 204–234.

Holmes-Rovner, M.et al. (2005). Evidence-based patient choice: A prostate cancer decision aid in plain language. BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making, 5(1), pp. 16.

Schiess, W. (2008). The Texas pattern jury charges plain-language project: The writing consultant’s view. Clarity, 60, pp. 23-27.

6 thoughts on “Insure readers understand your message with the right content

  1. What form of insurance do you recommend we take out for our readers?

    When I read an article by any professional writer the aspect of their writing that will immediately destroy my trust is the mistaken use of words.

    • Instead of rejecting your rather ugly comment, Nick, I’ll simply point you to the entry on “Insure.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2014. .

      I can’t understand why you would go out of your way to be rude. I would treat no one with such disrespect — even if their word choice went against my personal preferences.

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