Editors insure content matches audience readiness for it

My technical editing students are working on a developmental edit on some assembly instructions from Ikea. To help them make good recommendations, we’ve been discussing how to help content creators address the readers’ readiness for that content. Readiness is a concept borrowed from leadership research (the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership theory) to describe how able and willing an individual is to follow a leader. It’s not much of a leap to think about a writer as analogous to a leader. Both attempt to influence what others think or do./>
readiness

As the graphic shows, followers/readers have high readiness (R4) when they are both able and willing to think or do as the leader/writer wants. In contrast, they have lower readiness (R3) when they are able but unwilling. And so on. Diagnosing the ability and willingness of readers to think or do as a content creator wants is an essential task for editors.

To address audience ability, editors focus on recommendations for developing informative prose (or graphics). To address willingness, they focus on developing persuasive content. The videos below help editors think about these issues based on what my co-authors and I wrote in Chapters 3 and 4 of Revising Professional Writing, 4th edition.

For more detailed discussions of developing informative content, check out Insure Readers Understand Your Message with the Right Content.

For more on persuasive content, go to Persuade Readers with an Appeal to Logos.

I’m hoping to share some of my students efforts at developmental editing in a few weeks so stay tuned . . .

Related Readings

There are lots of posts here at Pros Write that deal with developing informative and persuasive content for the workplace. If you want to see some of the research behind my guidelines, check out the following sources:

Cialdini, R.B. (2001). Harnessing the science of persuasion. Harvard Business Review, 79(9), pp. 72-79.

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.

Gilsdorf, J.W. (1986). Executives’ and academics’ perceptions on the need for instruction in written persuasion. Journal of Business Communication, 23(4), pp. 55-68.

Halmari, H. & Virtanen, T. (Eds.) (2005). Persuasion Across Genres: A linguistic approach (Pragmatics & Beyond, New Series). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hersey, P. & Blanchard, K.H. (1988). Management of Organization Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

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.

Sproat, E., et al. (2012). Aristotle’s Rhetorical Situation.  Purdue OWL. The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University.

Six guidelines for responding to hostile challenges to change

Credit: Vasko Miokovic
Credit: Vasko Miokovic

I’m breaking my silence here at Pros Write with these guidelines. They’re the result of a study made available today in Business and Professional Communication Quarterly. With my co-authors (Pierson Carmichael and Jefrey Naidoo), I offer six practical lessons to help change agents manage communication and maintain credibility with stakeholders who have made a hostile challenge like “Why are we changing a successful system?”

Lesson #1: Diagnose the source of the stakeholder’s hostility in order to determine the component of readiness you need to address.

Once you are familiar with the five components of change messages, you will become adept at diagnosing which of these you must address to neutralize the stakeholder’s hostility toward your change initiative. Does your response need to focus on the discrepancy between where your organization is and where it needs to be? the appropriateness of the planned change for dealing with the discrepancy? the likely efficacy of the planned change? the support of leadership? or the benefits of the planned change to individuals?

Lesson #2: Claim dealing with the challenge isn’t timely as your default response strategy.

Our recommendation is backed by the consistency of findings in studies about strategies for responding to hostility. It may well be most preferred because it implies that the change agents are already addressing the concerns the stakeholder has raised.

Lesson #3: With an efficacy challenge, either deny something about the challenge exists or explain why answering the challenge isn’t desirable.

Because the timing strategy was not preferred with challenges focused on the potential efficacy of the planned change, you need alternatives in this situation. Our recommendation to use the existence strategy is based on our own findings, with nothing in an earlier study to warn against its use. Similarly, our recommendation to use the desirability strategy is based on earlier findings, with nothing in our own to warn against its use.

Lesson #4: Deny something about the challenge exists to deal with challenges to discrepancy and appropriateness, as well as efficacy.

Because the timing strategy may not always be applicable with challenges focused on the the need for or appropriateness of your planned change, you need an alternative in these situations. Our recommendation to use the existence strategy is based on its consistently high preference rankings in our own and earlier studies.

Lesson #5: Claim you aren’t able to handle the challenge with caution and only when dealing with principal support or personal valence challenges.

Preferences for the ability strategy were highly inconsistent. It ranked 2nd overall in our study because of its effectiveness dealing with principal support and personal valence challenges. In contrast, it ranked among least preferred strategies for dealing with other types of challenges in our study and for dealing with all challenges in an earlier study.

Lesson #6: Don’t deny you are the right person for handling the challenge.

Although our results for the agency strategy were inconsistent with an earlier study, we feel justified in cautioning change agents not to use it because it “passes the buck.” Benoit notes that “denial and shifting the blame are not considered by those who are injured by the actions to be as appropriate or effective as other potential image restoration strategies”. Earlier research found the agency strategy least preferred when responding to hostility about environmental concerns, and in interviews with experienced organizational spokespersons, some noted they had been explicitly taught not to use it in public affairs training.

After using these lessons to deal with the hostile challenge in a way that maintains your credibility, you can continue your on-going dialogue about components of the change which your stakeholder finds troubling. My single-minded focus on research has been inevitable during my sabbatical this fall. But I intend to share more often here when 2015 arrives. At least that’s the plan.

Further Reading

Armenakis, A. A. (1993). Creating readiness for organizational change. Human Relations, 46(6), 681–703.

Benoit, W. L. (1995). Accounts, excuses, and apologies: A theory of image restoration strategies. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Campbell, K. S., Follender, S. I., & Shane, G. (1998). Preferred strategies for responding to hostile questions in environmental public meetings. Management Communication Quarterly, 11(3), 401–421. 

Campbell, K. S., Parker, F., & Follender, S. I. (1996). Responding to hostile questions: More insights from speech act theory. Technical Communication Quarterly, 5(2), 151–167.

Gore, M. S. (2003). Strategies leaders should use to respond to hostile questions regarding organizational changes: An empirical investigation. Thesis. Air Force Institute of Technology.

What have we learned about content (and its purpose) in white papers?

If you’re in Pittsburgh today, come hear Jef Naidoo and me try to answer this question at IPCC 2014.  Here’s more detail than we’ll be able to cover in 20 minutes. (We have a couple of related details about white papers to share as well.)

Why are we studying white papers?

They’re important to organizations. Here’s some evidence from sources about white papers across all industries: used and trusted as a key buying decision tool by over 64% of early stage buyers and 61% of middle stage buyers (SiriusDecisions, 2010).

And here’s some evidence (Ziff Davis Enterprise, 2010) from the high-tech world:

  • 35% of IT Professionals use them for awareness and finding ideas
  • 33% of IT Professionals use them for finding vendors or comparing them
  • 23% of IT Professionals use them for creating a short list and for vendor evaluation
  • 10% of IT Professionals use them for making a final decision

I wrote earlier that little scholarly research has been done. I also posted what Jef and I have learned so far about information design in white papers. But my aim in this post is to talk about patterns of content/purpose in white papers.

How did we study content/purpose in white papers?

We collected a corpus of 20 recent, high-tech marketing white papers from TechRepublic with the “top rated” label in two topic areas: business intelligence (BI) and security (S). My post on information design gives more detail about the corpus.

The figure summarizes the process we used to identify the rhetorical move structure (focus on definition #2) for high-tech marketing white papers. (You can also read about this approach in a book by Biber available from Google books.) The results are shown in the document below.  To understand how we created that document, I’ve included a diagram of the process.

We began to develop it by looking at other studies of rhetorical move structure in related genres (e.g., proposals and research articles); we reviewed the few research studies available, as well as guidance from recognized experts on white papers (see this post for a summary); we compared what we learned from those first two sources to two sample white papers to create the first version of what you see below.

Rhetorical Move Structure ProcessJef and I refined our guesses by independently applying them to three sample white papers. We met, discussed, and revised to create the second version of what you see below.

We trained research assistants to apply the rhetorical move structure in the three sample white papers. Those discussions resulted in a few more revisions.

At this stage, those two raters are coding the corpus of 20 white papers, using the document shown below as a key.

The examples in the key refer to the three white papers we used in training. Follow the links to retrieve them.

If you don’t want all of the details about the rhetorical move structure we are testing, this figure from our slides provides the big picture. Slide07

When our raters are done, we will compute the reliability of their codes to determine whether our rhetorical move structure can be applied consistently or will need further revision. Although we’re not there yet, we are close to having some findings we can share!

The slide you see hints that there is one area (linguistic qualities) that I haven’t written anything about yet. Stay tuned . . .

Related Research

U. Connor (2000). Variation in rhetorical moves in grant proposals of US humanists and scientists. Text, 20(1), pp. 1–28.

J. Naidoo & K.S. Campbell (2014). A Genre Analysis of High-Tech Marketing White Papers: A Report of Research-in-progress.IPCC Proceedings. Piscataway, NJ: IEEE.

R. Willerton (2007). Writing White Papers in High-Tech Industries: Perspectives from the Field. Technical Communication, 54(2), pp. 187-200.

R. Willerton (2008). Proceeding with Caution: A Case Study of Engineering Professionals Reading White Papers. Technical Communication, 55(4), pp. 370-382.

R. Willerton (2012). Teaching White Papers Through Client Projects. Business Communication Quarterly, 76(1) 105–113.

L. Yeung (2007). In search of commonalities: Some linguistic and rhetorical features of business reports as a genre. English for Specific Purposes, 26(2), pp. 156–179.

S. Zhou (2012) ‘Advertorials’: A genre-based analysis of an emerging hybridized genre. Discourse Communication, 6(3), pp. 323–346.

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.

Help your readers see what you mean with informative graphics

As Forbes.com contributor Naomi Robbins says,

Despite the fact that graphs are now ubiquitous in virtually every field of business, very few people have received any training on how to read or design  a graph.

Naomi ran a graph makeover contest in which she explains why the bar graph shown here

Source: Simon Queenborough in Alternatives to the Pie/Donut Chart in the Graph Makeover Contest at Forbes.com
Source: Simon Queenborough in Alternatives to the Pie/Donut Chart in the Graph Makeover Contest at Forbes.com

is a much better choice than the original pie/donut chart: the bar graph “shows that we can draw an eye-catching, attention-getting figure without sacrificing accuracy.” Follow the link to her explanation of why the pie/donut chart is inaccurate.

Source: http://demand.eloqua.com/40-must-see-charts
Source: http://demand.eloqua.com/40-must-see-charts

Creating informative graphics is briefly explained in Chapter 5 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using the book in a formal setting, you’ll find many exercises in that chapter, requiring you to practice identifying the best type of graphic and then designing and integrating it into a workplace document. But here are some additional resources to help you learn to use graphics:

  • 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 have a suggestion for making these resources more helpful.

Sample Document

Take a look at page 10 in the  Outsourcing Report adapted by me based on a report produced by the Datamonitor Group (http://www.theblackbookofoutsourcing.com/). The document’s context can be described as:

  • Writer: employee in a business information and marketing analysis company
  • Readers: managers at the company’s original client, as well as at other companies that provide human resource services internationally
  • Bottom Line Message: a compilation of customer satisfaction data

Here’s a revised version of the information on page 10 of that report with more effective graphics.

Video Tutorial

The outsourcing report is included in this video about informative graphics in workplace documents. My goal is to provide a succinct (~9 minute) guide to the essentials of using graphics to inform and persuade readers at work.

Related Readings

There are posts here at Pros Write that deal with informative graphics in workplace documents. Just enter “graphics” in the search field near the top of this page. There’s so much to read in this area, it’s hard to tell you where to go. But if you want to see the research supporting my guidance, you might start with the following sources.

Amare, N. & Manning, A. (2013). A Unified Theory of Information Design: Visuals, Text & Ethics. Amityville, NY: Baywood.

Ancker, J.S. et al. (2006). Design Features of Graphs in Health Risk Communication: A Systematic Review. Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, 13(6),  pp. 608–618.

Tufte, E. R. (2001). The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

Persuade readers with an appeal to logos

Photo Credit: soukup via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: soukup via Compfight cc

People who have influence at work know how to write persuasively. Persuasion is how you successfully lobby for resources from your boss or win funding from an investor. Research found that persuasion was central to the success of 10-30% of all internal, written communication in an organization.

The negative connotation of persuasion is created by trust (ethos) problems with the organizations where writers work. (Or with some individual writers.) And also the fact that unethical individuals often rely solely upon appeals to audience emotion (pathos) rather than reason (logos). Workplace writers can use written language both (a) to sell the need for higher health insurance co-pays to their company’s employees while the CEO buys a villa in France or (b) to sell the value of alternative energy sources to government representatives. The writer’s intent — not the writer’s prose — is the key to differentiating between these two messages.

Creating persuasive prose is briefly explained in Chapter 4 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 many exercises in that chapter, requiring you to practice identifying and fixing problems with persuasion in professional texts. But here are some additional resources to help you become a more persuasive writer:

  • 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 I can do something to make the resources more useful.

Sample Document

Read this executive summary from a business plan, which was 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 it has developed an innovative product at reasonable cost with high market demand

Here’s a revised version of that business plan’s executive summary, with more persuasive content.

Video Tutorial

The business plan’s executive summary, along with other examples, is included in this video about persuasion in workplace documents. My goal is to provide a succinct guide to the essentials of writing more persuasively by appealing to your reader’s logos (reason). This content is not easy to grasp. Although this tutorial follows my rule for length (it’s less than 12 minutes long), you’ll have to pause and read at several points in order to follow the material.

Related Readings

There are posts here at Pros Write that deal with persuasion in workplace documents. Just enter the term 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.

Cialdini, R.B. (2001). Harnessing the science of persuasion. Harvard Business Review, 79(9), pp. 72-79.

Gilsdorf, J.W. (1986). Executives’ and academics’ perceptions on the need for instruction in written persuasion. Journal of Business Communication, 23(4), pp. 55-68.

Halmari, H. & Virtanen, T. (Eds.) (2005). Persuasion Across Genres: A linguistic approach (Pragmatics & Beyond, New Series). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Sproat, E., et al. (2012). Aristotle’s Rhetorical Situation.  Purdue OWL. The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University.

Sell yourself with STAR content in your résumé or LinkedIn profile

Lots of folks advocate the use of the STAR (Situation, Task, Action/Activity, Results) method for handling questions during job interviews. See this recent piece at The Guardian or this piece from Huffington PostUtilizing the STAR Method in Your Resume & Interviews from the Warrington College of Business Administration at the University of Florida makes it clear that the STAR approach is also helpful when selling yourself in writing. Let’s look at three examples from LinkedIn profiles of people I know.

Example A from a student seeking an analyst position

Found under “Background Summary” section

Example B from a student seeking an analyst position

Found under position description for “Tactical Intelligence Analyst”

Example C from a professor listing experience

Found under position description for “Editor of Transactions”

Situation Master’s program project for ShoppersChoice.com US Army tactical intelligence operations in Salah ad Din Province, Iraq Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE) research journal
Task To increase search engine marketing ROI using SAS To predict Improvised Explosive Device (IED) detonations To produce quality content on time and on budget
Action/Activity
  • Analyzed clicks, impressions, bounce rates, and conversion values to determine the productivity of multiple keyword categories
  •  Used quantitative data analysis
  •  Solicited submissions from new IT-related disciplines
  • Recruited new peer reviewers and associate editors
Results Reduced costs by $652,049 Saved lives by achieving 60% reduction in successful attacks in a 15 month period Achieved #1 journal ranking, while producing 40 quarterly issues under budget and on schedule

The amount of detail might not work in a brief resume. That’s one of the advantages of online profiles. NOTE: If you’re not using LinkedIn to sell yourself (or recruit for your organization), you’re missing the boat. Jobvite’s 2013 survey of 1600 recruiting and human resources professionals found that 94% of them were using LinkedIn for recruiting. Even in a resume, you’re more likely to get a potential employer’s interest with this kind of detail about a small number of relevant experiences that with a brief listing of lots of (potentially) relevant experiences.

I’d argue what is most compelling about each example is the content in the final row — those RESULTS. It’s relatively easy to describe the situation you faced, the task you were set, and the actions you took. That’s what most people include under their position descriptions or background summaries. But making the results you achieved concrete is a challenge. That’s why you’ll stand out from the crowd if you do it.

 

Pros avoid sexist language

yvonne brillWithin Western culture, there are few workplaces with ONLY men or ONLY women. In theory, our workplaces are gender neutral. Our language, however, sometimes perpetuates a world in which women are subservient to men. Sexist language is commonly characterized using six issues:

  1. pseudo-generic pronoun, he (e.g., When an employee asks for a raise, he should be brief.)
  2. pseudo-generic noun, man (e.g., mankind, chairman, businessman, etc.)
  3. titles, labels, and names (e.g., stewardess, actress, Miss, Lady Vols, etc.)
  4. order of mention (e.g., he or she, husband and wife, etc.)
  5. male-to-female ratio (i.e., proportion of male and female words)
  6. gender sterotypes (e.g., All girls cry at chick flicks, but men never cry.)

Within any document, the first three issues have to do with style, in particular, word choice. The fourth issue deals with both style and organization of content. And the last two issues deal with content. (I borrowed the examples above from my friend and colleague, Nicole Amare, who published a study of sexist language in online grammar guides in Research in the Teaching of English in 2007.)

To promote equality, the National Council of Teachers of English published guidelines on gender-neutral language.  But there ‘s actually a long history of efforts to use gender-neutral English. In Gender-Neutral isn’t New, Gabe Doyle, writes

You can go pretty far back in English and see examples of mankind being viewed as non-gender-neutral. This led some authors who wanted to avoid any confusion about whether they were including women to use the phrase “mankind and womankind.”

Two of his examples are from the 18th century!

While all of the issues above create sexist language, I suspect the sixth, gender stereotyping, is the most hurtful. To deal with this issue in science writing, Christie Aschwanden, a columnist for the Washington Post, proposed a Finkbeiner Test for stories about women in science (parallel to the Bechdel test created to measure gender bias in film). Aschwanden and Ann Finkbeiner are science writers, and Finkbeiner wrote in What I’m Not Going to Do:

I’m going to write the profile of an impressive astronomer and not once mention that she’s a woman . . . I’m going to pretend she’s just an astronomer.

Here is the list of content that should be excluded in a story on a scientist (who happens to be a woman) to pass the Finkbeiner Test:

  1. The fact that she’s a woman
  2. Her husband’s job
  3. Her child-care arrangements
  4. How she nurtures her underlings
  5. How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  6. How she’s such a role model for other women
  7. How she’s the “first woman to…”

Sadly, The New York Times flunked the Findbeiner Test a couple of weeks ago when they opened the obituary for rocket scientist, Yvonne Brill, like so:

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

There was so much furor, The Times edited the obituary. It now reads:

She was a brilliant rocket scientist who followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

Omitting her skill as a cook was a move in the right direction. But The Times still flunks the Finkbeiner Test by perpetuating a female stereotype for an astronomer who patented the propulsion system still in use to keep communication satellites in orbit. (See the links below for more of the story.)

So you’re learning to write like a professional researcher?

Photo Credit: lomokev via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: lomokev via Compfight cc

Although I don’t have much time today, I promised the doctoral students I met with at LSU last Friday that I would share an interesting phrasebank from the folks at the University of Manchester for those learning to write like a researcher in English. Here are some examples for use in the Introduction section of a research article:

  • So far, however, there has been little discussion about ……
  • However, far too little attention has been paid to ……
  • Most studies in X have only been carried out in a small number of areas.
  • The research to date has tended to focus on X rather than Y.
  • In addition, no research has been found that surveyed …….
  • So far this method has only been applied to ……
  • Several studies have produced estimates of X (Smith, 2002; Jones, 2003), but there is still insufficient data for …..
  • However, there have been no controlled studies which compare differences in ……
  • The experimental data are rather controversial, and there is no general agreement about ……
  • However, there is no reliable evidence that ……
  • X’s analysis does not take account of ….. nor does he examine ……

Any of these phrases could be adapted when you want to “establish a niche” (Move 2). Follow the links below for more on writing research articles.

Stay tuned for more on other sections of the research article.

Pros right visuals for presentations

tedOK. I know the title of this post is a little strange because of the use of “right.” But it captures the lesson I try sharing with anyone who asks me how to be a better presenter. Getting the visuals right is the single biggest hurdle for most folks. (Read a little more before you dismiss this idea!)

Let me provide a caveat before I go on. Oral presentation is not really my area of expertise. As a researcher or coach, I’ve spent far more time focusing on professional writing than speaking, and I can claim only a single study in this area (Peer versus self assessment of oral business presentation performance). Still . . . I’ve been around other experts long enough to have learned a few things. As a presenter, I’m moderately successful compared to my peers.  And I’m always trying to improve. So here is my short list of critical points about “righting” your visuals.

Poor visuals are worse than no visuals at all. I learned this from my friend, Jean-Luc Doumont. You can listen to his brief podcast on Creating Effective Presentation Slides at the IEEE Professional Communication Society site. If you can’t make good visuals, don’t waste your time on them. Instead, concentrate on developing content and delivering your message (body language, voice, etc.). So, when I say getting the visual right is your biggest hurdle, I’m really saying you should concentrate on yourself as the primary visual in your presentations.

This appears to be precisely what Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, did in her 2010 presentation shown below. If you watch a few minutes of the video, you’ll see that Ms. Sandberg uses no visuals. The only thing projected on the screen is the live video feed of her speaking. It’s still a great talk. Poor visuals would have made it less great.

If you have spent sufficient time on how you present yourself, you can spend some time creating decent visuals.

Good visuals are not verbal. I learned this from watching good presentations, like those captured in TED Talks. (You might want to view TED’s 10 commandments for preparing speakers.)  The 2005 presentation below by James Watson about how he and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA primarily uses photographs of people and some simple drawings from a book as a supplement to his talk.

I love words. And I have a pretty low level of visual literacy or graphic skill. I’m a linguist. Not an artist or designer. Or even a chemist. But those of us talking about words can use visuals that are less verbal, too. Watch a little of the 2010 talk by Alan Siegel (of Siegel+Gale) below. Mr. Siegel is talking about document design and plain language. He NEEDS to show us documents because that’s what he’s talking about. But those documents are displayed as pictures. There are few words the audience is actually expected to — or even allowed to — read in any of his visuals.

Technology might help you create better visuals. I’m always looking for tools to improve my visual IQ. I remember when my visuals were one-page typed handouts. I also remember using overheads. I started using PowerPoint in the mid-90s. Now . . . many folks blame PowerPoint for every poor presentation. But Gavin McMahon over at Make a POWERful POINT  provides excellent guidance for building effective slide decks with the most commonly used technology for creating visuals for a presentation. Gavin has also recently done a three-part series on other technologies:

  • Prezi, which I’ve been using for a few years now because it forces me to be less verbal. My video-tutorials combine PowerPoint and Prezi in a fairly simplistic way. I didn’t think anyone needed to watch my talking head so, in this case, the visual with my voice-over makes up the entire presentation. I like Prezi because it encourages me to be less verbal.
  • SlideKlowd, which looks intriguing when presenting to a large audience. I have to deliver a keynote address next fall to a large group and think I’ll try this technology out for that presentation.
  • Haiku Deck, which looks promising for presentations to a small audience. I just downloaded the iPad app and will play around with this for my next small meeting.

That’s my little bit of wisdom on getting visuals right for a presentation. Let me hear from you if you have suggestions.
Photo Credit: jurvetson via Compfight cc