How to Present Your Content

By Mark Nichol

During a drive yesterday, I noticed again two ways that, in casual contexts, people are careless about their communication. For the first time, however, I realized that unfortunately, there’s a close analogy between the way many amateur writers present information and the way some well-meaning professionals (or other serious writers) do it.

First, I noticed handwritten signs posted along roadsides: advertisements for yard sales and the like. You’ve likely noticed too how poorly many of these signs are executed: The sign maker begins to scrawl some information and runs out of space, compressing a phone number or other key information so that it is barely legible.

Or perhaps the penmanship is poor, and the details are illegible. Or perhaps the print is too small or too wordy (or both) to be read by someone driving by at thirty or forty or fifty miles an hour — or, worse, the message is styled in cursive writing. Occasionally, a sign exhibits a combination of some or all of these problems.

Second, I passed between two small groups of people wielding signs at the crossroads of a small town. There were about a dozen protestors altogether, and though I had slowed to twenty miles per hour to negotiate the narrow road, I couldn’t focus on more than a couple of words on two or three signs before I had passed them.

My passenger, who was at more leisure to read the messages, learned little more than I had: The people were on strike, but where they were employed and what they were striking for remained a mystery even though each of us had a few seconds to scan the signs, because, again, the print was sloppily written or too small or both, and the message was too wordy for motorists to take in during the brief opportunity.

Unfortunately, handwritten signs aren’t the only form of communication in which communication fails because of poor planning and execution. We’ve all seen professionally prepared billboards with print too small to read, newspaper and magazine advertisements dense with tightly packed wording, and websites and blogs with poor design.

The takeaway is the same, whether you’re selling knickknacks at a garage sale or widgets on a website: Don’t make your readers work hard to acquire your message. Produce the content carefully:

  1. Think about how readers will engage with the content — at work, at home, on public transportation, in a passing vehicle? — and design it accordingly.
  2. Plan your approach, trying several layouts and deciding which one works best for the purpose.
  3. Prioritize the information: What do you want readers to see first, second, third, and so on?
  4. Write the message, adapting the tone and the appearance to the readers’ circumstances and, if space is limited, trimming the content to the essentials.
  5. Ask for critiques, and return to the product later with a fresh set of eyes, then revise according to others’ suggestions and your own realizations.
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5 Responses to “How to Present Your Content”

  • Wayne Groner

    Outstanding observations. May I have permission to re-post your article on my website? Thanks.

  • Don Goin

    Question: I belong to an online writers’ group. The subject of “they as singular,” has come up. Not only is it wrong, but it jars my ear. I realize language evolves, but if there are correct options, why not use them? I asked for and received examples of “they as singular.” Here is my response:

    Thanks for your examples of “they as singular.” I suppose with time, my fossilized ear will adjust. For me, though, your examples read better as:

    Your example 1.: “If one wants to write they simply must put their mind to it.”
    Why not: “If people (or students or children or scientists or whoever) want to write, they…”?
    It’s true that the indefinite “one” is more encompassing, like “anyone,” but “they” still sounds weird. Other options are limited and, I suppose, outdated: “h/she,” “he or she” or sometimes write “he” and sometimes “she.”

    Your example 2: “After the researcher has finished initial surveying, they may wish to conduct a second round of surveying.”
    Why not: “After reseachers have finished initial surveying, they may wish….”?

    To me, it seems more logical to keep the number of the verbs the same in each clause. End of answer.

    If you have time, please comment on “they as singular.”

  • Mark Nichol

    Don:

    Here’s a post I wrote on the topic.

  • :Donna Marie

    Mark, I totally agree with what you’ve said here and it’s a PERFECT analogy! I think this analogy can be applied with any form of writing, including revision itself, even on longer-length pieces. This is boiling the whole process down to its core 🙂 Love it!

  • Walt Friedrich

    Great subject. Great offenders are network TV ads — great because they are presumably created by professionals who should know what they’re doing, especially the psychology of selling, and then approved by those who pay for the design and rendering.

    One other frequent error on home-made signage is lack of contrast between background and printed characters. Yellow on orange, for example, certainly doesn’t work, and while black on white is rather “vanilla”, it is ultimately readable.

    Walt Friedrich

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