Don’t be in the bottom half

25th March 2014

Last week, I asked what you wanted me to cover on future Tips. A big thank you to all who replied. I’ve got over 100 new topics to cover now! So, let’s start with one that came up a lot: how to stand out above your colleagues…

A cheery thought for a Tuesday morning…

…half the people you know are below average

Sad, but true.

Similarly, half the people that your contacts know are also below average.

So, here’s a question for you: when it comes to communicating, are you in their top half or bottom half?

I’d imagine that everyone would say “top half, of course”. Unfortunately, for everyone to be in the top half … well, that’s mathematically impossible.

So here’s how to ensure yours are in the top half, such that others find them easy to read, and to act on.

#1 Have a clear Call To Action

If you want someone to act after reading your document, you need a call to action. So, write one. Put it in an obvious place where they can’t miss it (by the way, ‘FYI’ is not a Call To Action)

#2 Write an interesting start

Write a compelling title and/or sub-title. “Update” isn’t compelling. Neither is “Miscellaneous” nor “2013 review”… nor virtually any of the titles in your inbox (don’t believe me? Have a quick look when you’ve finished reading this Tip).

To create an interesting start, think why the recipient will be better-off after reading it, and put this benefit in the:

  • Title – like the book “How to win friends and influence people”; and/or
  • Subtitle – for example “2013 review: ensuring 2014’s even better” and/or
  • Intro – “The purpose of this document is to help you to X

#3 Have a clear, interesting structure

There has to be a logical flow to your content.

A quick self-check for you: review the Contents Page of one of your documents, and ask yourself “when the recipient reads this, will they instantly understand the flow? And will they care about what they’re about to read?”

This simple exercise will probably lead to you doing some/all of:

  • Changing the order, so it flows better
  • Changing the headings, so they’re more interesting (examples of titles that people rarely love: “Background”, “About us”, “Our X” and so on)
  • Moving some sections into the Appendix. Or the bin

#4 Make it easy to read

If in doubt, think short. Short document. Short paragraphs. Short sentences. Short phrases.

  • Paragraphs should be a maximum of 4 lines long. So, press the “return” key more
  • Sentences should be short. This makes it easier for people to remember your key points. And it helps reduce waffling. A simple guide: no sentence should be more than 1-1½ lines long. If yours are, they’re probably 2-3 shorter sentences joined by words like “and”, “but”, or “so”.
  • Use shorter phrases – so, don’t say “prior to the commencement of”; say “before”. To see whether your phrases are too long, read one of your documents out loud (or get someone to read it to you). When you hear it, it helps you identify where you’ve used clunky phrasing

How to be ‘above average’

This is one of the tips where you could think “I do most/all of these”. And, if you do, great. But the average document doesn’t.

And I don’t know about you, but I want to be at least average! I don’t ever want to be in someone’s bottom half.

Action point

A couple of options – look backwards or forwards:

  • Backwards: review a recent document in light of the four points above. How could you improve it next time? And/or
  • Forwards: identify the next important document you have to create. Can you approach it differently, to make sure it’s better than average?

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