I’ve been working with my neighborhood association to pull together new CC&Rs (covenants, conditions and
restrictions). Needless to say, it’s not a sexy project. What I noticed as I spent the weekend reviewing bylaws, articles of incorporation and other legal “junk” is that like any business writing, it helps to start with the end in mind, as Stephan Covey likes to say. Or, to begin by asking, “What’s the take-away?”
For this group, the main purpose is to understand how the organization is governed and what those key rules are that impact our neighbor’s day-to-day lives. Things like, how often are we supposed to have neighborhood meetings, what’s the deadline for paying your dues, how many guests can you have in the pool at one time, or when do your garbage cans need to be off the sidewalk?
I started pulling together these key take-aways and then found the rest of the document started coming together, even with all the legalese. As I thought about the process, it reminded me of an article on business writing by Phillip Yaffe on the “Secrets of Writing a Truly Useful Executive Summary.”
Yaffe argues that regardless of how lengthy or complex an article (report, legal document) may be, it is truly best if the author begins with the summary. He cites three advantages for the writer:
1. It helps to better understand the audience.
2. It establishes criteria for including and excluding information.
3. It helps to organize information in a useful way.
But it also creates benefits for the readers. They get a clear overview of what’s included, they can quickly find the sections they really care about, and they can decide if they really need to read the whole thing at all. In other words, they can quickly understand how to navigate through the longer document to information that matters to them.
For my neighbor’s purposes, I created summaries called, “Quick Overviews” to help explain how the neighborhood association was governed and the roles and responsibilities of the board, the officers and the membership. The overviews referenced which sections of the CC&Rs provided more details about a particular topic so they could read through the details if they really wanted or needed to.
In business, HR communicators use this technique when summarizing plan documents for 401(k) or health insurance plans. And, as Yaffe points out, the technique really isn’t new. Journalists have leveraged these skills for years.
The headline cleverly, or in many cases not-so-cleverly, summarizes the key point in just a few words. The “lead” encapsulates the key points further in the first few sentences. And, finally, the rest of the text supports those points in greater detail. But it gives the readers control. They can determine if they want to continue reading the information or if they can put it aside.
Now, while some authors might cringe at the fact that their work might be skimmed over and the bulk of it ignored, they should also consider the alternative. If a reader doesn’t have a summary as a choice, she may walk away from the entire document without reading any of it at all.
The whole point of business writing is to communicate useful information. But, I would argue there is more to it than that. It is really to communicate usefully. If you want to have an impact in your organization, you should start by thinking about the reader.
What will her take-away be? And how can you better organize your writing to make sure she gets what she needs?
Michelle Hicks is a communications consultant with Buck Consultants. Contact her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.