Archive for August, 2007

Tip #11–Use plain language when conveying technical information

Posted on August 17, 2007. Filed under: Blog--All categories, Management development, Technical writing |

Gobbledygook, jargon, geek-speak. Whatever you want to call it, it’s not language the everyday reader understands. Maybe the author’s intent is to try to impress the reader; perhaps the technical language is deemed necessary to convey the message; or maybe the writer just doesn’t understand that not everyone of us reads and speaks the same language. Whatever the reason, the point is this: language must be plain and unambiguous if it is to be understood by the common reader.

Tip #11 states:

Consider using stories or analogies to convey difficult technical information. This helps the receiver of the message maintain a sense of confidence and understanding, whereas that same person may feel insecure or defensive when hearing unfamiliar technical language.

What is the purpose of putting something in writing anyway?

For most authors–whether you are the author of a technical document, a set of instructions, or a simple business letter–the reason for writing is to convey some information to the reader so the reader can take the appropriate action. The problem we encounter when writing in technical language is that our readers often don’t have the same level of expertise that we do; so when they read our document, they are left with uncertainty about what we want them to do and how we want them to do it. We’re much better off writing at the simplest level possible to ensure the greatest possibility of understanding.

Wait a minute! Isn’t that insulting to our readers? In a word: No. Rather than be insulted by documents that are easy to read, easy to understand, and easy to act upon, our readers are going to send up silent praises! They are going to see the stark contrast between the usual convoluted messages they get and our clear, concise messages. They are going to begin looking forward to hearing from us while dreading the prose of others. And when it comes down to who gets the response quicker: that will be us!

What about stories and analogies–do they really have a place in technical writing?

Yes. When readers are faced with unfamiliar information and concepts, they benefit from having them associated with something they easily understand. The more clearly you can connect technical concepts to everyday experiences, the more easily your non-technical reader (or at least the reader who isn’t an expert in your subject) will grasp your message.

When trying to find everyday experiences to explain your topic, think of what we do each day. For example:

  • brush our teeth
  • drive our cars
  • shop for groceries
  • work with our children
  • exercise
  • learn from and teach our pets

I often tell my management clients that working with staff is somewhat like raising children and pets. Children–and pets–respond to praise. So does staff. Children and pets benefit from clear guidelines about behavior and having those guidelines consistently enforced; so does staff. While these are not heavily technical concepts, the message comes through more clearly and easily when it’s associated with a common experience.

When writing, consider your readers’ level of experience with your topic. The more simply you can express your message, the more analogies you can draw, and the more stories you can tell to demonstrate your point, the more easily your readers will grasp your message.

Want some help making sure your messages come through loud and clear? Check out my Document Review Services brochure

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Tip #10–Tell people what you like about them

Posted on August 15, 2007. Filed under: Blog--All categories, Management development, Staff selection |

People appreciate hearing what they do well and what we like about them. Building relationship with coworkers, subordinates, and supervisors is easy when we tell those individuals what we specifically appreciate about them. Giving honest, appropriate compliments to the people around us can help them feel noticed and appreciated. It can also help us begin to change our thoughts about those individuals into more positive ones.

My motivation for writing this tip in 2003 was hearing far too many people complain that all they ever heard from their boss was what they did wrong. When I asked what sort of affect this had on their willingness to work for those bosses, their responses were classic:

  • When the boss approaches me, I prepare for another jab at my abilities
  • I don’t have much motivation to improve because I never know what I’m doing right
  • I’m so used to the criticism now that it doesn’t mean anything anymore

These very typical responses are indicative of a perception among staff that the only time the boss talks to them is when they’ve done something wrong. When staff has that perception, it squelches initiative and stops creativity.

Why are initiative and creativity important?

Without initiative, staff simply carry out instructions. When they have reached the end of their set of instructions for an assigned task, they lack motivation to move to another task until assigned to it. In other words, there’s no ownership of the mission or goals of the company. Without that ownership, staff is typically unwilling to solve problems, brainstorm ways to increase effectiveness, or remain with the company for very long.

Creativity–an offshoot of initiative–is the characteristic in staff that results in new methods to streamline processes; it’s the characteristic that fuels excitement and generates ideas; it’s the characteristic that–when it is rewarded–keeps exceptional talent in a job even when they know there’s more green (money) at another company.

Give praise where it’s due

You can cultivate initiative and creativity in your staff by acknowledging their unique contributions and strengths as they relate to the success of the company. Start looking for ways your staff supports the mission of your company. Consciously seek out those efforts that help achieve the company’s goals. Once you begin to recognize those actions, tell the employee you noticed and that you appreciate them!

What will be the outcome?

If your staff isn’t accustomed to hearing from you except when they’ve messed up, they’ll be extremely skeptical of any praise you hand out. Why? Because they aren’t used to it. They’ll be watching to see whether this “new” you will vanish as quickly as you showed up.

Over time and with consistency on your part, they’ll question whether they can count on the new you to stick around. They may even test you to see whether this new behavior on your part is reliable.

As you continue to commit to giving praise where it’s due, they will become accustomed to this new you and begin to respond to it–with greater initiative and more creativity. The process isn’t easy but it is worth the effort.

Does this mean I can never point out problems again?

Absolutely not. Your job as supervisor is to ensure adherence to the quality of your product and the successful completion of your staff’s projects. It’s your job to correct inappropriate behavior and to point out when projects are not done to the level of excellence you expect.

However, your job also involves ensuring you have a team committed to the success of your department. That’s where praising and acknowledging accomplishments comes in. You will do more for creating a team atmosphere by incorporating praise into how you communicate with your staff … and encouraging your staff to acknowledge others’ contributions as well.

Putting praise to work

Over the course of the next several days, pay attention to the individual efforts and behaviors of your staff. Watch specifically for efforts and behaviors that support your mission and help achieve your goals. Then, point out those efforts to the individuals exhibiting them. Say something like, “Dan, I noticed yesterday in our meeting that you were prepared with an answer to the client’s question regarding delivery dates. Good work. That shows you anticipated their questions.”

As simple as that. What’s not so simple is remembering to look for those efforts. After all, it’s much easier to point out the problems than it is to recognize individuals’ successes and efforts. But the longterm rewards are in recognizing the efforts.

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