Wednesday July 15, 2020
Discover what's important and present it early and concisely to refine your ideas and engage with your audience. Don't bury the lede. Get to the point. Put the Bottom Line Up Front. Communicate as if you may be interrupted.
- Identify your message
- Give a one-line version
- Give a one-paragraph version
- Add detail until complete
- Use the best of text and other media
Identify your message
What your audience needs most is your unique contribution: a result or recommendation, a summary or synthesis. Help them to understand. Prepare them to take action.
If you don't know what your message is, you have little chance of communicating it. Think beyond listing what you've done, what you've read, what you've seen. Find a deeper conclusion. Even without an audience, you should be doing this for yourself.
According to Shannon, information is related to surprise. One heuristic is to identify the most central "surprise" you have to communicate. What does your audience not know? Can you anticipate questions they would ask, and answer them?
Don't force your audience to come to their own conclusions. Your message won't prevent them from doing that anyway, if you are honest and complete. Your message isn't the final word. It should be a generous starting point.
Regardless of audience, the practice of articulating a message into short concrete forms can help you to clarify and improve your ideas, possibly through several iterations.
Give a one-line version
Start with a title, or subject line, or initial answer to a question. A one-line version should be complete enough that the audience can choose whether to continue.
Good newspaper headlines, like "Truman wins presidency," are tiny versions of their articles. Clickbait titles illustrate what not to do, as in "You won't believe what Truman did." Emulate good headlines.
Good one-line versions are usually complete sentences, not just noun phrases. Don't convey just the subject you're talking about, include what you're saying about it.
Feel free to use the specialized language of your field. Big Self-Supervised Models are Strong Semi-Supervised Learners is a great title for a Machine Learning paper, though it may seem opaque to botanists.
Though the need for summarizing is real, there's value in retaining important detail. For example, "Technique X Improves Results" is likely not a better one-line version than "Technique X Improves Metric Y by 3%." Include specifics as much as you can.
It may be challenging to distill your message into a faithful one-line representation, but it can be done. In some cases, a one-line version is all you need.
Give a one-paragraph version
Whether it's labeled as an abstract or a summary or not, a first paragraph should always be a complete version of your message, not an introduction.
The one-line version of your message may be just a sketch, but a well-crafted paragraph lets you convey, Pareto-style, a complete core message, missing only detail.
The practice of skipping quickly to an article's conclusion is not a natural part of reading, it is a defensive work-around for bad writing. Present the conclusion at the beginning.
You shouldn't require your audience go all the way to the end. For example, if the purpose of an email is to make a request, make the request clear at the beginning.
The focus here is effective, purposeful, reality-oriented communication. This is distinct from small talk, poetry, or fiction, where it may make sense to approach a topic obliquely over time, to carefully build an effect.
With a useful one-paragraph version at the beginning, the audience can determine what information is being communicated and what further detail they're interested in. This is kind to your audience—and your audience may be you.
Add detail until complete
Including condensed versions at the beginning doesn't mean omitting supporting detail, clarification, data, and other supplementary material. Be very inclusive. The expectation is not that the audience must review everything, but that they may.
Organize for the benefit of the audience. Make it easy to find things. This should follow from the nature of what you're communicating, and could also be responsive to the expectations of your audience.
The overall structure should often be fractal, in that further sections are organized following the overall guidelines, starting with short versions.
Generally, information density and polish should decrease gradually. Content at the beginning is likely still elaborating the core message. More related detail is added gradually, until toward the end one might include a list of references, notes, logs of activities over time, source data, audio or transcriptions from interviews, and the like.
Enough should be provided that the audience can replicate your conclusions or form their own. Nothing should be hidden.
Use the best of text and other media
Text is a mighty tool, but it is not the only tool. Always use the best available tool for communicating. Outside of conversation, text and its variants together with two-dimensional graphics (especially data visualizations) are most useful, with time-distributed media and interactive artifacts only sometimes worthwhile.
Text can be used in many ways. Headings add structure. Numbered and bulleted lists and tables can help organize and summarize. Fonts, weights, sizes, and styles can assist in communication when used well. Hypertext allows linking easily to related resources.
Numbers are data visualizations, as are quantitative tables. Carefully presented numbers can be very communicative.
Graphics can help communicate ideas diagrammatically. Graphical data visualizations (plots, graphs, charts) can convey quantitative information exceptionally well; their effective use is an extended topic. Images can also sometimes be useful.
Time-distributed media refers principally to audio and video. To date, these are difficult to search or skim. They tend to require the audience to sit through them. Similarly, interactive artifacts are relatively oblique rather than communicating directly. There are places for all of these, but they are not often the best choice for direct communication.
Update 2021-08-15: Added "Get to the point" in first paragraph, inspired by Mckay Wrigley.