Printer Friendly

How to communicate to a post-literate world.

While the forces that have shaped this revolution are complex, communication scholars are recognizing a fundamental change in how people get and process information about their world. Technological innovations from the telegraph to MTV have not just made communication faster - they have produced new social relationships, new forms of language and new audiences for communication products.

In a post-literate country, words don't function as they used to. Today, words and content have blurred into image and graphics, and most communicators have few guidelines for managing the transformation. The supremacy of words that emphasize logical sequences has been replaced by images understood in "gestalt" or integrated patterns. The dispassionate march of the phonetic alphabet has been displaced by the emotion-laden picture.

Consider this example: If an image of the Stars and Stripes is replaced by a line of type which reads "American Flag," our reactions are much different. Nobody would debate the legality of burning the line of type. Similarly, electronic technology has made us image-sensitive. And because it is so pervasive, it has made us skeptical and resistant to messages.

This doesn't mean that written words are no longer the basis for most communication. It does mean that successfully communicating in this word-weary world must go well beyond those tired injunctions to use simple vocabulary and short sentences. There's much more that you can do to assure that your messages hit their targets and get the results you want. Let's begin by discussing the major concepts involved.

The five big post-literacy factors are these: * Words now function more like images and graphics: People think more visually. * People don't draw as extensively as they once did on their own imaginations to complete the writer's idea. * Attention span and concentration are compressed; you have much less time to complete your message than you had in the past. * Most people are skeptical of the messages they receive from government and organizations. * Emotional appeals and showing benefits to the audience become more important.

To communicate powerfully and successfully in this post-literate and highly visual world, there are three umbrella terms you'll need to know: * Content * Structure * Footprint

Content refers to the actual words you choose and the communication strategies you select.

Structure refers to the medium you're using, whether it's a direct-mail piece, a news release or an organizational bulletin.

Footprint refers to all of the typographic, design and tactile elements which increase readability and persuasiveness - or drain them from your work.

For each of these umbrella concepts, there are some rules of thumb which can help you assure that your messages have the best chance of zeroing in on targets and achieving the results you want. Content.. how to make words count Because we're professional communicators, we love this part. Most of us think of ourselves as wordsmiths. But in a post-literate world, how we use words must change.

1. Exorcise abstractions. Make a pact with yourself to ban the mindless use of say-nothing words such as "world class," "quality" and "value." Jettison cliches like: "You've tried the rest, now try the best." "People are our most important resource." Quality is our number one priority." And take the pledge right now to never again use the phrase and much, much more." If there's that much more to say, say it.

2. Make it real with specifies. Right now, pick up a piece of copy you've written and circle every say-nothing word, cliche and abstraction. Pitch it out or replace it with a specific word, an example, an analogy or a metaphor that infuses the concept with life and reality. Here's an example: Don't say: "Quality is our number one priority." Say: "Scientific tests prove that Waterguard is stronger than varnish." By eliminating abstractions and using concrete wards, you make your message mare believable to skeptics.

3. Make it clear. You can't convince somebody who doesn't know what you're saying. Stay within their experience and background level. Dodge the cleverness trap: In communication, clarity beats cleverness every time. And if you must use foreign phrases, explain them.

4. Show what's in it for them. If you're asking someone to buy, to act or to learn, emphasize how it will benefit him or her. Your best insurance for maintaining your reader's interest is using "you" and emphasizing the benefit.

5. Avoid difficult or obscure constructions, even when you find them compelling and elegant. Match word choice and usage to the audience. For instance, for most audiences a construction like this muddies meaning: "A paragon of employee achievement and loyalty during 45 years of service, Wanda Smithers

6. Don't leave it to their imagination. Lazy writers (remember "much, much more?") are those who aren't willing to dig out the benefits to the reader, excavate the specific episode that proves the point, or show how the issue makes a difference in the reader's life. If you leave the hard work to your readers, they're likely to take the day off. Draw them a picture and make it vivid and real.

7. Fight your urge to lard copy with statistics. We're over communicated and over-numbered. How often do we read company bulletins like this:

Yawn. Sure, this is big news to those people in accounting who pore anxiously over the Wall Street Journal or Financial Times every morning. But it doesn't mean anything to most of us who work in supply, or the service department, or on the line at the factory. If you must include the statistics make them real by talking about real episodes and real people. Put the benefit up front to the readers. Tell them why they should care.

A reminder: We know who really writes those quotes for the CEO, the CFO and all those other bigwigs, don't we? You do. So make your leaders sound human, warn and real ... not like dull corporate automatons (even if they are).

8. Select the priorities for your readers. Emphasize what's most important. When you try to emphasize everything, you fail to emphasize anything. Structure: Make it consistent and appropriate Make sure the content and footprint of your communication efforts are consistent with the medium you're using, with each element of the piece and with the expectations of your reader.

1. The message should be consistent with the medium. How many times can we bludgeon readers with "Important Notice" and other exhortations that what they're about to read is critical to the free world's survival until they become weary and cynical? (Answer: We've already made them weary and cynical.) Save "IMPORTANT NOTICES" for things that are really important - to the reader.

2. Be sure that the graphics are consistent with the message. This, of course, has much to do with the footprint. But it also has to do with fulfilling our expectations. A recent bank ad featured clip art of a woman with her hair standing on end with the message that the bank's new deposit rates were hair-raising. Aside from being truly terrible and cliche-ridden writing, it was utterly inconsistent with the bank's desired image.

3. The medium should be appropriate to the communication or persuasion objective. It doesn't make sense to try to sell a speedboat using direct mail or direct response. (It's fine as a way to generate prospects but don't try to make a communication vehicle carry more weight than it's designed to bear.)

4. Choose a medium which is appropriate to the target audience. You'll select a different style and theme for soliciting memberships in an art museum than you will for promoting a big-game hunter's banquet. The more closely your medium matches audience expectations, the more effective your message.

5. The format should naturally develop from the objectives and copy. Too often, clients and agencies begin with the concept of a three-fold brochure or 8-1/2-x-11 inch booklet and then try to fill it with copy. Don't start by specifying a format; let the creative process show you the way. Footprint- Make visuals work hard You'll see that the footprint concept is most concerned with graphic elements, but it has clear content and structural components, too.

1. Write as much as it takes to do the job. This is the length question: Some people argue for long copy. Some people say that nobody reads long copy. What's a communicator to do? Write it as long as you must to make it clear. Then, use graphic devices such as underlining, italics, marginal notes, postscripts, and allows to communicate your most important points. This helps the reader who may not have the time to read every word to extract the gems of information she needs.

A stem reminder: This is not a license to let your words run away with you. You already know that copy should be hardbodied, stripped of excessive adjectives and adverbs, and shorn of redundancies.

2. Break up information into easily consumed McNuggets. How? Use those bullets, arrows and numbers. Oversized initials, graphic elements and boxes will effectively draw the reader's eye to those items you have decided are highest priority. As a general rule, paragraphs should run four to seven sentences - no more. Caution: Get good graphics people to help you. Overuse or misuse of graphic devices can look cheesy and fail to communicate.

3. Use overlines, snappy summaries and postscripts. The overline (it's sometime called a Johnson Box) is sort of an extended headline in a direct mail piece or sales letter. It works equally well for other types of messages. The idea is to communicate an important benefit to the target reader without giving away your whole story. Your objective is to entice the reader into the remaining copy. The summary is just that - a brief recap of what you've told your reader. Use graphic elements to set it off from other copy. The postscript, as you direct mail writers know, is one of the most powerful elements of a sales letter. Use it to ask for action, remind the reader of a key benefit, or convey important information.

4. Make the text structure and graphics create a footprint that really communicates. One of the best examples of this is a superb bank ad which compares itself to another bank. On the right side of the ad, the bank lists its services and customer benefits in a long, heavy text block. On the left side, (the competition's slot) is blank white space. This is a splendid way to use graphics and text in concert to make a powerful statement.

As a communicator in a post-literate world, you face unusual challenges: You must inform, persuade, convince and teach people who are over-messaged, oversold, hard to inspire and skeptical. Begin now to create powerful, reader-focused content, commonsense structure, and a meaningful, graphic footprint. You'll instantly emerge from the crowd of communicators who harbor misplaced faith in hoary and time-worn practices. Margaret E. Duffy is president of the Grinnell Communications Group, a public relations and marketing communication firm based in Grinnell, Iowa.


Technology and die realities of die new global marketplace are changing the ground rules for all forms of public speaking and presentations" in a business environment. As a speaker, you can use these emerging trends to your advantage: Compacting: You must hit fast and hard. Entertainment: Smart speakers use humor, stories and metaphors to drive home thew points, to make people laugh and cry and cam deeply. Targeting. There must be a uniqueness in what you say and in the way you say it. Building Credibility. Make sure what you say is true, then make it convincing and believable. Individuation: To have impact in this homogenized world, maintain strong eye contact and, whenever possible, move out into the audience to connect with individual human beings. Simplification: To have any hope of registering our messages with our audiences, we have to greatly oversimplify and then repeat again and again until they begin to sink in. Visualization: Speakers are learning to make the most of their own gestures and experiences. Feedback: Wise speakers know that effective communication is really dialog. Reinforcement: Successful speakers give people handles they can use to hang onto the important points. Tools such as symbolism, visual reinforcement and repetition are becoming increasingly important. From "The Executive Persuader How to Be A Powerful Speaker" By Lynda R. Paulson.


Acme Pocket Rocket, Inc., today announced that it has achieved its sales goal of $23 minion, a $2.2 million increase which constitutes a 38.45% increase over the previous fiscal year and an ROI of 11.87%. Alfred J. Bigbucks, CFO, said "This increase is due to the hard work of each and every employee."
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Duffy, Margaret E.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Nov 1, 1991
Previous Article:Whiz ... bang ... eureka! The automation of creativity.
Next Article:The role of humor in documentation - or - laughing 'til it bytes.

Related Articles
Where Blacks are on the Net: exploring African American cyberspace.
Why go online? The real experience.
For the Sake of Simple Folk: Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation.
Leaders, Take Us To Your Communicator.
Science and math's new importance. (Curriculum update: the latest developments in math, science, language arts and social studies).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters