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Read it and believe it.

Read It and Believe It

Do you agree or disagree with the following:

* Business organizations produce publications that are more interesting to look at than they are to read.

* Corporate publications tend to tell about an organization's expertise or concern about employees, rather than show that expertise or concern.

* Corporate publications tend to publish what the bosses want to be read more than what the employee, investor, or client want to read.

Is my prejudice obvious? I hope so, because I am continually disappointed as I see the best corporate publications grow more interesting graphically each year. This includes employee publications, benefits brochures, annual reports, marketing brochures, and so on. New approaches to the use of design, typogaphy, paper and production techniques have created more visually compelling publications.

But how frequently do corporate communicators actually read a publication from their own corporation that they have not worked on? I often find myself stopping at page three, and then flipping through the pretty images. And the same for another corporation's publications that a printer or designer has left behind.

Corporations spend tens of thousands of dollars on each printed piece for an audience which tends to read less and less, whose attention span is short, and which is enamored of bright images in a black box. Perhaps the issue is not so difficult to understand, after all. Image is king, says the new credo. It can carry the words.

Not really. Not words in 10 point size. Not past page three.

This is the message that corporate communicators, editors and managers need to convey to senior executives. We need to be proactive in our own behalf. This, we need to say, is how you get your message across.

* Lesson one: Direct your message to the reader's self-interest.

* Lesson two: Create the message before you create the graphics.

* Lesson three: Show, don't tell, the point of your message.

Think about how a new publication comes to life. It's usually the idea of someone who will not be the creator of the publication--although some proactive communicators may not buy that idea. A meeting is called. The objective is presented. The audience is described. The budget is revealed. If you're lucky, the tone is discussed. Then the deadlines are set. For copy. For the mock-up. For going on press. For distribution.

In m ost cases, one resource goes off to produce copy, another to produce a design. Ofteh the next time they meet is an hour before the presentation of the mock-up.

Why this scenario? Because a mock-up can show progress earlier. Because copy must be drafted and reviewed. Because the executive is more comfortable with reviewing design than copy--it's fund and, after all, anyone can judge design. Reviewing copy is work.

So the two aspects come together--and continue on their parallel way the rest of the course. Sometimes the designer makes the sale and call tell the writer what to do: cut copy.

Whoa! Who's in charge? Isn't the purpose of the publication to motivate, to persuade others? This means an idea needs to be conveyed.

Ideas, the last I heard, are conveyed through words. Even in video.

The message here is not just that someone be in charge of that brochure, that publication, that report. It is that this someone has to know what makes strong copy, what makes strong graphics, how copy and graphics work together, how production values translate into costs. Most of all, he/she has to know how to translate an idea into a publishing concept.

Where do you find that blend of skills? If you're lucky, the person is on your staff. Otherwise, he/she might work for a consulting firm--in the management, benefits, or PR areas. Or, increasingly, from an outside design firm.

The Package

In any event, here's what to look for in the ideal printed piece.

* The cover is provocative (in words of graphics) and promises something.

* The first words inside address the interests of the reader, and promise information the reader wants.

* There is a continually changing emphasis between copy and graphics throughout the piece.

* The message flows logically, yet the copy shows a change of pace and introduces the unexpected.

* The message is highlighted in heads, banks and captions, so it gets across to a reader just flipping the pages.

* The copy uses employees, clients, or independent observers to describe how a problem was solved or what the solution meants to the client.

* The publication has an ending; it does not fade out in a sea of credits.

The overall impression of a printed piece should be that here is something special--from a company that is special. This distinctiveness may be achieved in three ways:

Words: This approach requires a solid idea. A key word or phrase is presented on the cover. This introduces the theme. I once did a brochure in which the key word was "IF." Special typography is repeated throughout as a motif to tie the ideas together. Quotes or commentary can introduce articles or sections in large type. The result: theme and typography become the unifying link throughout the publication.

Graphics: Illustrations or photographs should stop the eye, then direct it to the copy. This is the function of design. To be distinctive, the graphic material should be presented with consistency in terms of size, position, framing, color, style, shape, printing techniques, etc.--and yet always with a variety that lends interest to that consistency. In addition, the illustration or photography itself can bring distinction if the artist or photographer is inspired to produce something different. Give him/her that challenge. The end result is that the publication's impact is carried by its graphic material.

Production: This does not necessarily mean die cuts and super coated paper. Production values can be very subtle, such as spot varnish, usually on the graphics, or a fifth PMS color to go with the four process colors. They can also be inexpensive, such as mixing coated paper and uncoated paper, using one paper for the copy and one for the graphics. The graphics will tend to be on the coated paper, but woodcuts were very effective for me one time on the uncoated paper. The end result is a distinctiveness that comes from using the skills of the print shop.

The Content

In the final analysis, the effectiveness of any printed piece comes from the credibility of what is written. As alluded to earlier, the message is most effective when it is not presented by a corporate voice. This is true for all audiences you are trying to reach: employees to convey information to employees, customers to convey your message to other customers. This means telling stories, using quotes, and using names if possible.

I believe there are two basic approaches to a marketing brochure. In one, you use customers and employees to tell the benefit of a product or service. In the other, you use employees to demonstrate their expertise in the area in which the product or service functions--in effect, you create a magazine, and use a soft sell.

Internal publications use the first approach. You the editor talk about the benefit to the employee, and you find employees to talk about the benefit to the company, its employees, or its customers--whether the subject is a new product, a new service, a new benefits plan, a new marketing program, a new location, a new logo, or whatever. Employees want to hear a CEO in person, but except in very candid interviews, they are not willing to read what a CEO says. But they will read the message told by their peers.

The annual report reflects the same principle on another level. Research shows that most are read for just five to 10 minutes. The fundamental reason is that annual reports do not tell a story. I would define a story as copy that is created to interest the reader. Annual report copy reflects, instead, the interest of the CEO.

There's a mini revolution out there to make annual reports interesting. More corporate communicators should be involved. I'm not referring to summary annual reports, which basically cut out the notes to the financial statements. Nor about the new directives from the US Securities and Exchange Commission that annual reports discuss the company's prospects and its management controls. Both developments should help. No, I'm talking about the communication content, the front portion that often doubles as marketing or recruiting material. Such up front material often takes on the flavor of a magazine. The "new" annual discusses what is going on in the economy, in society, in the industry of the company. It reflects the company's concerns as a corporate citizen. The company doesn't talk about itself; it talks about the same world in which its customers, its investors, its employers, its recruits live and work. It tells a story.

Some readers may disagree with the solutions I have suggested here. After all, every creative mind has its own solution to a problem. And more than one solution can work. What is less disputable in my mind is the problem. And that is that the mass of printed material put out by communicators too often is simply not read.

It is not a question of good writing. We have good writers. It is a question of the thinking behind each printed piece. It is a question of the entire package: concept, writing, editing, design, and production. And above all, of understanding the purpose of each publication, and how the intended audience can be persuaded to read it.

And believe it.

Robert A. Parker heads his own publications consulting firm, RAP Communictions, Nutley, N.J.
COPYRIGHT 1989 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:establishing readability in corporate publications
Author:Parker, Robert A.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Dec 1, 1989
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