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Write face-to-face.

write face-to-face

Mark Twain once apologized to a friend for writing him such a long letter. But he didn't have time, Twain said, to write a short one. That's the same kind of thinking necessary to plan a relevant publication.

All the good writing, photography and design we're capable of are meaningless without a relevant plan. And without relevant measurement.

As editors, we believe our publications are important. But the truth is the publications are nothing more than substitutes for the best kind of communication--which is people talking to each other and asking and answering questions. Publications are not relevant unless we work hard to define their purposes and to remove them from the realm of the ordinary.

We can do that by following three simple rules:

* Define the publication's purpose by establishing clear goals and strategies tied to the company's business plan.

* Make sure that every story and every piece of art contributes to our goals.

* Learn from our successes and our failures by religiously measuring our work.

Before I elaborate on those opinions--which ought to be but are not self-evident--I want to mention a couple of other matters that should be important to everyone involved in internal communication.

A report by the Conference Board says employee communication is a new priority for top management. But the report cites IABC research that today's employees prefer to get information face to face--either one-on-one or in a small group. Employees want to hear news from their supervisors or some other knowledgeable, authoritative sources.

Studies by TPF&/IABC and more recently by Hewlett-Packard and General Electric show that publications rank only fourth or fifth as preferred information sources.

That's pretty much a given in business today. Even editors jealous of their turf must agree that communication is more effective face to face than face to page.

But new, and needed, emphasis on face-to-face communication does not mean that relevant publications are doomed. The only publications that are in trouble are those that are poorly planned, misdirected or meaningless--or those whose editors take for granted that their bosses understand the publications' value.

Editors should see this renewed emphasis on face-to-face communication as a growth opportunity. Ignore the hype about videos replacing publications. Ignore the hype that employees don't read any more because they watch so much TV or because they are sol busy. We just have to remember--and act on--the face that people will read about what's important to them if we don't put barriers in their way--barriers in the form of long, dull stories; uninviting design and cliched photographs that don't challenge cliched perceptions.

We cant make our publications more valuable by being authoritative and by studying the reasons face-to-face communication is so effective. Face-to-face is personal. People can ask each other questions to make sure the message is received, and they can read each other's body language.

When we plan and edit our pulications, we can pretend we are talking directly to a small group of employees--our target audience. We can anticipate and answer questions. We can make our "body language"--photography and design--friendly, accessible, and a part of our message. We can try not to be bores.

Good communication--especially internally--is often hard to measure. But its effect are not "soft." There are many bottom-line reasons to communicate. A few include:

* the ability to control situations rather than be controlled,

* to help improve productivity and safety,

* to educate employees about vital issues,

* to help employees deal wtih change,

* to improve decision-making at all levels,

* to motivate employees by building a sense of ownership,

* to explain policies and

* simply to share news.

Too many of us don't put enough effort into serious, goal-oriented planning--planning that helps us bridge the gaps between reader's self-interests and management's messages. And to bridge those gaps with insight and impact.

That gets us back to the three "simple" rules for making our publication relevant.

* Anyone who does not have clear, written goals and strategies should put this magazine down--right after reading it cover to cover--and start putting them together. Begin with three to six basic goals tied closely to the organization's goals. List specific strategies, tactics and even story ideas to support each goal--and build on this supporting list all year.

Along with primary goals, list a few secondary, technical goals--tools to help do a better job. These might include improving photographs or making the publication's cover more inviting, or writing better headlines--whatever your most glaring weaknesses are.

We also need strategies for each issue, including--in writing--a complete list of stories, how many words each should be, what the art will be and who the sources are. And don't forget to include the reason each story is being done--which goal or goals it supports. Omit stories that don't support goals.

* The second "simple" rule is to write stories with impact--stories that make a difference to our organizations. Give readers what they can't get anywhere else--whetehr that is information or perspective or both.

Don't spend time doing things you're not supposed to do, such as shooting photographs of somebody's birthday cake. Politely and consistently let people know what your job is and isn't, because every time you say yes to a request that's out of line, you'll get three more requests. Your time is too valuable to spend on somebody else's work.

If you have an issue that needs to be covered, decided how cay you write about it honestly ane effectively. Decide what approach would advance organizational goals, show lessons learned or prevent a problem from happening again.

* The third "simple" rule to make publications relevant is to religiously measure successes and failures. We must use the results to improve our work, and to sell our programs to top management.

I know an editor who used what may be the simplest survey of all. When she first took her job, she noticed that the company's trash cans overflowed every time her newsletter was published. She worked hard though and within a year she hardly ever saw a newsletter in the trash can.

That's legitimate survey in the sense that she was paying attention to the action her newsletter prompted.

Surveys should be a little more complicated, but not much. (Leave the big time-consumers for biannual audits.) Simple readership surveys can be effective without eating up a lot of time.

Surveys can be effective by asking only a few basic questions. At Central and South West Services, I use one side of an 8-1/2-by 11-inch sheet to ask:

Which story in this issue was most valuable to you?

Which story was least valuable?

What stories would you like to see in future issues?

What other comments would you like to make?

Each of those questions is followed by the most important question: Why?

I also ask how useful, understandable and interesting the issue was, and how much of the issue each reader completed.

That's it. Sweet and simple.

I don't ask readers to rate the quality of the writing, the photography or the desing. I want to know how stories affect readers. This lets me measure outcome, not process.

And I always keep in mind that a survey is a tool--not a bible.

If we can find ways to effectively take these three "simple" steps, we can benefit individually and as organizations. For example:

* We can strengthen the organization by helping create its future. One way we do this is by sharing employees' accomplishments and ideas to help the organization get from where it is today to where it should be tomorrow.

* We can strengthen the organiation by creating bridges between individual events. We can show the bigger picture by showing how what happens in one part of the organization affects other parts of the organization.

* We can strenghten the organization by helping employees understand and appreciate their own--and other's--roles within the organization.

Finally, I want to repeat that our publications are only as relevant as we are willing to make them--by how we plan, what we write and how well we prove the value of what we do. We can't do any of these things by being ordinary.

I've already quoted Mark Twain, so I want to leave you with some advice from another of our great philosophers--Steve Martin. His advice is a good example of how simple it can be to edit a meaningful publication. Especially in a business environment that sometimes still believes power is created by hoarding information, or that we can't do something different because "that's not the way we do it here."

Just follow Martin's step-by-step plan for how to avoid paying taxes on a million dollars. His approach is as direct and simple as ours is in editing a relevant publication.

"First," martin said, "get a million dollars."

Tom Geddie is supervisor of internal communication for Central and South West Services in Dallas, Texas.
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Association of Business Communicators
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Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:writing technique
Author:Geddie, Tom
Publication:Communication World
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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