Sometimes we can’t remember why we do things a certain way. This is certainly the case with company reports and other documents. It may not always be the best way – far from it – but that’s the way they’re written and that’s that.
‘We must always start with two pages of background,’ explains a manager to a colleague who’s about to write her first monthly sales report. ‘Don’t write it like that,’ advises a technical manager. ‘It doesn’t sound right.’
I don’t believe in change where none is needed. But it’s scary how often we stick religiously to doing things a particular way, even though that way is far from optimal. In fact, we often stick to these methods even when no-one can remember why.
Longer ago than I care to remember, when I was production editor of a woodworking magazine (yes, really), our design manager gave me a piece of advice on photographing clocks. We’d commissioned five timepieces and were featuring them in a lavish centre spread – or as close to that as you could get in a publication like ours. ‘Always set the time to ten past ten or ten to two,’ he said. ‘That way, they’ll look like they’re smiling.’
Believe it or not, that’s standard advice for clock photography. If you’re sceptical, do a Google image search for ‘clocks’ and see how many of them are set to that time.
It makes sense. Anything that sends some positive cheer, even subliminally, is a good thing. After all, every little helps, as an old clockmaker almost certainly never said.
But a couple of years ago, I was glancing through the Argos catalogue and came across the section on digital clocks. And yes, you’ve guessed it, every single one of them was set to 10:10.
Now, either the photographer was sharing an in-joke with old-school picture editors, or someone had followed the traditional advice and forgotten to ask the crucial question: ‘Why do we do it that way?’
Time for a change?
So, think again about why you write things a particular way in your team and ask yourself if there might be a better way.
What would happen if you put the main messages of your report up front and put the background second? Would that be more useful for those who read it? How about shortening the executive summary from three pages (which isn’t much of a summary at all) to three paragraphs?
How about replacing ‘initiate’ with ‘start’ or ‘utilise’ with ‘use’? What’s the worst that could happen? Would you really incur the wrath of the entire board of directors, leaving you to dive for cover under your desk and stay there with your offending laptop, emerging only after the scandal of ‘wordgate’ had safely faded in your colleagues’ collective memory? Or would the recipients breathe a sigh of relief, read and understand what you’ve written straight away (without needing to fortify themselves with a stiff double espresso), and – gasp – act on it?
Even if you’re not quite ready to leave your old writing habits behind, at least pause for a moment to question why you do things that way.
The answer might put a smile on your face.
15 / 07 / 14
Five reasons to ignore your grammar gremlins (for now)
Here’s the good news: if you’re worried your documents are not as good as they could be, your grammar is probably not the problem. Don’t get me wrong. Grammar matters. Of course it does. Getting it wrong can undermine your reputation (though probably not as much as you think – see below). Poor grammar can […]
12 / 08 / 14
The best fonts for business documents
For those of us who don’t deal in fonts every day, the number of fonts on offer can seem overwhelming – but it doesn’t have to be. Serif vs sans serif Fonts generally fall into two categories – serif and sans serif. Those with small projecting features are known as serifs. Examples include Times New […]