Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Random Thought: Word Tactics

Similar to tips on PowerPoint tactics, Word documentation also has to be nicely organized and quickly tell readers why they are investing their time. Although the format changes slightly, the intent and organization are basically the same for both Word and PowerPoint.

For documents, the “What is this and why should I care?” topic is typically combined with an “Agenda” section. Simply entitled “Introduction”, this section should literally answer for readers why they are spending their time on you and present an organization for your arguments to come.

Unlike presentations, many people will see a document and completely ignore its contents after the first page. Others whom you want to reach realistically will not have the time to digest your 15+ page masterpiece on average doughnut consumption rates for suburban nuclear power plant safety inspectors. You want to get your point across but you will lose a lot of your audience quickly. What do you do?

An “Executive Summary” is really just a fancily worded way of putting your conclusions directly following your introduction. If a large percentage of you audience will not be interested in your argument, a lot of them may still be interested in your conclusions. Placate them by getting to the bottom line up front.

For your audience that is interested in your detailed arguments, structure your thoughts similarly to how you would in the slide set media. Here, you do not have to play tricks like reminding your reader where you are in your outline since they know how much they have read already, but you still want to make it easy to follow along. The best way to do that is to use font sizes and embellishments consistently, as shown in the figure.

By default, Microsoft Word will use a bold Arial size 16 font for a “Heading 1” style, which is great for titles (“The Wyoming Incident”). “Heading 2”, bold italic Arial size 14 font, looks good as a section title (“Introduction”, “Executive Summary”, etc.). “Heading 3”, bold Arial size 13 font, works as a subsection title (“Uncovering the Contact Location”), and that is about as far as you will want to go with your organization. Organizing your thoughts any deeper than a subsection becomes difficult to follow for readers. Not surprisingly, these three Word defaults work well with the Times New Roman size 12 default font for “Normal” text. Your organization may have standards in this area that you will need to follow, but absent that these four font styles are a good guideline.

Where slide sets have backup slides, documentation has appendices. Not everyone will care about the exact formula you used to compute valid hyperspace vectors, but you do not want to leave out those who might. Putting this information in the back under a section name that most readers will know contains optional material solves this organizational problem nicely.

Finally, the writing style for your documentation is just as important as its organization. Do not confuse this form with a letter to a friend or family member. Use of a first person perspective (“I find your lack of faith disturbing.”) brings informality to a document, which lessens its impact. Also, it gives the appearance that the author is the sole participant in its creation, a topic covered in the previous section on slide set author credits. A better approach is to use an objective voice (“The lack of faith is disturbing.”). This makes the words sound more authoritative and formal, attaching more importance to them. Avoid contractions as much as possible for the same reason.


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posted by Pete Johnson @ 7:16 PM   0 comments

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