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Why do I talk to horses and butterflies?

February 28, 2011

Please read this headline with the intonation of a genuine question, not an indignant shake of the head.  I am thinking hard about this not being cross.  Here is my experience:

Given a potential customer – that is someone who is responsible for the quality of writing in a business where there is room for improvement, here is my experience:

Some are lovely, intelligent people who listen carefully to my ideas for helping their staff to improve writing quality.  We get on like fish and chips and do business together to the extent that the budget allows.

Then there are three other types (for the sake of simplicity and a bit of fun).

1. The ostrich who puts the problem in the ‘too difficult’ box and says everything is fine.  No help needed here.

2. The butterfly who lights on the first quick fix and says it will do fine.  Tick box and move on.

3. The blinkered horse who knows exactly what he or she wants before our first meeting and no amount of persuasion will change that idea.

I have been trying to see how I can help those people to make the most of my services, and to understand why they react the way they do.  I have an idea, which came to me as a result of some work my colleague Terry has done.

I think it may be because of the genuine difficulty of explaining where you are with an area of expertise that is not your specialism.  Where do you start to explain?  How do you find the entrance into the cave where the problem lurks?  Ostriches are afraid of showing their ignorance, butterflies want a quick solution so they jump on the first idea that comes out of my mouth and horses have read about or heard of a solution that sounds good and sticking to it is a useful substitute for understanding the problem.

So what can I do?  Terry has divided up the work we do into five categories that for the moment I am going to call ‘entry points’.  I think my butterflies and ostriches could find them useful because they break the big topic of ‘writing quality’ into smaller bits.  Most organisations are much better at some of these than others so we could get further in our conversation just by considering the question: which of these are you best at and which do you care about?  My horses are probably still not going to listen – but you can’t win them all at once.

Here are the entry points:

Approach: finding a focus – knowing what a document is supposed to achieve.  Giving information, persuading and so on.

Convention: achieving consistency – having some benchmarks, using a style guide and using grammar and punctuation accurately.

Voice: finding the right tone – controlling how messages come across to readers.

Craft: using the tools of the trade – paragraphs, sentences and headings  – to achieve readability.

Presentation: recognising the importance of the look of the page – using visual elements to encourage readers.

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