Business Communication Layering: Technical Content For Different Audiences

Tagline: Layering works well as a template for summarising almost all business and technical content: a useful, valuable, legal pyramid scheme. [20 words]

Plain language summary:

Layering is a good technique for anyone writing business or technical content who wants to put across strong messages to different audiences.

It’s powerful, adaptable and based on a simple idea. Your reader matters. Your readers matter.

The template assumes you’re trying to reach different audiences who don’t have the same level of expertise. Or don’t have much time. Or both.

Using a layered summary approach helps you reach everyone you need to. There’s something for everyone, technical expert or general reader, whether they have seconds to spare or much longer.

And you don’t need to worry about what to leave out. Because you can throw the kitchen sink into your final ‘resources’ section.

The extra detail won’t distract or crowd out your summary messaging. But it’s available for anyone who really wants to know more, leaving you to focus on what really matters: the message and your main content.

[150 words: Flesch Reading Ease score 61]

Headline: eight words of essence

[Note: I’ll assume we’re writing our content in digital form but this template works equally well on paper.]

In any digital writing the headline is vitally important. If it is not accurate and engaging the digital reader will not go beyond it and they will be ‘swiping left’ on you before you know it.

Eight words is guidance only: the far more important constraint is that your headline really speaks to your reader and drags them into your topic – perhaps even against their better judgment – ‘I wasn’t intending to but I simply must read on; at least to the next segment of the pyramid.’

Keywords are valuable in your headline, both for SEO and for increasing engagement. You want your reader to know this piece really is for them, content-wise. So the subject matter had better be efficiently reflected in the first eight words. On this basis it’s advisable to include at least one ‘official’ keyword. In mine I used layering, which is the official keyword for this piece.

A technique I sometimes recommend is to pretend the content is a book and your headline is the title, in two elements divided by a colon. ‘What It Is About: And Why It’s Interesting’. Admittedly it’s a tall order to capture those ideas in such a constrained space. But worth a try.

Tagline: why you should read on, in 20 words

If it’s hard to make an 8-word headline really interesting, that should certainly be possible in a 20-word tagline. You’ve already given the bare bones in the preceding headline. So you can really go to town at this level of the pyramid. With the ‘story’, the angle, the hook, the core, the reason anyone with a few minutes to spare SHOULD read on.

If your 20 words can capture some element of the magic of narrative storytelling – problem-solution – or conflict-resolution – so much the better. Failing that, go for the news definition of story. What’s happened and why’s it interesting? Ideally some element of psychology or emotion will supplement the bare facts of the headline and humanise the story.

Broadsheet newspaper sub-editors are very good at this: writing taglines which take the headlines forward in the reader’s mind, drawing them in to the story. Often, in fact, newspaper subs use less than the 20 words I allow in my template. More like 12. Here’s an example taken at random from the FT this week.

Headline (8 words): China open to UK trade deal after Brexit
Tagline (12 words): Beijing’s willingness to negotiate likely to be a relief to May’s government

This tagline has some nice elements of conflict-resolution (willing to negotiate), emotion (relief) and a real human effect (on Theresa May personally); and tells you a lot of what you need to know if you can’t or don’t have time to access the bigger story.

My tagline for this blog plays on the idea of pyramid and Ponzi schemes in the investment work being useless, valueless, illegal vehicles. The pyramid scheme I talk about in this blog, by contrast – so the tagline says – is useful, valuable and legal.

Building Corner

Plain language summary: short sentences and simple vocabulary

For any content that has an element of B2C (business to consumer) as well as B2B (business to business) a plain language summary is a powerful idea.

Even in B2B only, technical comms are often fuelled with jargon or, at best, context-specific language. Having an overt plain language summary in every piece ensures it will be, at least partially, understood by a wide range of readers.

It’s not too hard to achieve a plain language standard when you put your mind to it and start getting used to the important parameters.

Wedded as I am to Flesch and other readability measures, I regard myself as having achieved a plain English standard if I exceed a score of 60 on the Flesch Reading Ease index, a commonly accepted proxy for plain English.

Of course one thing Flesch doesn’t do is judge how accessible your vocabulary is, i.e. the amount and degree of jargon it has. Flesch judges vocabulary only on the ratio of syllables-to-words – so this is an element to watch out for separately when you’re trying to write in plain language.

See the introduction to this blog for my attempt to put some money where my mouth is and summarise this very blog in plain English in just 150 words. You can judge for yourself just how plain it turned out.

Main content: white space and storytelling sub-headings

In some ways there are fewer constraints on the main content part of the pyramid than elsewhere. Because it is variable in length we can’t go applying wordcount restrictions in a template like this – it will just be as long as it needs to be.

Still we can apply some structural constraints to make sure – however long it is – that it’s as readable as possible and easy on the eye.

Hence the constraints in the box to the left in the pyramid diagram at the top of this blog. These are taken direct from Yoast SEO. Subheadings should not have more than 300 words between them, and individual paragraphs should not exceed 150 words.

One of my students pointed out that elsewhere on Yoast they make a big deal of the more qualitative idea that a single paragraph should represent a single idea. Which is all very well as a target. But the simpler condition of aiming for a word limit is cleaner, easier to achieve and more measurable.

The most important structural aspects to the main content are white space and good sub-headings which tell the story in their own right on a quick scan. And of course the content had better be good: courteous, accurate, consistent, clear, with a strong logical narrative as well as good structure. But that is for another time. Here we’re focusing mainly on message and layout: the content itself can wait for now.

Resources: include the kitchen sink if you want to

Although it comes at the bottom of the pyramid, the resources section is, if anything, the most important layer in our scheme. Because it gives you freedom to really summarise sparely and concentrate solely on your messaging, your story, higher up the pyramid.

If you make available a network of supporting material for the reader who wants or needs it – clearly set out and beautifully navigable rather than a tormented jungle of links and references – then you buy yourself scope to omit unnecessary detail from your main content and other summaries.

And putting all the extra detail at the bottom makes it clear to the more casual and/or busy reader that they don’t need to read it all – this is optional content for them.

Contact Prism-Clarity for further information, including where to get the best advice.