How To Make Your Writing Serve Your Viewers
How to get your writing to serve your audience
When I was attending a conference in Germany a few years ago, I was asked to join the event communication team. They needed a native English speaker to edit their content. No problem, I thought. Well, I was wrong.
Most of the articles I had to edit were first written in German and then translated into English. When I read through the first few, I was convinced that no native English speaker would want to read them. There was no catch. No WIIFM. No stories. No descriptive language. Just facts that communicated the essentials and nothing more. I wondered if I should just edit grammar and spelling to improve readability, or try to make something more engaging out of it. I think I ended up doing a bit of both.
It was confusing at the time, but I learned something important from that experience: Good writing is culturally defined. While I initially doubted the writing skills of my German colleagues, I now see that, depending on the class, they did an excellent job. The articles would have been good for their audience. I just saw the work through Canadian eyes.
Look at Lean
When writing for learner engagement, we often talk about lean copy. I think it’s likely that everyone will appreciate lean copy, but that everyone has their own understanding of what that means. On the one hand, the articles by my German friends were the epitome of Lean. They had all the fat removed (I mean all the fat). On the other hand, they were too slim for the audience I was thinking of. Neither of us was wrong, we just had different target groups.
But wait, there’s more
It’s more than just a slim copy, however. Of all the people involved in creating a great learning experience, who determines what “good” writing is?
In short, we can say this: the audience is right. After all, this is the one that writing serves, isn’t it? We must be willing to expose our own culturally defined ideas about “good writing” – including what it means to be lean – and adapt to what works for our audience.
7 questions and 3 practical considerations
I’m still learning what it all means, and I suspect you are too. However, I’ve developed a few questions that I think may help.
- How does the audience define “good writing”?
- What are the writer’s expectations? The reader?
- What attracts the audience? What attracts you
- What local stories, proverbs, parables, or quotes are often used?
- How is thinking sequenced?
- Where is your communication located on the direct-indirect continuum? What about low-high context?
- Who can give me a local perspective?
Answering these questions can be incorporated into your existing design processes and practices as a learning designer / developer. There are 3 practical things to keep in mind:
1. Learning people
In addition to gathering information about the learners’ roles, responsibilities, goals, and digital literacy, add some of the questions above. You could even provide a few quick writing samples and see how they get involved.
2. Validation (AKA Formative Evaluation)
A good design process always includes validation checks. Is your learning design doing what it is supposed to do? Do not just check the balance between theory and practice or the frequency of learner participation. Make sure you include validation of your written materials, including different styles such as case studies, stories, explanations or instructions.
Most training courses include an assessment of at least Kirkpatrick’s Level 1 Response. While some get into the habit of using overly simplified (and therefore unhelpful) smile sheets, more can be done. Include questions that will get learner feedback on the written content. Don’t just ask if they liked it or not, ask what they liked or disliked and why. If you can, dive into the Level 2 (learning) evaluation and ask questions like “What helped you learn?” “What was it that prevented you from studying?” “Which parts of the content have you found resonance?” and “Was there anything confusing in the written content? If so, what and why?”
Asking these questions and engaging in these practical applications is no magic bullet for good writing. However, doing so can go a long way in helping your writing serve your audience, not the other way around.
Over to you. What is your experience of writing across cultures? What questions or ideas would you add to my list?