Magazine article Communication World

Bells and Whistles Are OK, but Facts Are Better

Magazine article Communication World

Bells and Whistles Are OK, but Facts Are Better

Article excerpt

When I taught my first web site workshops four years ago, all people wanted to talk about were Java applets, Shockwave plug-ins and other technographic gewgaws sure to make the web user go "Wow!" If I talked about the importance of strategic messages, integrated links, or - heaven forbid - the active voice, most people in attendance would nod their heads and issue a polite yet dubious look that said, "You poor, passe dweeb."

But at a presentation I gave for IABC/Vancouver two years ago, I discovered with glee that the tide was decidedly changing. My realization came when I was discussing the importance of screens forming quickly and suggested that well-designed pages are those that take no more than 20 seconds to jell. A couple of web designers in the room became agitated and argued that no web page worth its salt could meet that "narrow" standard.

Rather than support this theory, though, as had often happened at past workshops, the rest of the room began to murmur in apparent discontent. Finally, a woman said, "I disagree. As a frequent user of the web, I get frustrated waiting for these complex graphics to come up. The information on a web site is more important to me than the pictures." At that, the murmuring intensified until another young woman raised her hand and identified herself as a representative of one of the city's most prestigious design firms.

She put the matter to rest in the eyes of most of the other communicators in the room when she said, "This week, my firm's management issued a mandate that all of the web pages we design jell in nine seconds or less. It's our belief that most people who use the web are going there for information, not entertainment."

Today, savvy web and intranet editors fully appreciate the fact that although solid design is important to effective online communication, it's substantive content, not superficial artistry, that drives a site's success. Interest in crafting copy that helps people quickly find information, perform tasks and grasp ideas while they are online is at an all-time high.

What factors distinguish the magnificent online copy from the mundane? Here are a few approaches that those web users I listen to in places like Dallas, Darwin and Dublin say they are seeking in the area of web/intranet text:

Write It Simply and Clearly

Corporate manuals, brochures and pamphlets are renowned for taking simple ideas and twisting them into syntactic pretzels. Readers don't tolerate complex sentences in print, and they have even less tolerance for them when they are trying to buy a product or locate important facts on your site. So if you are transferring published product descriptions magazine articles or benefits handbooks to an online site, you want to edit the wording into bite-size chunks the online reader can absorb.

That means keeping all sentences under 20 words (sentence fragments that express a complete thought - like "Register Now" or "This Month's Sales Items" - can be effective too). It also means keeping paragraphs to no more than two or three short sentences. And it means covering a topic in no more than two or three short paragraphs. Finally, it means using a simple, clear vocabulary that people of all ages and educational backgrounds can understand.

Those guidelines all get smashed by the following paragraph, carried on a web page geared to providing breast cancer patients with an understanding (?) of their disease:

"Genetic, epidemiologic and laboratory studies support a stochastic model of breast cancer development in which a series of genetic changes contribute to the dynamic process known as carcinogenesis. An accumulation of genetic changes is thought to correspond to the phenotypic changes associated with the evolution of malignancy. The carcinogenesis sequence is viewed histologically as starting with tissue of normal appearance, followed by changes that lead to hyperplasia and dysplasia, of which the most severe forms are difficult to distinguish from carcinoma in situ. …

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