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Cross-eyed and confused – the art of writing complex documents

Recently my seven year old said “Mummy, today we learnt about how bad the green ones are and how the firefighter gets those ones. Then if the blue ones get in you have to get the policeman to do the rescuing”. I was flummoxed. What on earth was she talking about? The nine year old piped up. “It was in the health education class Mummy – we were talking about germs and the different ways to fight them in your body”.

“Oh I see!” I exclaimed, relieved it wasn’t another modern education term, like ‘place value’ sent to confuse me.

D​​escribing a complex concept clearly is a bit like explaining a human being to an alien – in a letter. If you start with the fingernails and then describe the armpit, they’ll be confused from the beginning.

Start with a description of the whole body – a human is an animal approximately 1.5 metres tall and 0.5m wide.

Then move on to the details – start from the top and work your way down in a logical fashion. It has a head the size of a basketball (these are very sporty aliens) on the top, two arms halfway down and two legs at the bottom. It is generally hairless except for the head (you can get to the armpits later). And think about what the alien needs to know. The alien may not need to know that some humans are supertasters, whilst others couldn’t tell the difference between grass fed and grain fed beef (just for the record, I can’t tell the difference).

So imagine describing the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) to someone not in the know. Before you start writing ask yourself three questions:

  • Why am I writing this document?

  • How much does the reader already know?

  • How much does the reader need to know?

Reading complex business documents that are poorly planned and constructed can send the reader into paroxysms of confusion and frustration. It also makes it much harder for the reader to make the decision you need them to make or clearly understand the information you want them to understand.

So really, it comes down to good planning. Once you’ve answered those first three questions, plan your document carefully. Start with the whole body view and then logically describe the detail. Use a logical structure.

And unless you are penning the next Booker Prize novel, don’t just sit down and write without a good plan first. Why? Because it will take you longer to write and chances are your reader will be confused.

English lexicographer Samuel Johnson said, "A man who uses a great many words to express his meaning is like a bad marksman who, instead of aiming a single stone at an object, takes up a handful and throws in hopes he may hit."

So, plan to hit your mark, don’t just throw words on a page and hope for the best.

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