Wilson & Associates Monthly Newsletter, December 2016
Say What You Mean
By: John Wilson
Several years ago I moved to the Hill Country. I drove back and forth to Houston to work. Coming in on Monday, going home on Friday. The drive in to town was always timed for an early evening arrival where dinner would be eaten when I got there. The drive home, however, always entailed a stop on the road for sustenance. There were several spots along Highway 71 that were favorites. One in particular was at the top of the list because they made a good BLT.
On one occasion, however, after I placed my order, I was asked very seriously if I wanted lettuce and tomato on the sandwich. I said, “wouldn’t that make it just a bacon sandwich?” The blank stare led me quickly to add, “yes, I’d like lettuce and tomato.” It happened again several months later. This time, I simply replied, “yes, I want a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich.” Apparently, the meaning of the acronym BLT had faded into obscurity and meant simply bacon to the wait staff.
I thought of those folks this past Monday. After a round of golf, we stopped in at the club house for lunch. My brother placed my order for a BLT while I went to wash up. When it arrived, I took a bite and realized there were no tomatoes. Expecting the all-inclusive BLT, I got the slimmed down, BL. Maybe she was out of tomatoes or simply forgot. My brother wanted me to go tell her, but I demurred. I had no idea how someone could mess up a BLT, but they did, and I wasn’t sure I really wanted to discuss it with them. Better to let sleeping dogs lie, and bacon by itself is pretty good.
It also got me to thinking about acronyms in general. In all the procedures I’ve edited there’s been a heavy reliance on them. At one point I thought it was done just to cut down on the amount of typing that needed doing. But, over time, it was obvious that they served a useful purpose and could communicate a great deal of information.
The BLT incidents, however, point out one or two of the shortcomings of acronyms. They can become white noise. A trigger for a general action, make a sandwich, rather than make a particular sandwich. The ladies taking my order were probably just working by rout and not really thinking about what they were doing. That may be okay in the sandwich business but not okay when you’re drilling for oil or natural gas.
Also, acronyms can become so ingrained that people forget the original interpretation. Take a TIW. It stands for Texas Iron Works, but typically is used when you want something like a full opening safety valve. It’s one of those acronyms where people say, “Everyone knows what I mean.” At one time, that may well have been the case, especially when they were first introduced. But hands come and go, competitors introduce new products, and life gets hectic. This can lead to some confusion.
It’s best to be specific, which leads me to another BLT story from a friend. He ordered his favorite sandwich from his favorite shop. He watched the girl behind the counter hesitate for a moment when she realized she was out of mayo. She apparently felt she had to put something on the sandwich to complete it, so she chose mustard. I know of no one who likes mustard on a BLT.
It’s the same with any other acronym or instruction – you’re leaving its translation up to the user, and the user may not see things the way you see them. So, while the acronym may feel precise and descriptive, you’re in trouble if the user feels the freedom to interpret. This is why we always suggest as much precision as possible when writing a procedure and using acronyms with the following guidelines:
- Provide a table of acronyms, if you use them.
- Avoid using them entirely, if possible. Plain English work surprising well.
To make sure you get what you ordered, you’re better off telling the staff you want a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich on wheat bread with mayo rather than casually ordering a BLT. You’re more likely to get exactly what you want as opposed to an unpleasant surprise. And it works for procedures. For example, when you tell someone to pressure test you ought to tell them how you expect it to be done and what the parameters for success or failure are. Anything less and you might get mustard on your sandwich when you were expecting mayo.
By: Laura Kilgore
Since starting my current position as a Technical Editor three years ago, members of our team have done two different personality assessments, which we then shared amongst ourselves. Each time, however, I have been reluctant to participate, as I balk at the idea of categorizing people. I don’t want to define you by an acronym, color, or animal; I want to actually get to know you as a person.
Ironically, my relational personality type explains why I dislike personality assessments. Whatever my feelings about these systems, they have helped me realize two very important things: relationships in the workplace are vital, and everyone relates in very different ways.
Over these past three years, I’ve noticed certain things really help form and improve these relationships. The following tips may come naturally to some, but they are aspects of communication that can be honed and perfected.
How to Craft a Successful Email
Here are some Tips & Tricks from W&A Technical Writer, Laura Kilgore:
There are some days when I feel like 90% of my technical writing role is comprised of sending emails. Meeting invitations, quick progress check-ups, and full document reviews with MS Word attachments are just a few of the types of emails I send daily. Most people see email-writing as a common practice that requires no training, but Technical Writers know better. We know that concise, positive, written communication is not easy, but it can set the tone for any good working relationship.
So how is it done?
Tip: First, Ask Yourself these Questions
With every email you craft, ask the following questions:
- Who is my audience?
- What should my tone be?
- What am I trying to tell them?
When the first draft is done, ask a new set of questions:
- Am I maintaining a friendly and professional voice?
- Is my message clear?
Keeping these questions in mind while writing can prevent conveying the wrong tone or leaving out important information.
Tip: Use the Traditional Letter Format
Letter-writing is a lost art, but it is the best format for a professional email. Always use a greeting, body, and closing, even if it’s just a quick note. Not only will this strengthen your relationship with your recipient by communicating that you have time for them, but it will also show that you are a competent and professional writer. Additional information will also provide context if that email is forwarded on to other readers.
Tip: Be Concise
Don’t ask too many questions, and don’t include too much detail. Your email should be short or the recipients will not read to the end. If it does have to be long, include headers and bullet points, and make sure your sentences and paragraphs are short. Make it easy to skim so your readers can find what applies to them and focus on that. Avoid using too many exclamation marks or different colors of highlighting as that can also distract the reader. If your email starts to get too long, consider picking up the phone instead. If your email is long and has several recipients, consider scheduling a meeting.
Tip: Be Careful What You Say
No email is completely private. Any email can easily be forwarded on to an unexpected audience, so refrain from creating an unnecessary paper trail. Even if your intentions are good, there are some things that are better left unsaid.
Tip: Always Proofread
No one is immune to the occasional typo or misused word. For those really important emails, don’t send them as soon as you write them. After you write the first draft, give it half-an-hour, then go back and re-read it. I guarantee you’ll make changes. Then you can be confident in its content. For important, time-sensitive emails, get a colleague or Technical Writer to review it for you. They’ll be able to read it with a different perspective and may be able to pick up on a tone that you didn’t realize had slipped in or note a bit of information that was omitted.
Any kind of communication with clients or co-workers is easier if a working relationship exists between them. Clear and effective communication in any form is the end goal of Technical Writers. Writing emails is just where we practice that communication every day.
Get more Tips & Tricks in the online archive on our website as they are added with each new newsletter.
Using Color in Documents
You’re working on a procedure and you want to bring attention to a critical step or a high-risk task to make sure the reader will notice it and be aware as they perform the steps. How do you do this? Red font? Use a yellow Caution box or a red Warning box?
Let’s explore the pitfalls of using color in documents to decrease the risk of your reader missing something important.
Often authors want to use red or some other color font in documents to focus the reader’s attention.
Tip: Consider the following scenarios:
- Are any of the readers color-blind?
- What if the document is printed using a black & white printer?
If either of these are the case, the colored font you so carefully chose could go completely unnoticed.
What about using a yellow Caution box or a red Warning box?
Tip: While the color of the boxes is subject to the pitfalls above, the boxes will be more easily noticed amongst normal body text or procedural steps.
Tricks: When finalizing a document or procedure, consider your audience – not just their knowledge base, but also personal factors and location (do they have a color printer offshore on the rig?).
In addition to color, also consider the pitfalls of using these other tactics used to bring attention to areas of importance:
- Font size and type: Could the font you used be too small and thus hard to read? Use a font type that is clear and simple, or consult company branding guidelines. Chances are, this has been considered and guidelines are in place for which font you should be using.
- Formatting: Use bold, underline, and italics sparingly – they can visually clutter a document. When using ALL CAPS, consider how it could be perceived by the reader. Could it introduce a tone you didn’t intend?