/writing/ Content Versus Format

I WAS RECENTLY talking with a friend. He was developing a communications strategy for a large-scale education project implemented on behalf of a government funder in a war-torn environment.

Simple enough.

He further explained that the client restricted the Strategy to two pages.

Slightly more complicated.

Two pages is very little space to capture the complexities and outcomes of any meaningful strategic communications planning process. It is a classic tension that writers and managers often face in these roles — How does content interact with format, specifically, how do we ensure that the integrity of what is trying to be conveyed is maintained against the limitations of the form in which the information is being presented.

The golden rule is to never sacrifice good content in the name of a more polished, simplified presentation. A rule often tested. My friend faced simplifying his planning process — the technical foundation of the Strategy, his value as a consultant — to meet the format established by the client.

But perhaps there was an approach that could marry technical thoroughness with user-friendly simplicity; maybe the two weren’t mutually exclusive.

There seemed a link to web design that helped conceptually explain how to approach this challenge. Front-end websites and their features are built on thousands of lines of code, or the back-end language which produces the slick sites used everyday. My friend, like a web designer, was forced to create a user-friendly product (the Strategy) that documents a complex planning and decision-making process (the code).

My friend could rest easy. With this approach he gets to explore the full strategic planning process while not feeling restricted by the client’s rigid guidelines. Once the strategy parts of the Strategy are identified, analyzed, and thoroughly documented internally, then the process of framing the most important parts of the Strategy can begin.

Deliverable-wise this approach consists of two separate documents:
1) ‘The Strategy’. This is the final product delivered to the client, as requested and in whatever format is needed. It is the front-end ‘face’ of the program’s communications Strategy. Importantly, the document is 100% aligned with the outcomes of the underlying strategic communications planning process. The content here is largely high-level, senior management-type talking points that explains things conceptually. The client isn’t so worried about the details, yet.
2) ‘The Code’. This document provides the client and the implementer with a detailed documentation and explanation of the strategic communications planning process. It can be as detailed and as long as the facilitator deems necessary, but fundamentally, it should offer a clear and detailed presentation of the how the Strategy was finalized. It should be shared with the client as a supplementary deliverable, being clear that the document only provides supporting documentation.

Will the donor read ‘the code’; to understand the strategy behind the Strategy? Probably not. But it has been documented and shared in a transparent manner. If they approve the front-end Strategy (two-pager), so too have they accepted the underlying methodology and base planning assumptions. (Also, it so bad if the client does, gasp, read ‘the code’ and return with answers or clarifications? Now you have their attention and can pro-actively address likely questions, and perhaps even, convince the client ‘the code’ should be further explored.)

Finally, be mindful that senior management teams may not actually be interested in producing or sharing ‘the code’. Validly, senior managers can be sensitive about oversharing information or delivering materials not explicitly requested by the client.

Fight the reticence by senior management teams to share ‘the code’. It is your responsibility as the writer / manager to explain the importance of documenting and sharing the information with the client, as well as ensuring a clear understanding internally of the how the Strategy was developed and outcomes (important for long-term internal growth of departments and organizational learning).

Thanks for reading,

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