by Ellis Pratt, Cherryleaf.
There comes a point in most sales teams (and businesses) when they need to grow up, in order to grow.
In the initial stages of a new business, people often work in an ad hoc, inconsistent and occasionally chaotic way. It’s an “Age of Heroes”, where success usually depends on individual talent and effort, as well as extraordinary deeds.
It works, for the short-term. However, after a while, you may find the same mistakes keep happening over and over again. The cutting of corners starts to come back to haunt you. As for those sales “heroes”, well they eventually move on to other organisations, taking their knowledge and experience with them.
There’s a need to find a way to repeat past successes on a consistent basis, pre-empt potential disasters and to stop relying on just one person to get something done. You may also need to minimise the learning curve for people moving to new teams and projects.
In other words, it’s time to establish processes and procedures.
Here are six tips for writing write effective policies and procedures
People don't have too much time to waste these days. If you have something to communicate, it’s best to say it in a way that is complete, effective and to the point. As technical communicators – those people sometimes called procedures writers or technical authors – we're able to pass on some tips to help you write effective policies and procedures:
Tip 1: Identify the central question/subject and desired outcome you want to communicate
It is important you know the key purpose of your document: What do you want to happen as a result of someone reading it? Try to understand the user and see through their eyes. You can do this by pre-empting questions the readers may have:
- What do you want to tell me?
- Why should I read this?
- What do I need to know?
- What do you want me to do?
- Are you requesting, proposing or seeking approval?
Tip 2: Plan the structure of the document using labels to describe each section.
The pyramid style of writing is a very useful way of arranging the structure of your document:
- Start the document by writing "I want to tell you that…", finishing that sentence and then deleting the phrase "I want to tell you that…" This should help you communicate your key message in your first sentence.
- Start every section with a summary overview statement. This will encourage people to read on.
- Follow the summary statement with any supporting details that justify it.
Professional business writers, such as technical authors, typically break a document down into small, discrete units of information, organised around a skeleton of topic headings. If you use this "component" or "modular" approach, you can plan and structure the document using the heading "labels" that describe each section. These signposts help enormously when you start writing, and they can also help you be consistent and avoid missing out any important content.
As you write, keep refining your structure, by asking "is this section really relevant?","Is any important information missing?", "Is there a logical flow to the document?"
Your list of headings can be structured to form a storyboard, to guide the reader through your document. Meaningful titles for sections also help with the readability of your document, as they enable readers to scan down a document and find the sections that relate or are of interest to them.
Tip 3: Identify the best style of language.
Here is some advice regarding the words you use:
- Keep your vocabulary simple. This will aid your reader's understanding. For example, "use" is better than "utilise".
- Use the words and phrases your readers would normally use, where possible.
- Be consistent with the terminology you use.
- Check your document for any spelling mistakes.
- Use the active voice, as it will help make your writing seem much more definite and confident.
- Be succinct.
- Separate task (how) information from background (why) and support (what) information.
- When writing instructions: identify who should do what, what you should do before you start and what should happen next.
Tip 4: Write drafts and get them reviewed by someone else.
For longer documents, expect to write three drafts and be refining the structure as you go along.
- During the first draft stage, the author writes the content for all the topics. This is the longest stage and takes the longest to review. The review is to check for technical accuracy of all the content.
- The second draft stage is for the author to make the necessary changes, reported from the first draft review. The review is to confirm that this has been done and to request any minor tweaks still outstanding
- The final stage is to follow up on the minor changes picked up at second draft review. The result is the final deliverable.
You can look at a document a hundred times and still miss errors. Getting somebody to review your documents will benefit you by reducing errors and getting feedback on what your readers are likely to think about your information.
Tip 5: Identify the best delivery method.
It's not uncommon for 30% of a writer's time to be spent working on the "look and feel", once all the writing has been done.
- Don't overload people with information. In other words, don't give them too much all at once.
- Have a presentation format appropriate to the medium readers are using. What works well on paper doesn't always work well on screen.
- Make your information approachable by: inserting plenty of white space between paragraphs,
- using headings to separate different parts of the document,
- using only one or two fonts throughout the document,
- using an easy to read font.
Tip 6: Have a manageable way to maintain the information.
A key aspect to managing any business information is for people to be able to:
- Maintain, update and improve it efficiently after it's been created.
- Re-use it in other situations, to create value elsewhere (and add value to it).
- Set standard processes and guide staff on what to do.
- Have staff work on it simultaneously and collaboratively.
it isn't always easy, with many organisations being in state of having lots of out-of date or missing documents, or more than one version of the same piece of information.
Having a writing or editing resource, such as that offered by Cherryleaf can help, but it's also important to look at the systems and tools you have in place for creating, maintaining and improving documents.
The more documents (and the content contained within them) are published in different places, the more important it will be for you to be able to create these without being faced with spending lots of time on reworking. Look at the tools you use, to see if you can control the "look and feel" independently of your content.
Be consistent, as this is a real time saver. If you are using a word processor, you can format the headings with the preformatted styles contained in the word processor templates (For example "Heading 1" and "Heading 2" styles in Microsoft Word). A style within Microsoft Word is a set of formatting characteristics that you can apply to text in your document to quickly change its appearance. When you apply a style, you apply a whole group of formats in one simple task. Using styles makes it easier to make changes to the look and feel across the whole of the document, and makes it easier to import the content into other software at any stage in the future.
One popular approach is to have one source for content, allowing you to reuse pieces (or components) of information. These pieces are managed and maintained in a database, and then published to different audiences, documents, and in a range of media formats, such as print and online. You can write information once and re-use it many times, and make changes to it in one place. It promises a reduction in errors and duplication, time needed to review content, translation costs (as you can re-use content translated in the past), as well as better consistency.
If you have more than one type of audience reading the document, don't be afraid to break information into separate documents. You could also provide a series of ways to navigate around the document (such as alternative tables of content, indexes and tags), suited to each particular audience.
Communicating policies and procedures is a sign you’re on the way to establishing a consistent and improving business as part of the organisation’s “DNA”. By following the advice covered in this article, you’ll find the documentation process less daunting.
Cherryleaf is a company that helps people get the "document monkey" off their back. Our technical writing services enable you to provide knowledge your users will love – usually shared as clear and straightforward tasks, procedures and concepts, user guides, online Help, screencasts or training courseware. We're a flexible technical author and communications partner, offering project, recruitment and training services.