The most effective communication happens when the audience wants to hear what you want to say. How do you meet (or create) that desire?
When setting out to write content – whether it’s a webpage, report, brochure or fact sheet – your first thoughts are probably ‘What do we want to tell the audience?’ or ‘What do we want them to know?’.
That is of course a major part of the writing process; you have to know what your topic and key messages are. This is the information you want to ‘push’.
But if you only think about what you want to say, you miss a major part of the equation. The other side is ‘What does the audience want to hear?’ This is the information the audience wants to ‘pull’.
Putting yourself in the audience’s shoes can shape what you include in the content and how it is structured. For example, you might want your audience to know that your project involved many organisations. But the audience wants to know more about what your project achieved. That doesn’t mean you have to delete all mention of the collaborators, but it does mean that you have ‘Achievements’ as your first heading, and ‘Participants’ as a lower priority.
Documents that favour push over pull are particularly common in government. If you start talking about what the audience ‘should’ understand or what they ‘have to’ know, you are talking about push.
Instead, think about what the audience is interested in, what they are driven by and what questions they really want answered.
For example, if you want to present information on healthcare regulation, audiences are not asking ‘How does healthcare regulation work in Australia?’; they really want to know ‘How do I know my hospital is safe?’ You may cover similar material in your answer, but focusing on audience pull will enable you to talk to the audience directly and produce a document more relevant to their needs.
Balancing push vs pull is critical to producing information that will be well received by – and useful to – the audience.
Choose the best product for the purpose
One of the first things you think about in developing content is what the product is going to be – is it a webpage, a fact sheet, a report, a poster. Often, this idea is based on what a manager or someone on the team has said, what ‘has always been done’, or what seems the quickest and easiest. All of these reasons are ‘push’.
But this approach ignores the ‘pull’ – what the audience wants, and what would be most effective.
To focus on pull, go back to first principles before you choose your product:
- What are you hoping to achieve (with this product, for your organisation, for your audiences)?
- What are your key messages?
- Who are your audiences, and what do they want to know?
In answering these questions, you can come up with a strategy to maximise the impact of your content.
So instead of a fact sheet telling your staff about procedure changes, you might need an infographic for your intranet, and staff meetings that walk them through the new procedure step by step. Instead of a single large report for several audiences, you might need a technical report and then a summary report in plain English. Instead of a poster, you might need an interactive webpage.
Want to learn how to improve your content processes and create effective communication for your audiences? Download A Quick Guide to Effective Content.
Ask your users
Whatever kind of content you are developing, getting input and feedback from people who will use it helps to ensure that it meets their needs. Indeed, only your users can really tell you what those needs are.
If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.
– Yogi Berra
Listening to users allows you to check your ideas and approach in terms of what the product is, what information should be included, how it should be structured, and the language and tone that you use.
You can do research and talk to users before you start, to inform content development. You can also test developed content with users and continue to refine the content in an iterative way. User research and testing is commonly done for online content, but you can also use it for printed publications.
User research and testing doesn’t need to be a laborious or time-consuming process. You can learn a lot from existing data sources and from small groups of people. And a small investment in user research and testing will save time and money by avoiding having to redo content, products or websites.
Exploring existing data
Depending on the topic and publication, user data may already be available in your systems or free online. You can find:
- Site analytics from existing webpages, to see what users are searching for or bouncing off
- Social media statistics, to see what users have liked and shared
- Online search terms, to see the terms or phrases people are searching for
- Other feedback, such as user queries, complaints and ideas.
Use existing data to identify key topics to include and the language to use. Call centres – if you have one – are invaluable for providing information about what your users are asking questions about.
Collecting new data
If you have specific questions about your content, you can collect new data.
At its simplest, targeted data collection can be asking your colleagues, friends or family for their opinions about your content. More usefully, talking to or surveying audience groups can provide feedback specific to their context and needs.
You can collect data through surveys (phone or online) or focus groups (usually with a facilitator), or from ongoing feedback (with questions and contact details on the product or website).
Usability testing – sometimes called user experience (UX) testing – is the process of testing a product, feature or prototype with real users. Most commonly, it is the process of testing different aspects of a website to ensure that users can find and understand content.
For usability testing to be most effective, the users should be members of the target audiences, and testing should be repeated as the content evolves.
At the beginning of the project, users can complete card sorting or tree testing exercises to help you structure the content in a way that makes sense to users. When you have a preliminary draft or prototype, you can test it directly with users. It is a good idea to include real draft content in user testing, so that you can gain feedback on how clear and useful the content is.
Of course, the message is still central to effective communication. While thinking about push and pull can help you to shape your messages and products, in most cases you have things that you are trying to tell your audience.
The easiest way to create pull is to tell the audience why the information is important.
For example, the opening sentence of this article tells you why push vs pull is important – it’s all about effective communication. Hidden inside that opening sentence is the author saying, ‘You should read this article because it is going to tell you something that will help you in your work’.
Tell your audience why the information is important. This is often about how the information relates to them or something they care about: family or community, health, small business, the environment, and so on.
If you would like to improve your content, help is available:
- Biotext are content experts specialising in complex content, including health and biomedical science, environment and agriculture. We provide content strategy and design, writing, editing, information design, data visualisation and infographics.
- Our A Quick Guide to Effective Content provides many tips on reaching your audience and running a content project.
- We also provide live online training courses in writing and editing complex content, and fundamentals of data literacy and visualisation.
The Australian manual of style is an online resource that provides practical information on how to engage your audience, and write, edit and show information.