Imagine what would happen if the newspapers started using headers like this:
“the Middle East” or “Bicycles in the City” or “President Johnson and Prime Minister Germany”
You would be left with a couple of questions, wouldn’t you? What do they mean: everything you ever wanted to know about the Middle East but were afraid to ask? How many bicycles are there in London city? Are President Johnson and the Prime Minister of Germany getting married? The mind boggles.
And yet this is exactly what I see in a lot of technical reports. Section headings like: “Concept 3” and “Background” and even “Other”. As if the writer is trying to keep everything a secret for as long as he can. ‘We have generated three concepts, but if you want to know in what way they are different from each other you will have to read the entire section. Teehee! Oh, and we have named the next section “Detailed Design of Winning Concept”, so you will have to move all the way to that section to find out which concept that is.’Most of your readers will have about 15 minutes to read your report. How annoyed do you think they will be when you make them search for information this way?
Newspaper editors have learned how to make life easy for selective readers like theirs and ours. Maybe we can learn from what they do.
Pick up any newspaper, paper or online and read the headlines. You will find that almost all headlines contain a verb. “Donald Trump announces Mike Pence as VP” (the Guardian, 15/07/2016), Winona Ryder, an Emblem of ’90s Cool, Grows Up” (NYT 15/07/2016). The effect is that every heading reads like a tiny summary; you don’t have to read the actual article to find out what’s going on. If you click on the heading (online newspapers only) you usually get a bold printed summary of the article, about the size of a tweet, and underneath that we finally get the actual article.
It makes sense. Readers who are in a real hurry just skim the headlines, readers who are just mildly late read the summaries, readers who are on holiday read the entire articles. The second and third group use the headlines to select the articles that they want to read. That sounds a lot like the reading strategies our readers use when they read our reports.
What would happen if we applied the same principle to our reports? What if, instead of naming the introduction simply “Introduction”, we call it “Introduction: planning a new runway for Alice Springs airport”? What if, instead of “Trade off”, we say “Trade off shows HydroCAM meets all the important criteria”?
I dare you: in your next report write short informative sentences has section headings. Better still: practice this on the most recent report you have written. See what happens. If I’m right, the table of contents will read like a summary. How can that be a bad thing?