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October 15th, 2009

The seatback rule for business documents

in: Communicate, Funding, Standing out

Investors and partners have short attention spans. If you have something to communicate, Guy Kawasaki suggests you keep it to one idea and five sentences. I followed those suggestions when I asked him to write a sidebar for Complete Web Monitoring, and it worked.

2436838012_86d2fdc64fBut what if you have something more complex to say — a business plan, for example? What if you’re giving a colleague a competitive analysis? Or proposing a new product? How long should that document be?

In my experience, you should follow the seatback rule. This is the time between when a pilot asks passengers to put their seatbacks up and tray tables away, and the time when it’s safe to use portable electronic devices.

I like this rule because it suggests several things:

  • The document has to get to their seatback. It probably has to go through an admin, or a to-do list that says, “print this for reading on the flight to Boston.” Make that obvious, and be aware not only of the document’s contents, but also how it gets in front of the intended reader.
  • The document must be short. You have roughly ten minutes of their attention — less, if they decide to watch the video explaining how to do up their seatbelt.
  • What you write must be easy to consume. That means short sentences, a good up-front summary, bulleted lists, tables, and diagrams. Long prose will make them tune out. Lighting won’t be perfect, and it’ll likely be stuffed in a folder with other papers, so use good line spacing and column widths to maximize readability.
  • Hide supporting material near the back, or better yet, in a separate document for a follow-up. If you have a summary of revenues, put the detailed work in a separate spreadsheet they can have someone else review. If you’re painting a picture of a market, compare competitors on a few important dimensions, then put the detailed descriptions of them in an appendix.
  • Don’t assume access to online materials. While it’s tempting to embed hyperlinks in a PDF, many readers won’t follow them. I’m always astonished at how many early-adopters of technology have their assistants print out documents for them to read.
  • Have a clear call to action. The perfect outcome for many documents is a scrawled, “we should do this” or “set up a meeting” on the front page, which will then be handed to an administrator. Make it easy to achieve this.
  • Address the reader’s basic questions: What’s this about? Why should I care? What action is required? Why should I take it? Most time-impoverished executives have some form of personal inbox processing (borrowed loosely from Getting Things Done) that encourages them to decide, very quickly, whether something should be Done, Delegated, Deferred, or Discarded. Understanding their mindset and making it easy for them to act appropriately is priceless.

Next time you’re writing a document — whether it’s a white paper for a prospect, a business proposal, a market analysis, or any other message you need to get to a busy, time-poor audience, use the seatback test. For that matter, next time you’re on a flight, print out a few documents (such as competitors’ collateral or analyst reports) and see how fast you tune out. Most written documents are lousy. It’ll make you realize just how much of an advantage clear, concise communications can be.

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