Getting the basics right

While completing an annual report and accounts in my in-house role during 2011 I was once again struck by how important planning a project and agreeing clear boundaries and responsibilities is.

The completion of more than 300 corrections over the last three working days of the project left me with a sense of foreboding as to the accuracy of the final document. While I am not aware of any fundamental factual errors I was certainly disappointed with aspects of the design and presentation which there simply was not time to address.

With a document this complex (and in this case with multiple organisations expressing views) managing the process of finalising the content and gaining the various approvals was a challenge. However, I was struck by how easily those who are not communication professionals are distracted from their area of expertise in the process, by the desire to dot the i‘s and cross the t’s and become involved in presentation issues, and in so doing seemingly lose their focus on ensuring that the fundamental content is accurate. The frustration in this case was compounded when, at a point when it was to late to adjust, attention was drawn to hierarchy issues, raised at the outset by myself but dismissed early in the process as unimportant, that suddenly needed attention.

Ensuring an efficient production process is simple and achievable if the following simple rules apply:

  1. Be clear how many people and/or organisations are to be involved.
  2. Set clear boundaries and responsibilities for each of those individuals.
  3. Where documents need to be shared outside the agreed structure ensure that one individual is the focus point for any feedback.
  4. Ensure there is a clear and single method of providing feedback and comments. These should always be addressed to a master draft copy.
  5. Be honest (with yourselves) about the potential requirements for review. It is better to factor in the need for someone to review and for it not to happen than to pretend that it is not required or that a review will not involve feedback.
  6. Be sure that reviewers understand their responsibilities. If there expertise is in relation to a specific aspect of a document or section ensure they focus on that rather than commenting on things that others are better placed to resolve.
  7. Create a review process chart that looks like an inverted triangle. At the base the number of reviewers and routes of feedback can be as wide as is necessary. Then ensure that a timeline defines how the review triangle will reduce that number stage by stage until a final single reviewer completes the final proof read. If possible having the final proofreader review the initial draft before it enters the review process can be helpful.
  8. Ensure proper time is allocated for all aspects of the production process from content creation and review to design, layout and proofing. And don’t steal other people time because you can!

Finally I would highlight this. Often when a document is highly technical it is easy for the experts with the ‘knowledge’ to see no benefit in involving those in communications early in the process; for they are only concerned with the way it looks, they would say. Often however talking with writers and designers early can iron out presentation, stylistic and structural issues within the content, very simply, early in the process. A designer or writer may not understand the technical knowledge being explained but with the help of the author to understand they can ensure a clear presentation of hierarchy and language. All must be prepared to be challenged and to consider the ideas and issues highlighted, but if done correctly the benefits will be seen by all.

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