The Write Stuff: The role and importance of an overview

January 31, 2017

rdgreen-January 31, 2017

Practically every technical document should begin with some carefully crafted opening section. Whether this is called an Introduction, Overview, Summary -- or something else -- it plays a key role in conveying information quickly and effectively to the widest possible audience.

The write idea
Depending on the material, the length and complexity of the opening section can vary widely. In training, an overview can be a dozen pages or more. In a brochure, you may try to nail it in three sentences. But between these two extremes opening words have similar objectives as follows:

There's no second chance to make a first impression. Readers will expect you to speak to the title of your piece quickly. Begin by addressing your subject in a manner that is crisp and clear and your work will make a good first impression.

Helps people "context-shift." Our multi-tasking life demands we constantly shift between deep technical topics. This is often a difficult and disorienting process, and good opening material helps people make these shifts.

Establishes a common vocabulary. I believe half of all technical communication problems are related to vocabulary. This problem is avoided from the start by taking steps to establish a common vocabulary as early as possible.

Gathers the largest audience. Good opening material has a "gathering" effect, drawing in the widest group of people that could be considered qualified. This helps you reach your largest legitimate audience.

Avoids surprises. When absorbing a complex subject, surprises in the presentation of a topic are bad. We all know how a joke is ruined when some important detail is left out; then suddenly inserted out of order. A similar phenomenon happens to serious material -- only worse.

Transfers knowledge efficiently. Good opening statements offer two related benefits. First, they provide the author with a guide to organizing the body of the material. This, in turn, helps to improve the overall organization and benefits the reader by making things easier to understand and absorb.

(Source: Grey Flannel Graphics)

Sound easy enough? It's not.
As French mathematician, Blaise Pascal, famously noted on the bottom of a letter he wrote to a friend:

Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte. (Forgive me for making this so long, I didn't have time to make it shorter.)

Pascal's statement reveals this truth: while it may be relatively easy to gather some thoughts on paper, it takes time to put a message into its sharpest form. Crafting good opening material can be challenging, but it's a key part of shaping a message and pays big dividends. Do a good job here, and you'll gain the interest and appreciation of your audience.

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