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How to Make Dull Information Exciting?

 

Someone once said (it may have been me): "There is no dull information, only dull writers." We have all had the misfortune of reading very dull texts and sitting through very dull presentations. But were they inherently dull? Or were they made that way because the writer or presenter just didn't bother to do their homework?

If I asked you to read the first five pages of telephone listings, you would probably expect to die of boredom. However, if I told you that somewhere in those five pages there is a hidden message that could be worth $300,000, the boredom would quickly disappear. Why? Not because a rather uninspiring task had suddenly turned into a kind of game, although this would help. The real reason is that you would now have a clear interest to do so, and therefore a clear desire to do so.  

This is a dramatic -- and highly exaggerated -- example of what I immodestly call "Yaffe's Law". It states: If you give people what they want first, they are likely to accept anything else you want them to have. If you give them what you want first, chances are they won’t accept anything at all.

By telling you that you could gain $300,000 by reading the telephone listings, I sparked your interest. Put more bluntly, I immediately answered the question that every good writer or presenter should ask themselves: "Why the hell would anyone want to read what I am going to write or listen to what I am going to say?" Or from the audience's point of view: "What's in it for me?"

If you can't answer this question, then you might as well shut down the computer and go back to sleep, because anything you produce will be largely wasted time. Answering this question is not always easy; in fact, it is often very difficult. But unless you make the effort, you can hardly expect your audience to it for you. Here are a couple of examples to make the truth of Yaffe's Law more concrete.

 

 

Example 1 Original A piece of electronic equipment installed in automobiles could allow insurance companies to monitor the driving behavior of their customers.

Each time a motorist uses the car, the device will record the roads being traveled and the time of the journey, and send the information via satellite to the insurance company. With this data, the company will be able to calculate the insurance premium for each individual journey based on the relative risk of crashes on the different roads at different times of the day. The motorist will receive a monthly or quarterly “usage statement”, similar to a telephone bill, itemizing the insurance cost for each use of the car.

By agreeing to the system, motorists could save hundreds of dollars on their automobile insurance. Because of the lower risk of crashes, trips on superhighways will cost less per kilometer than on city roads and

Revision

Motorists could save hundreds of dollars on their automobile insurance by allowing their driving habits be monitored by a satellite-tracking device installed in the vehicle. Each time a motorist uses his car, the device will record the roads being traveled and the time of the journey, and send the information to the insurance company. The company will then calculate the insurance premium based on an assessment of the relative risk of crashes on the different roads at different times of the day. Motorists will receive a monthly or quarterly “usage statement”, similar to a telephone bill, giving the insurance cost for each journey. Because of the lower risk of crashes, trips on superhighways will cost less per kilometer than on city roads and . .

Simply moving the fourth paragraph of the Original to the first paragraph of the Revision changes everything. Who wouldn’t want to know how to save hundreds of dollars on their automobile insurance?

Example 2 Original People with mild but measurable memory problems who took the drug donepezil, trademarked Aricep, delayed the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by an average of six months, a study showed. The research indicates that the drug works for just a short time and then stops. Still, the report is the first to find a drug therapy that delays the onset of Alzheimer’s in people at high risk of the disease. The result does not directly take researchers closer to a cure for the disease, but understanding how the drug prevents its onset could provide some important clues.

Revision Donepezil, trademarked Aricep, has been shown to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in people at high risk, the first time any drug therapy has ever demonstrated such an effect. A clinical study reported that the drug delayed onset of Alzheimer’s by an average of six months in people with mild but measurable memory problems, a strong risk factor. Six months of course is not very long. However, the fact that the drug worked at all is already a breakthrough, because it could provide important clues towards better prevention, treatment, and even a cure.

As you may have guessed, these two examples are taken from newspapers. This is typical of how good newspapers are written because this is typically how people want to read. But does the same technique apply outside of newspapers, and in particular in the type of writing you do? Indeed it does.

Because whatever kind of text, people still typically want to get the information in the same way:
1. A clear, concise statement of what the text contains
2. A clear indication (if not an actual statement) of "what's in it for me?"

When you read documents, isn't this how you would want them structured? Then this is how you should write them.

 

Contributing Author: Philip Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal and a marketing communication consultant. He currently teaches a course in good writing and good speaking in Brussels, Belgium. His recently published book In the “I” of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost) like a Professional is available from Story Publishers in Ghent, Belgium (storypublishers.be) and Amazon (amazon.com). For further information, contact: Philip Yaffe, Brussels, Belgium Email: phil.yaffe@yahoo.com, phil.yaffe@gmail.com

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