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TIERED INFORMATION

In much of the work I do I am faced with a wealth of information that I am asked to help distill and share in ways that will inform and engage broader audiences. One school of thought is to cram in as much detail as possible, given constraints of space and time. Explicitly or not, the assumption seems to be that we’ve only got one chance so we should say absolutely everything. This, however, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you persist in giving your reader as much information as possible he or she will almost certainly not want to come back for more – and indeed will likely just stop reading.

Given that the information saturation approach is not terribly effective, what are some better strategies? I like to think of much communication as an invitation to further interaction. You can invite readers to learn more and point them to that information. I also think about information as tiered, like a sort of pyramid. The top of the pyramid contains concepts and big picture ideas. You’ll almost always want to start with these. This sort of information piques curiosity and helps your reader get oriented. For instance, you might explain the inspiration or motive for a product, service, or piece of software.

As you move down the pyramid you get increasingly complex and as you do so your potential audience narrows. Often, you’ll want to share some of this more detailed information, especially if your audience is made up of technical experts. Other times, it makes sense to direct those interested to the full technical details located elsewhere, whether a white paper, some code, or quantitative information. I think it’s always a good move to let your reader know that this technical information exists, that you’re well versed in it, and where it can be found. This builds your credibility and lets your reader know that you’re not assuming that he or she won’t care or won’t be able to understand.

One key decision in communication is to decide on the appropriate level of detail. Each situation has its own best answer, but it is always worth thinking carefully about when to stop providing more explanation and detail and when and how to let your reader know how they can learn more and continue the conversation. If your presentation is clear and carefully tailored it is much more likely that your reader will want to come back for more.