Why content (like humans) needs structure to achieve goals

Why content (like humans) needs structure to achieve goals

Suite Seven is publishing a series of articles on the eight hallmarks of content quality. This article on structure is the second article in the series. 

My AP English teacher hammered into our heads how to write the “five-paragraph essay.” We wrote dozens of them in the two years I had him for class in high school, all so when the time came to take our AP tests, we’d be able to write compellingly on virtually any topic thrown at us.

What he was teaching us was structure: how to establish a thesis, support the thesis with three key points and support for those points, and conclude the argument succinctly. Get in, make your case and get out.

Structure is the framework of any content piece. It defines how you present, organize and prioritize information. That sounds so straightforward — but judging by how much business communicators struggle with structure, it can be one of the toughest things to get right.

Structure your content to meet your communication goals

Structure can — and should — differ depending on the type and goal of the content. Later on, when I went to journalism school, my professors drilled an entirely different structure into my brain: the inverted pyramid. Even if it reads strangely, the inverted pyramid starts with the most important thing first, and work down from there. Reporters learned to write like that so if the newspaper paste-up artist ran out of column inches, the editor could lob off the last two paragraphs without losing the actual story. (It’s doubtful this still happens with desktop publishing, but the inverted pyramid lives on.)

A more analytical piece of content may begin by laying out background and context, building evidence about challenges or current situations, before delving in to the premise on how to solve the problem. Yet it takes careful arrangement to make sure arguments are in logical order and there’s a solid foundation of information to support the “big reveal.”

Generally, when you’re creating a piece of content for marketing or communication purposes, you’re either trying to persuade audiences or inform them. Structure matters a great deal in helping you achieve both of those goals. A few Golden Rules of Structure for business communications include:

Don’t bury the lead.

While marketing communicators don’t necessarily need to write in inverted pyramid, they do need to get to the point quickly — immediately, in fact. The main point of any communication needs to appear prominently in the first few sentences of any piece, whether a business letter or a webpage. It’s more important than ever, in fact, because you have mere seconds to get your message across before busy readers tune out.

Reserve one topic per paragraph, and begin each paragraph with a topic sentence.

My English teacher would be jumping up and down reading this. The incomparable Strunk and White proclaimed this rule, and it’s still relevant to this day. It’s rigid and doesn’t always make for interesting or creative writing, but when you’re communicating for business, clarity is the most important thing — and this rule helps you achieve it.

Let the “thesis” or main point of your communication drive everything.

Always come back to what you want your audience to walk away knowing, thinking or feeling. Build an outline of all your supporting topics and points accordingly. Stick to the topic at hand, keep the communication concise and resist the urge to wander off-topic or include information that might seem interesting to you but doesn’t support the goal of the communication.

Build clear relationships between paragraphs.

Once you’ve written a draft, step back and make sure there’s a logical flow between topics and points, and that you’ve transitioned in a way that makes sense for a reader who’s not in your brain. One of the biggest problems we see in content authored by business writers is the propensity to jump around, failing to close out one thought before diving right in to another. It’s like watching a badly edited movie where the main character was wearing a red dress and in the next cut is wearing blue. It’s jarring and frustrating for readers.

Keep your citations in a supporting role.

Evidence and research are important, especially if you’re writing to build a case or express a point of view. But they should support your points, not dominate the conversation. Over-citing makes you, as the author look, uncertain and weakens the narrative you’re trying to tell. Don’t let your evidence steal the performance.

Remember that “content” doesn’t just mean writing.

I’ve talked a lot about written articles, papers and letters so far, but structure applies to videos, infographics, slide decks and any other kind of “content” you can imagine. The same rules apply to all of it.

Content structure and structured content: kissin’ cousins

The content strategy community talks a lot about structured content

— essentially, using markup language and metadata to piece together content elements so publishers can freely use it across platforms and devices. This isn’t what we’re talking about here, but there’s a close relationship.

Technical communicators have always relied on structured content because it’s easier to publish, but also because it’s easier to consume. A clear, predictable, accessible structure to help documentation or similar content makes it more usable, and that’s its No. 1 goal.

While not all content requires this highly templated approach, remember that every piece of content has its essential parts. Without them, the content won’t be strong enough to achieve the goals you have set for it.

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