A couple of years ago, I performed a communication audit for a technology start-up. The company had some significant issues with their communications materials, but that wasn’t surprising. Often in a start-up environment, you see people whose primary skill set does not include writing creating public facing content for a variety of communications channels. What is more surprising to me is that I continue to see grammatical, spelling, punctuation, and other issues in the published materials of many larger, more established companies. With that in mind, I thought I’d share the things I look for when auditing communications materials.
Many formal audits focus on external communications. However, the questions below can be used to guide an audit of internal communication as well. Employees notice the same kinds of issues that customers do, and it is just as important to have high quality internal communications materials. An audit may include many channels or types of communications. For the start-up I mentioned earlier, I reviewed the primary corporate website, the product website and online documentation, system generated emails, software user guides, blog entries, press releases and even job postings. The list of artifacts can be quite long, and one of the mistakes companies make with communication is to skip things like system generated email messages.
A good communication audit will examine both broader objectives and communication goals and the specific mechanics of communication materials. In this post, I’ll focus on a few of the more tactical questions I asked myself about the materials I reviewed. These are the kinds of things that can be done at any time, and even in a piecemeal fashion. They should also be done on a regular basis.
First, some nuts and bolts tactics that can be employed when you don’t have time or don’t need to look at the big strategic picture:
Was the communication understandable?
This seems obvious, but often those closest to a product or service are those least likely to notice that an explanation or description is hard to follow. Minimize jargon, unless it is appropriate, as would be the case in something like a technical API specification. Keep sentence length reasonable, and break paragraphs logically. Smaller chunks of information are easier to comprehend, and something as simple as breaking a paragraph can add a surprising amount of clarity to a complicated topic. Ask someone outside your organization to review your materials. In some cases, it’s best to ask someone outside your industry. If you expect a “layman” to follow your communications, it can be invaluable to get reviews from people that know nothing about what your company does.
Was the communication flawless?
Any writer should strive for flawless communication from a spelling, punctuation, and grammatical perspective, but it’s amazing how often small errors are missed. Subtle errors that are easy to miss include things like matching verb tense, subject/verb agreement, run on sentences, and dangling participles. Publishing writing with grammatical errors only says negative things about your company, no matter how amazing your product or service might be. It’s worth the time and/or money to have your company’s writing reviewed by a good editor, and that editor doesn’t have to be a professional. Other people in the company may do just as well, especially when you can enlist multiple reviewers.
Was the communication consistent?
Consistency is another important element to any company’s message. When multiple people are involved in writing for a company, it can be difficult to achieve consistency, but there are some basic steps you can take to move in this direction. Choose terminology explicitly. For instance, if your product is used by software developers, choose to use the term ‘developers’ or ‘programmers’ or ‘engineers,’ but don’t switch between them or use different terms in different places to represent what is really one type of customer.
For a quick review of the grammatical subjects I listed above, see: