The brilliant Brigid Schulte (author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No-one Has the Time) came up with the phrase “time confetti” to describe how we scramble through our days with mile-long to-do lists.
Knowing that we all suffer from time confetti, it’s only courteous (as well as more effective) to think carefully about our communication products and respect the fact that we are asking for people’s attention, which is likely scattered in a million directions already. A fact sheet is a simple communication tool, and a good place to start when the goal is to present a clear, compelling message to your audience.
As a science writer, I have created many fact sheets intended to communicate scientific information to a wide variety of mostly non-science audiences. But these tips, based on plain language principles, can also apply to all kinds of written products on any subject.
How to create a good fact sheet:
Don’t use generic headings. People very commonly waste the most eye-catching, emphasized text on the page with empty words like Introduction, Background, or Key Points. An opening paragraph is always a reader’s introduction. You don’t need to hammer them over the head with it. Use attention-grabbing headings that deliver findings or advice in declarative statements, or that ask leading questions. Use every opportunity to transmit information.
Use first person pronouns. This one makes some people squirm, particularly those of us who grew up with the traditional passive, impersonal voice of government communication. But that voice often hides the action and confuses the story. First person pronouns (like “I” and “we”) pull the reader in. Be the actor. If you identify your agency with a banner or a logo at the top of the page, you can and should speak as the agency. “We are studying the effects of trees on human health . . . .”
Make it only as long as necessary. The best fact sheets are one page. Your job is to deliver a selected piece of information that your audience needs, not to unburden yourself of all your knowledge. It is always possible, no matter how complicated a subject is, to summarize it down to any length, from 100 pages to one page all the way down to one sentence. If you can’t describe the key point of your message in one sentence, you haven’t fully crystallized it yourself. Don’t expect your audience to come away with it.
But also be informationally dense. This is not the same as wordy. The common advice to use a lot of white space is a shortcut for saying “don’t waste people’s time with lots of filler and unnecessary detail.” But white space alone is not a particularly effective communication device. If the information is useful, you can pack your 1-pager with lots of it, provided you use signposts to help people find what they are looking for.
Don’t be technical. Albert Einstein said, “Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.” And if relativity theory can be expressed in simple language, anything can. Jargon is obviously a non-starter, but also be aware of technical language so familiar to you that you don’t even think about it anymore. Don’t assume your reader knows that lingo.
Use common words whenever possible. Common words are more quickly understood, and more likely to be comprehended by older and younger generations alike, as well as a broader demographic of people from different economic and ethnic backgrounds. Use this handy word count tool that keeps track of how frequently words appear in a wide range of written and spoken language sources. For example, if you type in the word “fact,” it draws a score of 229. It is the 229th most commonly used word at the moment. Plain language experts recommend not going higher than a score of 4000.
Don’t mumble. Every time we use words like “management approaches,” “sound decisions,” “opportunities and constraints,” and “partners and stakeholders,” we are talking about actual situations, choices, or people in real life. But the details are buried in words so nonspecific that we can lose track of what we’re actually talking about. Using my own agency to illustrate this point: it is possible to end up with whole phrases or even paragraphs about a Forest Service initiative without a single specific reference to bugs or trees or hiking trails or snowpack or any of the things we really care about. Case in point: “stakeholder” gets a word count score of 55,247.
To boil these tips down to their essence: be descriptive, specific, active, clear, and direct.
A good fact sheet is good customer service and good communication. And communication is what makes government work.
Rachel White is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.