Recently I went to dinner with a former student who graduated 12 years ago. This student is now a successful attorney who writes numerous legal briefs and other documents that are read by judges and others in the legal profession. During the evening he described how he still uses writing and design principles I developed for my business communication classes: “I use OABC and HATS all the time in my writing, and they give me such a great advantage in writing for judges.” He also said, “I learned more in your writing class than in all the writing classes in law school.”
Obviously, I was happy to receive the compliment for my course, but his comments caused me to think about learning retention—what is it that enables students to remember and use writing principles learned in business communication courses?
Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (2014) have written a landmark book on this topic: Make it Stick—The Science of Successful Learning. Roediger and McDaniel are cognitive scientists whose careers have focused on learning and memory, and Make it Stick captures the results of years of their own learning. In this intriguing work, the authors conclude that people generally go about learning in the wrong way.
For example, the idea that people learn better when they receive instruction in a manner consistent with their preferred learning style (e.g., auditory or visual) is not supported by research. Further, the idea is false that if we can make learning easier and faster, the learning will be better. In fact, learning that requires more mental work lasts longer.
In addition to identifying what doesn’t work in learning, the authors also identify what does work. Three of their proven strategies likely helped my former student retain and use his classroom learning years after graduation.
Mnemonics. First, use mnemonic devices. Mnemonics link a memorable name to a larger mass of information.
In this case, OABC stands for opening, agenda, body, and closing. This acronym provides a proven pattern that can be used for many business writing situations. HATS refers to headings, art/graphics, typography, and spacing. After a basic message is crafted, students can add headings, appropriate graphics, typographic enhancements, and white space to make the message more visually appealing to the reader. The OABC and HATS acronyms provide easy ways for students to create clear, organized, and visually powerful messages.
Integration. Second, integrate all the knowledge learned. All new learning has to connect with previously known information.
OABC and HATS are taught early in the semester, and then they are integrated into subsequent assignments throughout the rest of semester. Thus, by the end of the semester, students have had experience applying OABC and HATS in a variety of contexts.
Repetition. Third, all new learning requires a rewiring of the brain. Therefore, provide repeated application of new learning to create and reinforce the new wiring. Don’t assume that students have learned new material just because you have covered it once. Rather, continue to re-emphasize important material throughout the course.
OABC and HATS are taught fairly early in the course, and students are required to apply the principles contained in these acronyms in all subsequent assignments. This repetition reinforces the learning, which improves the likelihood that students will continue to apply the learning later in their careers.
The result is that my student now has these principles so deeply ingrained in his mind that they spontaneously come into his mind whenever he faces a writing project. Further, he not only knows how to use these principles but has a strong conviction of their value in his work.
Today’s professional organizations spend millions of dollars each year on training, yet much of this training has little impact on participants’ subsequent business practices. In most cases, it is because real learning never takes place. Consider your own situation. Is there an opportunity for you to implement mnemonics, integration, repetition, and other Make It Stick learning tactics in your organization?
If you are a trainer or teacher, I strongly recommend the reading of Make it Stick. Further, I suggest that you visit with a few of your former students (or current students at the end of a semester) and ask them to recall what they remember most from your instruction. If you’re not satisfied with their answers, take time to clearly identify what you want students to learn, and then reinforce that learning with principles of mnemonics, integration, and repetition.
I welcome your comments.
You need to communicate with another person, but you’re a bit fuzzy about how you’re going to approach the situation and what you’re going to say. If only there were a clear pathway to help you prepare!
The following four-step PACS plan (Purpose, Audience, Context, Strategy) might be just the thing you need.
Step 1. Purpose
First, clearly identify your purpose. Usually, your purpose will be one or more of the following—to inform, to persuade, or to enhance a relationship. Within each of these generic purposes, state precisely what you want the outcome to be.
Step 2. Audience Analysis
With your purpose in mind, analyze your audience, remembering that your message might have both primary and secondary audiences. Consider the audiences’ demographic (e.g., profession, age, education, gender), psychographic (e.g., interests, beliefs, attitudes, preferences), and knowledge (e.g., general and technical) factors. Think about their wants and needs. Consider that there may be both driving and restraining forces battling for and against you in their minds. For instance, they might want to learn more about your product, but their busy schedule and their current financial constraints might be exerting a powerful negative force that is working against you.
Step 3. Context Analysis
In addition to analyzing the audience, analyze the context in which your communication will occur. First understand the unique attributes of the industry in which the audience works—whether banking, electronics, healthcare, or other. Learn also about major competitors in the industry. Second, consider relevant factors in the audience’s organization—its purpose, products, procedures, and problems. Finally, consider the unique situational factors—your previous interactions with the audience, the level of trust that exists between you and the audience, time pressures, technical challenges, and so forth.
Step 4. Strategy
Finally, based on the results of the first three PAC steps, develop a communication strategy. Creatively plan how you can navigate through the context and audience challenges to achieve your overall purpose. First, develop a channel strategy—considering the relative pros and cons of available channels, determine whether to make a phone call, write an email, send a text, or talk over lunch. Second, determine your psychological strategy—your overall approach (direct or indirect), your appeal (logical and/or emotional), and your tactic (positive and/or negative).
For example, assume that your purpose is to get Sydney, a sales manager you met at a recent convention, to allow you to explain and demonstrate your sales-enhancement software—ultimately to convince her to buy your product. From your audience and context analysis, you know that her organization is lagging in the industry and needs to increase sales. However, you also realize that she doesn’t know much about your product or about you as a person.
Therefore, you decide that your main strategy will be to capitalize on the pressure Sydney is feeling to increase sales. Using a relatively direct approach, you will demonstrate your product and provide client testimonials and research data that validate the effectiveness of your product. Using both positive and negative tactics, you will emphasize the benefits of adopting your product, as well as the hazards of delayed action. As needed, you will also present a side-by-side comparison of your product and that of your main competitor. But first, you’ll strengthen your relationship by making a phone call to invite Sydney to lunch where you can learn more about her needs. During lunch, you will propose the idea of an onsite product demonstration.
You’re now ready to pick up your phone and make the call, knowing clearly your purpose, and understanding as much as possible your audience and the context of the interaction. PACS planning has helped you feel confident and prepared.
The next time you need to communicate, I invite you to plan with PACS. Remember the old adage—if you fail to plan, you plan to fail!
One of the most difficult obstacles in all writing is determining how to structure a document when no clear structure exists. For example, if you were going to blog about three new features of a new Apple product, the logical way to structure the post would be to discuss Feature 1, Feature 2, and then Feature 3. In this case, the structure is fairly straightforward. However, what if you want to write a corporate blog about why you enjoy working for your company? You can easily see that the structure of that blog is less obvious than the Apple blog. Enter writer’s block!
When you find yourself facing a not-so-obvious message structure, what should you do? Here’s one incredible outlining technique—bottom-up outlining. This outlining process follows three simple steps: (1) brainstorming, (2) categorizing, and (3) sequencing. If the word outlining causes you to want to stop reading this article, I encourage you to keep reading: bottom-up outlining may not be the same outlining you learned about in middle school.
Step 1. Brainstorming
When most people think about outlining, they think top down—first select the major categories they want to include in their messages, and then work downward to fill in the details. Bottom-up outlining turns that process on its head. Start with details and then work upward to the broad categories.
To create the details, brainstorm. If you’re brainstorming on a computer, open Notepad or Word and begin creating a random list of whatever comes into your mind. Using the example of the benefits of working for your company, for instance, you might come up with the following:
Step 2. Categorizing
Once you have captured your random list, you are ready to move on to the second step—categorizing. To categorize, analyze your list and notice any similarities that exist between individual items on your list. Then move the related items into groups, with an appropriate title for each group. These titles will become the major categories for your final document. Continuing with the corporate blog example, here is how I grouped my random list:
Step 3. Sequencing
The final step in bottom-up outlining is to arrange the categories in the most appropriate way to meet your message objectives. Depending on your purpose, the audience, the context of your message, and the content itself, you might order those categories in different ways:
Why is bottom-up outlining so effective? First, creating a free list works with information as it currently exists in your brain—it doesn’t force you to first create categories. Second, creating a free list is also great for spawning new ideas that you might not have considered otherwise. Third, bottom-up outlining generates order out of chaos—taking unstructured information and methodically finding an appropriate structure for it, resulting in an organized, understandable final message for readers.
Forget all the negative experiences you had with top-down outlining back in middle school. Bottom-up outlining is brain friendly, easy, and very effective. Try the three easy steps of brainstorming, categorizing, and sequencing on your next blog or email. You’ll see how well it works.
We're Bill Baker and Matt Baker, and we believe that communication is the lifeblood of management. We hope these posts will help you more effectively communicate and manage in your organization.