Finding the Most Important Thing

I recently got a letter saying that I was approved for something I’d been wanting for about a year.

Here’s what I expected the letter to say:

Congratulations!

You’ve been approved. You’re in. You’re good to go, you’re golden, you’ve done it, and finally, the answer is yes.

Here’s a bunch of other stuff that you may want to know. Etc.

Here’s what the letter said, more or less:

We’re writing about that thing you wanted. We’ve looked at the thing and made a decision about it. In the end, the decision we’ve made is to allow the thing that you were hoping to get, and the rest of this paragraph is stuff that you may want to know. Etc.

In other words, I had to read a bunch of stuff to get to the one thing I wanted to know. There was only ONE important fact in that letter and it was buried among its minor friends and relations.

And yes, that other stuff was important, too, but only once I knew the Most Important Thing. This same thinking should go for any letter, email, web page, or short document.

First step: Identify the Most Important Thing (MIT)

Tech writers are often asked to communicate nine different things in any given email or document. The thinking is that as long as we’re writing to the customer, we may as well tell them everything we want them to know.

My advice is ask the person requesting the document to find the MIT:

If we could only say one thing in this email (and link to everything else) what would that one thing be?”

That one thing is the MIT. That’s the answer to the question the audience is asking. Everything else is in support of that MIT and if I identify more than two, then I usually suggest changing the game plan.

NOTE FOR GRAMMAR MAVENS: How can there be more than one MOST important thing? The same way my daughter can love each flavor of ice cream more than any other flavor.

Second step: Make it stand out

MITs should be at the top of the page. Almost always. Right up there where people are still bothering to read what you’ve written. If it can’t be at the top, then at least have it be its own paragraph, maybe in big bold letters.

If you have two MITs, then maybe the MIT is actually this statement:

We have two really important things to tell you:

  1. First thing.
  2. Second thing.

And then comes those things. But we’ve gotten the reader’s attention and let them know what’s coming.

Step three: There’s no step three

See? I had only two MITs.

Am I getting anything wrong about the MITs, or do you have any other thoughts on the idea? Let me know!

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2 Responses to “Finding the Most Important Thing”

  1. Techquestioner
    February 11, 2011 at 1:53 pm #

    I think you’re spot on! Everyone says that web searching has made us all into scanners instead of readers. We don’t slow down to see the details until our scanning finds something that grabs our attention that “this may be it”.

    We have to structure our e-mails, ads, help, and other documents to give the reader a flag to slow down and see that we’ve got their “it”s.

  2. admin-Robert
    February 12, 2011 at 9:06 pm #

    Thanks for your comment, TQ. Maybe I’m especially lazy, but I think I’ve been scanning before I ever went online!

    I read books, but scan everything else.

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