J.D. Meier's Blog

Software Engineering, Project Management, and Effectiveness

10 Ways to Make Information More Useful

10 Ways to Make Information More Useful

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Information doesn’t have to suck, and it shouldn’t be a chore.  Beautiful information is when one sentence makes you want to read the next.  In the age of insight, the right information and “ah-has” is a powerful thing.  If you think of information as a continuum, flowing from data to information to knowledge to insight to wisdom … that’s a mighty wide playing field to practice the art of making your point.

Here are ten ways I’ve learned to help you simplify information and make it more useful:

  1. Add a One-Liner Key Take Away.   This is my favorite trick for simplifying slides.   If a slide has too much stuff on it and the point is not clear, a quick fix is to add a one-liner to the bottom that makes the point.  Once you have the one-liner take away, it’s easier then to go back and overhaul the slide.   You can use one-liners in more than just slides.  For example, notice how I’m starting each of these list items with a simple one-liner take away up front.
  2. Be specific.  Specific is better than the general.  It’s more insightful and more actionable.   One way to be specific is to use examples.  Examples make it concrete and they make it real.  For example, would you rather know that you could change some practices to improve your health, or would you like to know 9 ways to add 12 years to your life? 
  3. Make it “glance and go” over “stop and stare.”  One of the tests we used on my team is, “Don’t make me work too hard.”  If somebody shows you something, and you have to work hard to parse the point, it’s not working.  As one of my mentors says, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”
  4. Make a visual.   As Confucius said, "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."   If you want a point to pop, visual is the way to go.  The trick is to keep it simple and focused.   You can test your visual by asking, “What’s the point?”   If you don’t know what question the visual is answering, then it’s probably not working.   Don’t make it visual, just because you can.
  5. Say it in a sticky way.   Writing things down makes it easy to over-complicated things.  Read it out loud.  The way to find sticky points is to say it out loud until you find a way that resonates.  By saying things out loud, you can find the right cadence and the right linguistic simplicity.  Powerful prose and inspiring words shouldn’t require crazy contortions or acrobatics of the mouth.  Dr. Sues and Yoda had a way with words.  A just in time rhyme will do it every time.  A test is, can other people tell your story for you.  You want your words to be contagious.  Related to this is the idea -- “Use a Metaphor.”  Metaphors are sticky and they are one of the best ways to communicate an idea (if you can find the right one.)
  6. Separate the user view from the producer view.  It’s cliché to say, “Know your audience”, but it’s so true.  You really have to answer the question, “Who is this information for?”  That will take care of a lot of obvious problems when telling or selling your information.  But here is the non-obvious thing … make your perspective explicit.  If you are looking through the lens of a user or customer or producer or system, just say so.  So many arguments start out simply because people don’t state what perspective or position they are speaking from.  I’ve seen so many people swear up and down how right they are, and of course they are, from that particular perspective.  And more people would agree with them, if they simply stated which perspective they are speaking from.  If you’ve ever been to a requirements meeting you know exactly what I mean.  Is it a user requirement? … a technical requirement? … a system requirement? … etc.   A little context goes a long way, and perspective is everything. 
  7. Share surprising insights.  If you can answer the question, "What's the surprise?" or “What did you learn that surprised you?” or “What did you learn that you didn’t expect?”, you’ve just found the key to finding insight.  The surprise is the prize.  If you want to be really good, and you want people to call you Cracker Jack, share more prizes.
  8. Show the simple + complete.  Don’t let your best ideas or key points get lost among the sea of complexity or the bane of completeness.  Start brief, then elaborate.   Have a short list, then a long list.  Summarize your long doc with a summary at the top.  Have a short deck and a long deck.  Have a one-slider, and a full deck.  Have a one-page spec, and a full set of specs.
  9. Turn insight into action. If you can answer the question, "What's the action?" or, "How can I use this?", you go a long way towards providing more useful information.    The translation layer between insight and action is often a tough one.  It’s a skill you can quickly get better at though, just by attempting to answer those questions.  It’s easy to describe stuff or say a bunch of things.  It’s tougher to distill, compact, and act on information.   That’s where the gold is.

Bonus Lesson
O.K., I just to throw one more in.  Don’t worry, it’s free …

  • Put it where people keep looking for it.  Information shouldn’t be a game of hide and seek or find the cheese.  One of my big lessons learned here is that wherever you keep looking for something, that’s where it should be.   This helps refocus Web pages or slides or documents.   Put it where people keep looking for it, and pay attention to what people keep looking for.   This is a powerful way to quickly improve the value of information and all you have to do is pay attention.

The big lesson of course is – simplify it.   Say it in a simple way.  Trade up for simplicity.  Simple is sticky.  Simple wins every time.   Simple trumps complete or complex, and fun trumps simple.  That’s why conversational writing can kick non-conversational’s ***, or why emails can be more illuminating or insightful than a formal whitepaper.

The meta point (the point behind the points) is that if you know what’s valued, you can be an information sharp shooter every time.

  • Great post JD - I've printed this one out and pinned it up!

  • @ Tom -- Thank you.  

    Thinking back, you got me started long ago down the simplicity, elegance, and user experience path with  Ockham's razor, Edward Tufte, and Alan Cooper (About Face).

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