Clear Descriptions

So much successful business communication involves the presentation of information, that an ability to create clear descriptions marks a person as a competent professional. Whether the task is to describe a product in a sales pitch or catalog, describe a problem situation accurately, or describe work tasks for a subordinate, successful communication depends on clear, concise, effective descriptions.

Creating good descriptions begins with understanding what they are-and what they are not. A description is verbal statement intended to give a mental image of something. More specifically, a description provides the salient features of a person, place, or thing. The purpose is for the audience to understand the important facts about something.

A description does not provide the writer's opinion, emotional response, or assumptions about causes of the situation. Furthermore, a good description focuses on those aspects that are important to the reader's task. The description draws on data, but professional expertise allows the writer to selects and package the raw data so that it becomes useful for the reader.

  • This is a good description: "A professionally dressed male, about thirty years old, stopped me abruptly at the corner of Madison and Platt by holding his hand in front of me. He shouted that he needed to know the directions to the IRS office, "right now!"

  • This is a compelling sentence, but not an effective description: "Some Wall-Street dude ran right into me looking for the IRS!"
Understanding the importance of various aspects of a thing or situation are the first steps to creating clear descriptions. For example, without any knowledge of the policy's provisions, an insurance claims adjustor would have no way to know what details of the accident are salient. Once the important facts are determined, the next steps involve careful organization of the information and selection of descriptive words.

When confronted with something new, people typically figure things out by following a particular conceptual pattern. Providing the information in this sequence will help hearers imagine and understand the scene.

Definition and purpose

Start with the functionality of an object--what people use this thing to do.

"The smoker is used for cooking food."

Shape and Size

Provide the object's shape and size. People understand new things, at the most basic level, in relation to the physical human form.

"It's a cylinder, about the size of a large kitchen trashcan."

Compare or Contrast

By comparing or contrasting with something the audience already knows, quickly adds a great deal of information.

"It looks just like a regular gas barbecue, except the cylinder around the grill is turned on its end."

Visual Aspects

Our visual sense is primary, so information about composition, color, texture and orientation helps orient the rest of the information about a new object.

"The cylinder is shiny silver, and it sits on short fat black legs of roughly formed iron."

Tactile Details

Information about the object's weight, shape and sound help determine how the thing works.

"The top half of the cylinder slides off with a swooshing sound, and snaps back into place when given a firm shove."

Operation

Finally, once comfortable with the physical characteristics of something new, people seek information about what it does--its motion, operation, and duration.

"We leave the smoker on the deck so that we can use it easily, but take it inside every winter."

Sequence Matters

Imagine the confusion if a description started with, "We take the smoker inside each winter." Readers might realize they will have to read further to figure out what is going on, but writers can avoid conceptual backtracking with a conceptually clear description.

Clear, concrete words always create a more direct, businesslike style, but when it comes to descriptions, they dramatically affect the quality of the information. The specific words change with the situation, of course, but practice whenever you provide visual information.

Instead of "red," you could write,

"...the red of a Campbell's soup can"

The word "fuzzy" could mean many things.

"...seen through a uniform haze of blue that gives an overall color to the scene but causes edges to seem unimportant."

"...covered with broken lines of static that stretch across the picture from top to bottom."

"...each hair of the rabbit is finely detailed so that he appears real. You can almost feel how soft and downy his little tail would be."

Instead of vague, overused, "sharp," notice the different images evoked by one of these:

angular, cornered, pointed, prismatic, pyramidal, spiked, jagged, knife-edged, prickly, spiny, needle-like, tapered, thorny, toothed, horned, barbed

Comparisons build on details that the reader already understands.

"It looks like the New York skyline, but ..... the buildings are all just skeletons of steel, and vultures circle overhead."

"A vivid, blue, calm Hawaiian ocean with ..... three ships coming over the horizon."

"Imagine a birdbath placed upside down..."

If clear descriptions are so difficult and a picture is worth a thousand words, why not just provide a photo?

The primary reason has to do with a professional's responsibility to add value. A photo of an accident scene or a production line includes all the visual detail, and the viewer has no way to discern the important information. Even when photos or drawings are included in a written report, the writer must use words to clarify the importance of specific elements. A photo without an accompanying description provides limited value.

The second reason involves the rest of the senses. A photo captures only visual information, and in many situations, sound, smell, taste, and texture prove important.

Finally, the description positions information in a meaningful way. Even a haptic hologram recreating the object would provide no information as to its use, the situation or context, or the goals and responses of its environment.

When comparing a verbal description with a photo, the value of clear descriptions becomes even more obvious!

The prototypical description calls up an image of a physical object or past event. These are important in a wide range of documents from real estate appraisals and accident reports to employee reprimands and audit findings. A few other types can present special challenges.

Summaries condense the important points from a report, meeting, or presentation so that others are able to use the relevant information. The person preparing the summary must understand the original content as well as the information needs of the audience. An excellent summary will represent both content and intent of the original source.

Organize

The organization of the summary follows the same organization as the original. Typically, the summary will include the key points from each section or paragraph, including any introduction that defines the purpose and audience of the report. A summary of a meeting or presentation that wandered from topic to topic might reorder the material for better clarity.

Condense

Do not include supporting detail for each point. Leave out the examples, stories, and support to provide the gist of the entire content. Never leave out whole sections or points, and don't dwell on just one example or part of the original.

Represent

Accurately convey the author's goal and intentions as well as technical content. The summary might focus on the objective findings, but don't misrepresent the purpose, conclusions, or tone of the larger document.

Every employee works more effectively and happily when given clear instructions, and every manager succeeds by consistently issuing clear instructions. Clarity of the message is important, of course, but transmitting information to adults involves a few additional challenges.

Prior Knowledge

The audience's perception of clarity depends on the amount of knowledge it already has about the task. Include too much detail and the audience becomes bored and tunes everything out. Include too little and the audience becomes confused. Do some research and pay close attention to feedback to judge the right amount of detail.

Need to Know

Adults take responsibility for their own learning, but they tune out when information seems useless. When creating instructions, be very sure the introduction includes specific information about when and why the information is necessary.

Experience Matters

Children will absorb facts in whatever format or order presented, like sponges. Adults, on the other hand, need to hook new information to their own experience. Organize instructions in the order of job steps; connect the new description to previous experiences.

Give Examples

Especially with complicated tasks, supplement verbal instructions with practice opportunities, samples, and feedback. Combine descriptions with time for questions and coaching.

Fear of Failure

For a host of personal and social reasons, adults delay using new information until the benefits outweigh the risk of failure. Understanding your clear description of a new procedure or opportunity does not guarantee adoption. Sometimes a listener claims the instructions aren't clear when the real problem is fear of trying something new.

For both legal and practical reasons, clear job descriptions can make or break workplace effectiveness. Vague, ambiguous, or incomplete job descriptions can result in an inadequate hiring process and when things go bad, they provide little basis for disciplinary action.

A well written job description should include a clear list of the employee's essential duties-those activities that must be performed in order for the job to be done at all, as well as a list of all normal responsibilities and expectations. When the description is prepared for a hiring process, it should also include a list of the specific experience, knowledge, skills and abilities required as well as any special working conditions or minimum physical requirements.

Elements of a job description should begin with action verbs ("drives," "calls on," "writes") and expected outcomes should be tangible ("completes reports monthly," "selects high-performing equities")

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