My checklist for articles and talks


Posted by Steven

A while ago, I put together checklists for the articles I wrote in my blog and the talks I gave at events such as Java User Group meetings. Soon I realized that there are a lot of duplications between the two lists, because an article and a talk have one goal: Communicate something to others. That's why I merged the lists. Now that it didn't change in months, I want to share it with those who need help or inspiration how to write an article or prepare a speech. Nearly everything in this list is from books or other speakers. Because I didn't intend to publish the list, I don't have exact sources for each and every concept. However, a lot of them came from the book Presentation Zen and studies of key notes of the great Steve Jobs, one of the best presenters stages of the world have seen.

Preparation

There are only two goals of a publication: The speaker wants to either inform other people or appeal to them to do something. It is possible to do both, but that dilutes the focus of the talk. Thinking "Do I want to share neutral knowledge or do I want people to do something, to get active?" before beginning outlining an article or speech is a good idea.

Before writing down anything, a publisher should ask "What is the core message of my topic?" A core message has to be deliverable in an elevator-pitch in under 30 seconds. If such a short statement sounds to incoherent or is just impossible to write, there could be more than one message. On the other hand, if nothing will be left after erasing all the unimportant stuff, maybe there is no message at all. In both cases, it's a bad idea to force it and continue.

Years ago, I wrote an article about migrating ExtJS applications. This article is one of the most searched and read articles I ever published. First, I didn't understand the reason for this, but it's simple: I documented a very special topic for which there are not many sources available and that is interesting for only a handful of people. To get the attention of a small peer group, publications have to hit the exact niche this peer group is residing in. Over-specialized articles will have the most attention within a niche and will provoke the most active feedback.

Ever noticed that many articles are named as lists, like "5 ideas for your business"? That's because lists create an easy to understand structure of the publication. Because the length of the list must not be too big, it's also an incentive to read this seemingly short article.

Beginning

The first few lines of an article / the first few sentences of a talk will determine the attention with wich the reader / listener will read / listen. Therefore, it is very important to start with a focused and well-thought statement. The PUNCH method helps in creating such a statement: Always start with one or more of the following:

  1. Personal
  2. Unexpected
  3. Novel
  4. Challenging
  5. Humorouos

Starting with positive (!) emotions can create a strong bond between the audience and the presenter. To create a positive and creative emotional environment, it is imperative to make that emotion a positive one. People will adopt the feeling and the emotions from the presenter, and they want to enjoy the show, not feel bad.

Starting with a joke (point 5) is very tricky. In my experience, this will either create an immediate and positive bond with the audience because they share the kind of humor of the speaker, or it will do the opposite. It's a risky game, especially when delivering an important speech or publishing an article in a very exposed medium. If that first joke fails, there's always the possibility of delivering one bad joke after the other to show that first one was intentional. That will either gain great sympathy or, again, the total opposite. Just don't start with a joke.

Ever noticed how Steve Jobs began his talks with a Power Point slide showing the 5 points he wants to talk about? No? That's because he (to my knowledge) didn't use an agenda slide. Instead, he said things like "I've got four things to talk about today. First ...". An audience will either be entertained or they want a problem solved (being taught something is part of the latter). A speaker should tell the audience how he will solve their problem by showing where the journey of the talk / article will take them. A bullet-pointed agenda won't do that. Not only will the audience read the last point of your agenda when you are still explaining the first one, but they most likely don't care about it.

Main part

A publication always has one of two goals: entertain or teach. To reach that goal, the publisher has to know the situation of the readers: background, level of knowledge, time available, preferred way of consuming knowledge, ... The more a publisher knows about his audience, the better. That's the reason why I prefer talks over articles: I can read my audience while talking and adjust content and form on the spot. However, in talks and especially articles it's very important to transfer the message into the reader, using the knowledge about the reader. Breaking down complicated things so they become trivial when focusing on non-expert readers or using technical terms when focusing on expert-level readers is a good example of this.

In articles, it's important to have a uniformed designation of the reader. Either write "you" or use a neutral "one". "You should use neutral designations for your readers" vs "it's important to use neutral designations for your readers". Switching between those two is very annoying and hard to read. Which one to use strongly depends on the content of the article and the relationship between writer and reader. In this blog for example, I can use the direct "you" without problems, because this is my private homepage and no one has to read what I write. Also, it would create a casual atmosphere. In manuals, technical articles published in magazines or documentation for a customer, the neutral designation is better suited.

Visual Design

Reading Presentation Zen caused me to change my presentation slides: I made my images "bleeding from the edge". That means that width and height are bigger than the available canvas, which will make the whole slide one huge picture. This will maximize the effect and also eradicate noise like the often-used slide templates with the date and name of the speaker.

Not quite "visual design", but very important regarding pictures: Always have sources for every picture used.

When using code, it should always be as a SSCCE.

Finishing

One of the first classical tasks of finishing an article is, of course, a spellcheck. I use Microsoft Word for this.

One of the greatest concepts I found for writing articles is the tl;dr - summary at the end of an article. This is basically the core message mentioned above, so just writing the elevator pitch message at the end of the article will do the trick. When giving talks, I often summarize what I said in just a few sentences. This also works great when giving workshops: Recapping the topics of the workshop right before the feedback part is a great way to both separate the main part of the event from the last part of the event and also getting better feedback (because the audience is shown the huge amount of topics they learned today).

The very last action of writing an article is to make sure it's being read. For me that means publishing / linking it on dzone.com and of course tweeting about it.

TL;DR

For every publication I create, I use a checklist to make sure it's high-quality in design, content and presentation.

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Comments

Thanks for sharing.


Great article! Helps a lot when you're pretty new to blogging or writing public content in general.

As a sidenote: the dzone.com link is broken.


Thanks for your comment! Link is fixed now :)