Posted: April 18, 2013
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Article SummaryI can’t prove it, but I fervently believe that as communicators have become more and more preoccupied with making everything short, simple, and interesting, they have lost track of the need to keep the audience oriented. Individual sentences may be clear enough, but the overall thread of the argument too often isn’t. So I decided to write a column on signposting – on how to keep readers and listeners from getting lost. The six signposting tips in this column aren’t specifically about risk communication. They’re basic communication … but you can’t do good risk communication without them.

Orienting Your Audience:
Six Signposting Tips

This is the 26th in a series of risk communication columns I have been asked to write for The Synergist, the journal of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. The columns appear both in the journal and on this website. This one can be found (substantially abridged and with some copyediting changes) in the April 2013 issue of The Synergist, pp. 24–25.

More often than we like to admit, we get lost in the articles we read. We understand each individual sentence and paragraph, but we’re no longer following the thread of the argument; we are literally disoriented. And if orientation is a problem for readers, it is a much bigger problem for listeners, who can’t look back at previous pages to get reoriented.

So this column is a primer on signposting, on keeping your audience oriented.

Signposting isn’t specifically a risk communication challenge. It’s a communication challenge. Still, calmly interested audiences mostly manage to keep themselves oriented. Anxious audiences, on the other hand, need signposts because their anxiety makes it hard to stay focused – so signposting is crucial in outrage management (when people are unduly upset about small risks) and crisis communication (when people are rightly upset about big risks). And apathetic audiences need signposts because apathetic minds wander easily – so signposting is crucial in precaution advocacy (when people are insufficiently upset about significant risks) as well.

I can’t prove it, but my impression is that signposting has gone out of style in recent decades. Because everyone now is overloaded with content, enticing and entertaining the audience may feel like a higher priority than keeping the audience on track. Simplicity and brevity also seem to have overwhelmed orientation as a goal, as if every article and every presentation should resemble a PowerPoint slide.

But when your message is reduced to a short and punchy list of bullet points, enlivened with peripherally relevant illustrations, important things get lost – things like logic (the connective tissue between one point and the next) and subordination (the distinction between major points and minor sub-points). It’s like reducing a map to a list of streets. No wonder the audience gets lost.

So here are six tips on signposting. And yes, I see the irony of reducing the complex topic of audience orientation to a quick list of signposting tips.

Use introductions, conclusions, and outlines.

Way back in grade school, most of us were taught that a good piece of writing has three parts: introduction, body, and conclusion. Grownups were similarly advised to “tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.” But as keeping readers and listeners interested has gained priority over keeping them oriented, this advice has fallen by the wayside, typically replaced with starting anecdotes aimed at hooking the audience and ending anecdotes aimed at leaving them smiling.

But presentations and articles aren’t meals simply to be enjoyed. Your first few sentences and your last few sentences aren’t just appetizers and desserts. They are – or should be – introductions and conclusions. I know it’s a bit clunky: “I want to cover four topics this afternoon. First, I will explain….” “In summary, here are my four bottom-line recommendations….” But there are worse sins than being clunky, and losing your audience is one of them.

Outlines are more than mere signposts; they are roadmaps. One of the many advantages of whiteboards and hard-copy handouts over PowerPoints is their ability to keep your outline in view throughout your presentation. You can even point to it from time to time to reorient the audience on what you’ve covered so far, what’s next, and what’s left. PowerPoint fans can accomplish the same thing by returning periodically to the outline slide.

Repeat key points and difficult ones.

In adjacent sentences, repetition tells readers and listeners “this matters.” It also gives them a second chance to tune in if their minds were starting to wander. Word-for-word repetition is powerful as long as it’s not overused: “That’s a key point, so let me say it again….” Paraphrase is a more everyday way to underline major points: “In other words….” Of course people are likelier to understand and remember a point you repeat. Just as importantly, the repetition signals to them that it’s an important point, worth understanding and remembering.

Repetition is valuable not just for key points, but also for points that are difficult for the audience to comprehend because they’re controversial, surprising, or complicated. Especially if you’re building a logical argument, you need the audience to follow your chain of reasoning. So before moving on from Point C to Point D, you may need to dwell on C a bit more. It helps to explain why you’re repeating C: “This is where I typically get the most pushback, so let me bolster my case for C a little before continuing to D.”

Repeating a point you made a while back helps turn a key thought into a recurring leitmotif. It’s crucial here to say you’re repeating. Unacknowledged repetition makes you seem disorganized, and actually disorients the audience: “I thought we’d covered that already.” Repeating a previous point is also a way to show connections. “I already pointed out X earlier in my presentation. Keep X in mind now as we look at Y. I think you’ll see that they are two sides of the same coin.”

Another way to use repetition as a tool of orientation is to keep repeating the same word for the same concept. Inexperienced writers and presenters scrounge for synonyms instead, forcing the audience to think it through: “Oh, okay, he’s still talking about the same thing, he’s just using a different word for it.” If a concept is central to your message, you might give yourself permission to assign it two words – “orientation” and “signposting,” for example. But the general rule is: If you’re talking about the same concept, use the same word. A corollary rule: If you’re talking about a different concept, use a different word.

Finally, repeating sentence structures helps the audience stay oriented. “If you’re talking about the same concept…. If you’re talking about a different concept….”

Make typography count.

In written communications, the simplest typographical signpost is the new paragraph. It announces to the reader, “We’re changing focus here.” I understand that long paragraphs need to be broken up somehow whether there’s a focus change or not. (Synergist editors often break up my overlong paragraphs.) But don’t just cut a long paragraph in half. Find the place somewhere near its middle where the focus changes at least a little.

Boldface subheads are another obviously useful signposting tool. They not only signal a change in topic; they also announce what the new topic is going to be. But writers, editors, and especially website designers too often see subheads as visual relief rather than cognitive assistance, adding them willy-nilly every few paragraphs, not to mark a shift in focus (their irreplaceable value) but merely to break up the gray of copy blocks. In time, readers may learn to cruise happily past subheads instead of scrutinizing them to find out where the article is going.

Complicated articles may have several levels of subheads – for example, using centered large-type solid caps for the level one divisions, flush-left bold for the level two subdivisions, and italics for the level three sub-subdivisions. The reader thus knows (or at least can figure out) that the article is about to transition from the third sub-subpoint to the fourth sub-subpoint of subpoint two of main point five. Especially in science and engineering, complicated articles often add an outline component to these layered subheads. So the fourth sub-subpoint of subpoint two of main point five is numbered 5.2.4.

Boldface subheads are all about signaling transitions. Boldface in the middle of a paragraph signals emphasis instead. So do italics, underlining, Solid CAPS, or switching to a different font or a larger type size. Using these tools excessively or intermixing them undermines the purpose and makes your writing look adolescent. Using them judiciously helps keep readers oriented.

These typographic signposts for writers are unavailable to presenters. So presenters need to lean all the more heavily on other tools of audience orientation, especially transitions, my next topic.

Use more transitions – a lot more.

I had an English teacher once who insisted that every single sentence should include a word or phrase that explains how it relates to the previous sentence. That probably goes too far. Sometimes it’s obvious how the two sentences relate. But when it isn’t obvious, a good communicator adds a transition to make it obvious – especially in oral communications.

To choose a transition you first need to decide how the two sentences actually relate:

  • If you’re adding to the previous point: “furthermore”; “in addition”; “also”; “and”
  • If you’re contradicting the previous point: “on the other hand”; “however”; “yet”; “conversely”; “but”; “nevertheless”; “even so”
  • If you’re amplifying the previous point: “moreover”; “an even more important reason”
  • If you’re offering an alternative to the previous point: “instead”; “similarly”; “likewise”; “or”
  • If you’re drawing a conclusion from the previous point: “therefore”; for this reason”; “hence”; “thus”; “as a result”
  • If you’re interrupting the previous point: “by the way”; “incidentally”
  • If you’re illustrating the previous point: “for example”; “for instance”
  • If you’re restating or summarizing the previous point: “in other words”; “in short”; “to put it differently”
  • If you’re done with the previous point: “moving on to an entirely different issue”; “now let’s change gears”

And so on; this is far from a complete list.

There are other ways of signaling transitions besides these transitional words and phrases. Look back at the first paragraph of this section.

  • The first word in the second sentence, “that,” refers back to the entire first sentence: Including a transitional word or phrase in every sentence is the “that” that “probably goes too far.”
  • In the third sentence, “how the two sentences relate” accomplishes the transition by picking up on the specific words used in the first sentence, “…how it relates to the previous sentence.”
  • The fourth sentence starts with a conventional transitional “But….” It also repeats the word “obvious” for transitional purposes: “sometimes it’s obvious … but when it isn’t obvious.” Changing “obvious” to a synonym like “apparent” in either of the two sentences would obscure the transition.

Choose inductive rather than deductive reasoning.

Deductive reasoning starts with the evidence and draws a conclusion. Inductive reasoning starts with a hypothesis and marshals evidence pro and con.

Detective stories have a deductive structure. You watch the detective gather clues; neither you nor the detective knows whodunit till the end. Debates have an inductive structure. Each debater starts by taking a stance and then tries to prove it.

As a way of figuring out what’s going on, there’s a lot to be said for deduction. Among other benefits, it’s much less vulnerable to bias than induction, where that initial hypothesis all too easily distorts how the evidence gets interpreted. But as a way of telling people what’s going on, deduction is a disaster. A deductive article or presentation steadfastly refuses to orient the audience, to explain at the outset what the evidence is evidence of. The audience has to figure that out on its own, or wait till the author/presenter reveals it at the end.

An inductive article or presentation, on the other hand, starts by orienting the audience to what the author/presenter thinks the evidence shows.

An inductive structure not only helps your audience understand why it’s being asked to pay attention to the data. It also helps you decide which data you need your audience to pay attention to: the data that best demonstrate your conclusion. (It’s wise to discuss as well the data that seem to contradict your conclusion, since a one-sided presentation often backfires when the audience discovers what you left out.)

When you and your audience are both clear on what the data are there for, you need less data. This helps cure a defect of many technical articles and presentations: too much emphasis on data and too little emphasis on the reasoning that makes the data meaningful – that puts the data into context and keeps the audience oriented.

Induction also helps you distinguish major points from minor ones. Suppose there are seven studies that bear on the pros and cons of switching from work practice A to work practice B, a switch you hope to convince your audience is worth making. If your structure is deductive, you have virtually no choice but to lay out all seven studies in parallel, as if they were of equal value. But an inductive structure enables you to explain: “I found seven relevant studies. Six of them support B. I’m going to present the two strongest of those six in detail, and briefly summarize the other four. I also want to talk about the single study that came out in favor of A, and explain why I think it doesn’t apply.”

Finally, induction leaves more room than deduction for examples, anecdotes, metaphors, comparisons, and other non-technical content. Everyone knows it’s important to leaven the data with more human sorts of information to illustrate your main conclusions. That’s hard to do if you’re not specifying your main conclusions till you’ve presented your evidence – a deductive structure. You may know what point a particular example illustrates, but your audience doesn’t. Starting with your conclusions – that is, organizing inductively – makes it easier for you to pick examples and far easier for your audience to know why they’re there.

Pay attention to mental models.

I have been focusing on the various sorts of signposts you can use to keep your audience oriented as it tries to understand your article or presentation. But with rare exceptions your audience members aren’t starting from scratch. They already possess some signposts they will inevitably use to orient themselves: their preexisting knowledge, opinions, attitudes, and values of relevance. Taken together, they constitute your audience’s “mental model” of your topic.

A large body of risk communication research shows the enduring importance of mental models. The most obvious implication of the mental models approach for your signposting strategy is this: When there are aspects of your audience’s mental model that support your argument, link to them as emphatically as you can. “A lot of you have told me that you feel pretty strongly about X. That’s one of the main reasons behind my recommendation.”

An even more important implication: When there are aspects of your audience’s mental model that conflict with your argument, acknowledge them. Nothing derails an argument more thoroughly than when the audience already knows or believes something that seems to contradict your message … and you’re not mentioning it.

Obviously it’s easier to agree with your audience than to disagree with it. But if you’ve got to disagree, get the disagreement onto the table before you make your case. And do it respectfully and empathically: “A lot of people believe X, and for very good reasons: A, B, and C. In spite of A, B, and C, I want to argue that X is no longer the best option for our organization….” By contrast, if you try to make your case against X without mentioning A, B, and C, a lot of audience members will be muttering A, B, and C to themselves instead of paying attention to you.

In order to adapt your signposts to your audience’s mental model of your topic, of course, you have to know what your audience’s mental model is. If you don’t know, find out. Do a survey, set up a focus group, or at least chat with a few people you hope are typical.

Conclusion: Signposting matters!

There’s more to keeping an audience oriented than these six signposting tips – but I think these six are a good start.

My main point is simply that signposting matters. Keeping your audience oriented is indispensible to effective risk communication, right up there with making your messages short, simple, and interesting.

Copyright © 2013 by Peter M. Sandman

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