Lots of what I read these days is about tools. Authoring tools, content management systems, translation management systems, terminology management systems, the list goes on and on. Tools are important. Tools have come a long way over the years. They provide many conveniences and allow us to do cool things with content.
However, the one thing that has not changed, not one bit, in the time I’ve been working in the content industry is the need for great quality content. And, I’d hate to say it, but no amount of money spent on tools, no focus on the latest and greatest technology is going to make up for inherently mediocre content. And even though tools provide convenience and features, they cannot take bad content and magically make it fantastic.
So, what separates great quality content from mediocre content? Let’s take a look.
Meets the Needs of the Audience
The quickest way to sink to mediocre is to provide content that doesn’t meet your content consumer’s needs. For example, if I am looking for instructions on the best way to load my washing machine, but am given marketing content that details the features and benefits of my new washer, I’m not going to be happy. If I’m not technical and am provided with highly detailed content, you’re going to lose me. Regardless of how grammatically correct your writing is or how beautiful your illustrations are, if content doesn’t meet my needs, it’s not great quality for me. Instead, it is a frustrating time-waster.
In addition to providing the right type of content, providing content in the best form is just as critical. There is a reason that YouTube is so popular. Video content can make instructions very clear. Whether I’m watching you point and click on software or you’re installing a dog crate into your car, video is a great medium for instruction. Another great medium for instruction is illustration. If your illustrations are very clear, you don’t even need words to go with them.
I recently built a loft bed from IKEA for my son’s new apartment. The instructions contained exactly zero words. Not. A. Single. Word. Instead of using words to tell me that I needed 24 screws, the illustration showed 24 screws. And while we like to make fun of IKEA instructions, I put the bed together successfully by following the pictures. It didn’t matter what language I speak or what grade level I can read, I was able to build the bed. I even had a couple of screws left over (why does that always happen to me?)!
On the other hand, conceptual content can be difficult to illustrate using only images (moving or still). Often, we usually need to write the information. Images enhance, but cannot necessarily provide all the concepts we need to explain.
Providing the right content, delivered in the right format are both indicators that you understand and are meeting the needs of your audience. Meeting the needs of your audience is one component of great quality content.
Flows from Topic to Topic
An excellent flow of content also separates high-quality content from mediocre content. High-quality content flows seamlessly from one topic to the next. It contains transitions. The sections make sense as I follow along. There is either an explicit or intrinsic rhyme and reason to how the sections are sewn together.
Parallel structures help content flow. For example, are all conceptual topics introduced the same way? Are there parallel descriptions in one part of a document and another part of the document?
Accurate instructions are, of course, critical to all technical content. Even mediocre content should have 100% accurate instructions. But one of the marks of great content goes beyond accurate instruction. In addition, great quality content contains parallel instructions. In parallel instructions, not only are the instructions accurate, they are identical in order of steps, words used to describe steps, and so on.
Why is this so important, you ask? Parallel writing is high-quality writing because it makes comprehension so much easier. This type of writing sets an easy-to-follow expectation of what is coming next. When you set an expectation and keep to it, the quality of your content is enhanced. It is easy to read and understand. Content goes from “meh” to “wow”.
Tells a Story
It’s taken me a while to understand the real value of good storytelling in business content. A good story in a case study is obvious. But, a good story in technical content also piques my interest. I remember content better when I am told a story.
Think about learning history in high school. What are you more likely to remember – a good story or a bunch of informational paragraphs from a textbook? The story is going to win.
Storytelling can be difficult in a business environment. For example, it can be difficult to create a story for threading a sewing machine. But, it’s not impossible.
Recently, I did an experiment with one of my conference sessions. Instead of immediately going into the meat of the topic of my presentation, I decided to tell a story related to the topic first and then enhance the story with more detailed information. At first, I was nervous. This is not the customary way to present information at a conference. In the end, it was one of my most successful conference sessions in my long history of conference speaking. The audience was instantly engaged. They nodded, laughed, and understood where I was going. The story was memorable and the details added interest to the storyline.
One of the great separators between mediocre content and great quality content is its ability to engage, hold the content consumer’s attention, and be memorable. Telling a story with your content provides a platform for all three outcomes.
Crossing the T’s and Dotting the I’s May Not Matter
I’ve written about quality writing many (many) times. I’ve done webinars about it. I’ve spoken at conferences about it. My company deploys software to govern it. And, yes, I do believe that grammar, sentence structure, and style consistency go a long way to improving content quality. After all, if your content is ambiguous or flat-out grammatically incorrect, it’s going to be very difficult for me to comprehend. Quality content must be comprehensible, otherwise it fails even the mediocre test.
Historically, I’ve been a total stickler about grammar and style. But, I’ll share a little secret with you (don’t tell), I’m starting to come around. I’m starting to realize that you can have great content that isn’t 100% grammatically correct. I know, heresy coming from me. However, I’ve realized that you can tell me an engaging story, that flows from topic to topic, providing a consistent experience that meets my needs. And if you accomplish those three things, but you have a misplaced comma, or you’ve included a touch of passive voice, well…it’s still going to be great content.
So there, I’ve said it.