All Wrapped Up and Someplace to Go

Dec. 21, 2018


Once upon a time, in a land down under (a.k.a. Australia), I worked for a 5-star Fijian resort called Turtle Island.

This was my first job after leaving the practice of law. As Operations Manager, I was responsible for writing – everything from guest information to marketing brochures to press releases.

Just a few months after I’d been hired, I was tasked with producing a submission for a prestigious eco-tourism award. I spent hours on that submission and felt confident that I'd written a pretty good one. After all, as a former lawyer, words had always been my stock-in-trade.
I was in the middle of the final proof-read when Marilyn, one of my colleagues, casually asked, “So, how are you going to package it up?”

I have to admit, that sort of threw me for a loop.

How was I going to package it up?

Well, I explained matter-of-factly, I was going to print it out, staple all the pages together, and ship it off in a brown manila envelope. That seemed pretty obvious, didn’t it?

I can still recall the look of horror on Marilyn’s face when I told her this. Apparently, it was not so obvious.

Mere hours before the submission deadline, Marilyn took charge. She rushed out and bought a high-quality binder which she carefully covered with authentic Fijian tapa cloth wrapping paper. She also bought some heavy, matte-finish paper. She printed the submission on the fancy paper and inserted it in the binder. Then she procured a beautiful box. Into the box went the binder, artfully swaddled in tissue paper.

The whole thing was tied with elegant raffia binding and featured a swoon-worthy picture postcard of Turtle Island on the outside. Now that was a package!

In short, Marilyn took my words (as brilliant as they may have been) and transformed them into something special. Something to contemplate, anticipate and experience.

Without Marvellous Marilyn’s handiwork, it’s almost certain my submission would have gone straight to the bottom of the heap. With nothing to say, “I’m special…I’m worth your time,” that sheaf of papers would very likely have been passed over for something – anything – more interesting.

Not a bad lesson for any sort of communications. The words are only half the story. How you present them, how you package them up, matters just as much, if not more.

I am sometimes hired to “create copy.” But what I’m really doing (along with my client and my graphic design partners in crime) is “designing content.”

The term “content design” is most commonly used in the digital world, but I think it applies to any type of communication. As the UK Government explains on the website I mentioned in my last post:

“Good content design allows people to do or find out what they need…using the most appropriate content format available.”

If the layout is messy, if the format is wrong – say it’s a long chunk of narrative text, when an infographic or a chart would more quickly and simply convey the message – then even the most Pulitzer Prize-worthy copy won't be worth the paper it’s written on.

The copy and the design – they’re of a piece. If your message is going to register with your readers, those two things need to be knitted together seamlessly.

Furthermore, content design should be based on actual research, not our assumptions and opinions about what our readers want.

If you’re in the business of communicating with an audience, be it internal or external, why not poll them every now and then to find out if what you’re serving up is to their liking?

  • What do your readers want to read and how do they want to read it?
  • What do they prefer: full-on narrative? bullet points? infographics?
  • Do they want a high-level summary with the option of clicking for more details?
  • Or do they want everything in plain view?

The results might surprise you – and they will help you create stronger, clearer communications. Communications that not only put your readers' needs first but that also prompt the kind of response and action you're looking for.

Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, Turtle Island did win that award. Thank god for Marvellous Marilyn.