People are always asking me for templates. Have you got a report template, Shelly? A business case template, Shelly? A template that will save all the woes of the world, Shelly?

I’ll spare you the clichés about length of string and teaching men how to fish: I DON’T DO TEMPLATES.

Templates are only good if they’re designed for a specific purpose. There is no such thing as ONE magical template for any kind of document.

But we do have some really clear insights into reader behaviour. And from that, we can build a strong, successful, fit-for-purpose document structure.

What readers want

As humans, when we interact with text, we’re subconsciously looking for 3 things.

  1. What’s this about?
  2. Is it relevant to me?
  3. What’s the bottom line?

The importance of the executive summary or up-front framing

If you can answer those 3 questions before you do anything else in a business document, you’ve got your reader in the palm of your hand. They’re hooked. They’re engaged. And they’ll keep reading (or at least scanning through). It’s like mad-genius-evil-mastermind-writing-ninja material – so use your powers for good.

Answering those 3 questions is the basic formula for an executive summary. Of course, you can add more – but those are the bare minimum. If you don’t want to use an executive summary, make sure those 3 questions are answered in your introduction (or background, or scope, or whatever heading your douchebag template tells you is the starting point for saving the planet).

Let’s test this concept – what do you want as a reader?

Picture yourself going to your car and finding a piece of paper under the windscreen wiper.

(Note: Your version may contain less profanity. Whatever floats your boat.)

  1. What the f*ck is this? You wonder.

(You pick it up and see a company logo – it’s a flyer, not a ticket, thank f*ck)

  1. What are they selling? You wonder.

(There are pictures of food. It’s a restaurant. You’ve been known to eat occasionally. There’s potential here.)

  1. So are the prices any good? You wonder.

(That’s the bottom line – now that I know what they have to offer and that I’m interested, this is the deciding factor. Let’s say they’re cheap AF and sound worth trying so we have a happy ending to our scenario. You’re welcome.)

The rest of the document structure depends on content and purpose.

In a nutshell: the rest of your document needs to be structured in terms of what is most relevant to your reader, and then what they need to know so that you can achieve your purpose. Note the difference here – it’s not about what you want them to know – it’s about what they need to know from where they sit. Those can be vastly different things.

In fact, that warrants more discussion. Here’s Part 2!