AEA365 | A Tip-a-Day by and for Evaluators

TAG | writing

Happy Saturday all!  Liz Zadnik here, aea365 Outreach Coordinator and sometime Saturday contributor.  Summer has arrived on the East Coast of the United States.  For me, summer has always encouraged me to check in with myself and take some time to reorganize and recalibrate.  Like time slows down a little and I have few more minutes each day.  

Lately I’ve been spending some time paying close attention to the words folks use when sharing ideas.  As a former English major, I appreciate words.  In fact, you could say I love them.  They carry power and potential – to connect or disconnect, affirm or harm.  There are so many colloquialisms with roots in oppression and inequity.  We’re not used to thinking about words in this way because that’s how norms work.  But when we take the time to be a little more mindful, we can challenge those norms and create spaces for meaningful collaboration.

Hot Tip: Exercise creativity and thoughtfulness when crafting titles, tweets, and tables. (I needed to alliterate there). Do we have to use “walk” when “travel,” “move,” or “journey” work well too?  I was perusing some workshop titles recently and saw a surprising amount of limiting language: “…walking together,” “One step at a time…,” and “Listening Session.”  I understand the intent of these choices, but that doesn’t minimize the hurtful consequences.   

Lesson Learned: Hold yourself to a higher standard, but also be patient when you slip up.  Recently I’ve noticed myself using “guys” to refer to groups of people.  I try to use “folks” or “friends” when I’m training or writing – something I learned along the way to learning to be an ally.  I slip up and then try again! 

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org . aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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Good morning!  I’m Liz Zadnik, aea365’s Outreach Coordinator and Saturday contributor.  Part of my role on the curating team is working with evaluators and researchers interested in generating content for the blog.  Writing for the web is a little different than drafting an evaluation report, policy brief, or peer-review journal article – it requires a slightly more conversational and informal tone.  I’ve pulled together a few tips and resources for folks interested in refining their online-writing style.

Hot Tip: Frontload your information. Basically, put the most interesting or poignant nuggets first.  This is a little different than most of the resources you may usually write – results or findings are typically contextualized first and then outlined later.  Not online.  Blog and website visitors are looking for something – give them what they want.  They’ll peruse a page, scanning for keywords.  If they don’t see what they’re looking for, they’ll leave.  

Lesson Learned: White space is your friend.  Many people equate dense paragraphs with quality – that won’t do for online content!  Embrace patches of white space – throughout the page and also within the content.  “How do I do that?!”  Well, you can use bulleted or numbered lists, images, or line breaks between paragraphs.  Don’t worry if you feel it looks sparse – your readers will thank you!    

Hot Tip: Get active!  With your voice, that is.  Writing for the web is intended to keep the visitor engaged for short period of time.  Folks have something in mind when they visit a site and want to be spoken to directly.  Active voice helps create that atmosphere – it also makes blocks of text for readable and scannable.  

FROM “The participants’ questions were gathered by the meeting facilitator.” (passive)

TO “The meeting facilitator gathered participants’ questions.” (active)

Just to be clear, passive voice isn’t bad.  It has its place in scientific and academic writing.  But blogs and websites are different and should look and sound different.  This style can be difficult to practice at first, but I’ve found it has strengthened my writing both professionally and personally.   

Rad Resources:

  • Usability.gov offers a checklist and more tips on effectively writing for the web.
  • Writing Spaces pulled together a style guide a few years ago – it has some nice background on different platforms and “genres” of web writing
  • Speaking of style guides, Sum of Us offers a very thoughtful one, A Progressive’s Style Guide, for folks interested in harnessing language as a tool for social change. 

I would also encourage you to pay attention to blogs and websites you really like.  How do they use white space?  How/Do they offer a scannable page for visitors?  What information do they offer?  

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org . aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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Hi my name is Jayne Corso and I am the Community Manager for AEA. There are many reasons to start blogging: to share your work and strategies for evaluations; to become an evaluation through leader; to become a stronger writer and explain your thoughts—the reasons can be endless. I have compiled a few tips to help you create an effective blog that resonates with your followers.

Creating a Blog

Hot Tip: Content

First, identify themes, concepts, or trends that relate to your audience or other evaluators. What topics will you highlight in your blog and how will your blog stand out? For example, will your blog focus entirely on data visualization, or trends in evaluation? Once this is decided you can start working on the details.

Next, decide how often you are going to blog. Is your blog going to be a daily blog, weekly blog, or monthly blog? When making this decision, you must look at your content resources and your available time. What can you commit to, and how and from what sources are you going to gather your content?

Hot Tip: Writing

When writing a blog, you want to be aware of tone, length, and formatting. Write in a conversational tone, using personal pronouns whenever possible.  You also don’t want your blog to be too long. Typically a blog post is 1,000 words or less.  In addition, you want to break up long paragraphs or text. Try bullet points, numbered lists, or visuals to make your post more interesting.

Hot Tip: Call to Action

An important aspect of blogging is starting a conversation and obtaining your follower’s feedback. Invite your follower’s to provide their opinions or questions in the comments. This allows your post to have a longer shelf life and helps you engage with other evaluators.

I look forward to reading your blogs on evaluation! Please share your tips or questions in the comments.

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org . aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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My name is Christine Frank and I am an independent Canadian evaluator. I have a couple of questions for you. Do your reports intrigue your audience or send them for coffee? Do people grasp your message easily?

Although I am best known as a program evaluator, I have also taught courses on business communications and co-authored a textbook on that subject. Experts in business communications focus on dynamic, readable writing. Plain writing experts promote a similar style. Both areas of expertise afford simple strategies to make functional documents more inviting and compelling.

Evaluators sometimes hinder their effectiveness by writing in an overly academic style. For instance, in journal articles, you often find sentences 60 words in length or more. One of the pivotal rules of both business writing and plain writing is to limit sentence length. Even if readers have excellent reading skills and are grounded in the subject matter, you can construct your text to propel them forward, not slow them down. My own frustration in reading unnecessarily lengthy, wordy text drives me to strive for instant clarity.

Hot Tip: For evaluators, I suggest a maximum of 20 words per sentence. You might stretch this limit when a short sentence just won’t convey the message. However, another fundamental rule is to check your text to see if you have used the least number of words possible. If you do this, you may find you can achieve the limit. Many strategies can be applied to maximize clarity. One is to avoid an over-abundance of nouns, especially in sequence. In the following sentence adapted from an actual Request for Proposals, you will see eight nouns, five of them in a row.

  • Our first task is the development of a best practice guideline implementation evaluation plan.

Better

  • First we will develop a plan for evaluating the implementation of best practice guidelines.

Hot Tip: A strategy that reduces sentence length and makes the text more compelling is use of the active voice of the verb.

  • The top three reasons given by students for choosing a career were successfully predicted by teachers.

Better

  • Teachers successfully predicted students’ top three reasons for choosing a career.

Rad Resource: Federal Plain Language Guidelines (2011)

This contribution is from the aea365 Tip-a-Day Alerts, by and for evaluators, from the American Evaluation Association. Please consider contributing – send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. Want to learn more from Christine? She’ll be presenting as part of the Evaluation 2014 Conference Program, October 15-18 in Denver, Colorado.

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My name is Stella SiWan Zimmerman and I am the President of ACET, Inc., a research and evaluation consulting firm based in Minneapolis, MN. We specialize in the evaluation of education, public health, and community-based programs in order to improve organizational effectiveness and build evaluation capacity.

Over the years, I have produced and reviewed many evaluation reports. In reviewing such documents, I have noticed certain key pieces of information that are occasionally overlooked during the report writing process. This does not necessarily mean that the person is a poor evaluator or the results were of poor quality; it may be a function of the writer being excited about sharing the evaluation results and trying to be succinct. Unfortunately, omitting these key details can result in some pertinent information getting lost in the report writing process.

Hot Tip: Regardless of what you’re writing (i.e., PowerPoint presentation, Executive Summary, newsletter), don’t forget those small – but key – details. Never assume that the reader knows as much as you know. To help ensure that your report is complete, make sure you address the following questions to avoid the most common reporting mistakes:

–      Did you provide a description of the program? The program (intervention) should be described in each freestanding document (i.e., Executive Summary, Report of Findings). By providing a description of the program, you are giving the reader context to interpret the evaluation findings.

–      Did you mention your target population? Reports should always clearly state the target population of the program (intervention) before listing the results. For example, a report could read that the program is “intended to serve 500 inner-city youth.”

–      Did you include your sample size? Although your program serves 500 youth you may have collected data on only 35 of those youth. Because the findings presented in a report are based on the experiences of 35 youth, it’s essential to have that number listed so readers understand the reach of your study.

–      Have you clarified which instruments you used to gather data? Make sure to clearly state your data source(s) (i.e., surveys, interviews, focus groups). Providing your data source(s) leaves no mystery as to how the results were gathered.

–      Is there a clear link from findings to impact? Occasionally a report will list pages of findings, but the findings won’t link to any specific impact. It is essential that the report clearly states the intended outcomes so readers understand the link between what was found and the impact on participants.

The list above may seem commonsense but can often be overlooked in the quest to being concise.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Minnesota Evaluation Association (MN EA) Affiliate Week with our colleagues in the MNEA AEA Affiliate. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our MNEA members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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My name is Susan Kistler and I am the Executive Director of the American Evaluation Association. I contribute each Saturday’s post to aea365 – the Tip-a-Day Alerts by and for evaluators. While aea365 of course offers my very favorite tip each day, I confess that my attention is sometimes drawn to these other Daily Tips available via email subscription, each of which regularly has content of interest to evaluators.

Rad Resource – Institute of Management Consultants Tip of the Day: AEA member Tom Kelley turned me on to the IMC daily tips. Each one presents a very short scenario or question and provides a concrete tip in response. The questions span the consulting gamut from presentation tips to getting new business. Unlike aea365, where we showcase hundreds of tip authors, the IMC tips are written by a single author/editor, Mark Haas.

Rad Resource – Management Tip of the Day: These come from Harvard Business Review, and tend to be very well-written and blissfully brief, but with the option to click through for an extended article. They usually also include the option to click through to purchase related paid content, but even the stand-alone free portion is very strong. Recently, they’ve covered everything from organizational decision-making to mastering communications.

Bonus! The Harvard Business Review also sends out (via a separate subscription) The Daily Stat “Facts and figures to stimulate thought – and action” which the data diva in me just loves.

Rad Resource – DailyWritingTips: When I was in college, my English teacher told me I wrote as if all composition was some portion of an instruction manual. To her credit and my relief, she conceded that it was a well-written instruction manual, but a manual nevertheless. She was not being complimentary. I have been striving to improve ever since.

This contribution is from the aea365 Tip-a-Day Alerts, by and for evaluators, from the American Evaluation Association. Please consider contributing – send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org.

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