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How to Communicate More Effectively
Be sure to apply the three fundamental rules test.
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 by Dr. Thomas Klipstine
University of South Carolina

Thomas KlipstineA basic principle in developing any written communication is when content is developed in a user friendly format and adjusted to meet the needs of the consumer, readability increases and message effectiveness is enhanced.

In writing for today's electronic medium, key factors in developing and formatting content can be basically boiled down to what I believe are three fundamental principles or rules for electronic content. If these rules are followed and applied to material developed for electronic distribution, content will become user friendly and messages will be more effective. Based on various usability studies and writing research my three rules are:

The Three Fundamental Rules

Rule 1 - Reduce Written Content by 50 Percent
Users read content slower from a computer screen when compared to a paper based document so material prepared for electronic distribution should be reduced by as much as 50 percent when compared to a typical paper based document and the overall content should be as brief as possible

Rule 2 - Do Not Use Large Chunks of Text
In any electronic document or Web page, users do not like to scroll through documents or see large chunks of text so the average paragraph should not exceed 50 words

Rule 3 - Use Hypertext, Headings, Highlights, Bulleted Lists
Users tend to scan written material and do not read electronic content word for word so material should be developed in chunks of information with easy to find headings, highlights, bulleted list and hyperlinks

Of the three rules outlined, the third principle, which I consider the most important aspect of writing for the electronic medium, is unfortunately the one that is overlooked the most. A recent study of on-line public relations documents posted for electronic distribution on Web sites found that:

  • Less than half, 43 percent, used headings or subheads in the text;

  • Only 17 percent used bulleted information in the text;

  • Only 14 percent contained bold highlights; and

  • Hypertext was used in 34 percent of on-line documents.

The study also found that public relations material developed for electronic distribution is actually growing in size and is not being reduced as noted in rule number one. An example is that the study found that the average electronic news release contains some 568 words compared to the "rule of thumb" 500 words (two pages) for a paper based release. In addition, the study noted that the average paragraph in a news release is 55 words.

The analysis clearly shows electronic content is not being developed according to the basic rules and principles for electronic writing. It also tells us that as a profession we are reluctant to abandon our paper based bias and embrace the techniques necessary for effective electronic communications.

To see if your electronic content is user friendly, simply answer these seven questions:

The Three Fundamental Rules Test:

      1. Have I used any extra words or sentences that are not necessary?
      2. Is my average paragraph approximately 50 words?
      3. Did I use any headings or subheads in the text?
      4. Could any information be presented in a bulleted format?
      5. Would the use of bold print or other highlights enhance key points?
      6. Should any information be linked to other documents?
      7. Is my work mechanically excellent?

The bottom line is basically if you want to get out of the "paper based stone age" and make your electronic material more user friendly and enhance your message effectiveness, your focus in developing electronic content should include the Three Fundamental Rules for effective written communications.

Thomas Klipstine is an assistant professor of public relations at 
the University of South Carolina. Prior to teaching, Klipstine spent some 
25 years in corporate communications with the General Motors Corporation. 
He can be reached at

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