Sunday, 21 May 2017

Who wants a history lesson? Well, sometimes we do

EVERY significant moment in our lives becomes background sometime in our future. Winning a key business proposal becomes background to our elevation to the board. The launch of a new product becomes background in our company's stock market flotation. Winning an industry award becomes the stepping stone to an OBE.

Background is often useful in understanding a big picture, but it's rarely the most important thing we want to express once we've moved on from that experience.

When you overdose a document with background you think is vital to understanding the big picture, your readers are likely to bin it.

So how do we use background information constructively?

The trick is to recognise the difference between 'essential context' and 'interesting background' and to use them at different points in your document.

Here's an example from The Guardian's business section.

1,100 Jones Bookmaker jobs at risk as private equity deal collapses

JONES Bootmaker is expected to call in administrators on Friday in a move that will put more than 1,100 jobs as risk. 
The shoe retailer, which employs 1,145 people, has nearly 100 stores and a handful of concessions in department stores. It is understood to be close to going under after a deal with a private equity firm collapsed. 
Jones's difficulties came... (the story continues for several paragraphs, until the final one...) 
Jones has humble beginnings. The business was launched in 1857 by Alfred Jones and his wife Emma who opened their first store in Bayswater, west London, before expanding nationwide. The Bayswater store opened from 8am to 8pm, and until midnight on Saturdays, while the pair looked after 11 sons and three daughters.
The second paragraph is essential context. It gives us the scale of what's about to happen and the immediate reason why the company is taking it's next step. It tells us why we should think of this as an important business story.

It's the second paragraph because we don't want readers to wait long for this context. But it's not so important that we need to start with it.

The final paragraph, a snapshot of the company's history. counts as interesting background. If we don't have room to use this, we can cut it and lose nothing that stops us understanding the company's move into administration — the main focus of the story.

Sometimes we can offer background in a trickle, instead of a lump. Here is another example from The Guardian.

Jaeger collapses into administration putting 680 jobs at risk

Fashion chain Jaeger has collapsed into administration, putting 680 jobs at risk.
The brand, which dressed Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe in its heyday, had been trying to find a buyer to keep its 46 stores going, but its owner threw in the towel on Monday and appointed administrators.
The private equity owner, which dates back to 1884, has appointed administrators at Alix Partners after proving unable to find a buyer for a suggested price of £30m.
If we take out the coloured text, we would still grasp the essence of the announcement while losing some interesting background. And that's the key to understanding the role of background and where we want to place it in our document.

What do we lose if we leave information out? 

If the answer is nothing, you can tuck it away at the end of your piece or cut it.

If the answer is that we'd lose important context, find a place for the information in your second paragraph. But keep it brief and tightly expressed.

Forget about the timeline of events and tackle the essential points you want to make. Only then will you find the right way to tackle background.

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