For companies, effective reading should be a fundamental employee skill. It only makes economic sense. Yet, it is overlooked and neglected.
At work, we need to read effectively, i.e., our reading must produce the desired result. It must help us directly, like when we read an email that requests something from us and we reply accurately and precisely. Or, it must help us indirectly, like when we have to refer to different sources to write a report.
Here’s what effective readers do when they read:
They gather information:
- The who, what, when, where and how
- What is fact and what is opinion
- Determine the meaning of a new word based on context
They quickly grasp what is stated:
- What is the single idea of the piece?
- How is the author supporting his thoughts?
- How are sentences and paragraphs organised for impact on the reader?
They understand what is not stated:
- Is the author being rude, angry, hopeful, indifferent, or critical?
- What conclusions does the author want the reader to draw?
Schools do their best to introduce the skill to us – they call it reading comprehension. Once we leave school, it needs to be taken to the next level in college and beyond. Unless we read for pleasure or study literature, that doesn’t happen.
We join the work force and encounter this situation: we send someone an email requesting information and what we receive is incomplete, inaccurate, or not what we asked for. We then spend time and effort to follow up with further emails or calls to get what we want. The reason this happens? The reader or the writer or both are not effective readers.
Here’s what effective readers become:
- Result-oriented writers – they write with the reader in mind
- Efficient and more productive workers – they save their company’s time and money
- Better communicators and consequently, better leaders
Companies should train their employees to be effective readers. Not only does it have a cascading effect on written and spoken communication, it also improves efficiency and morale within an organisation, and impacts the company’s bottom line. Effective readers make economic sense.
We are all writers now and we are writing on screens. We create email, tweets, blogs, business correspondence, reports, etc. As a writer, you should know that visual perception and graphic design plays an important part in keeping your reader engaged. Graphic designers know the significance of Gestalt principles in their work. To a writer, the most relevant aspect of graphic design is this:
“When human beings see a group of objects, we perceive their entirety before we see the individual objects … and even when the parts are entirely separate entities, we’ll look to group them as some whole.” (read more here)
This means your readers look at and process blocks of text in front of them even before they start to read. They are looking for patterns. If they can’t establish a visual logic and connectivity in what they are looking at, they may lose interest in your piece of writing. Or worse – they may read it and not understand the point you are trying to make.
So how can you pay attention to the graphic design aspect to keep your reader engaged? Here’s a checklist of design principles and how they apply to written text:
Balance: The visual weight of objects within your written piece
- Is there a balance between the text space, white space, and images?
- Have you divided the text using sub-headings or section headings?
- Are your paragraphs too large (imagine your reader scrolling on a cell phone)?
- Is your spacing between paragraphs uniform?
Proximity: How items are grouped and spaced
- Are your one-line paragraphs looking like disjointed thoughts. Connect them to make paragraphs or use bullets.
- Are images placed close to the text they are connected to?
- For a list or a set of instructions, can you use bullet points instead of a paragraph?
Alignment: Keep objects in line with one another
- Are your bullets and tabs properly aligned throughout your document?
- Are your images uniformly aligned throughout your document?
- In a table is all the text left aligned, right aligned, or centred? Are the numbers and decimal points aligned?
Repetition: Tie the design together by creating a rhythm throughout your document
- Are your paragraphs of the same size?
- Do your sub-headings or section headings match in terms of typeface (Arial, Times Roman, etc), style (bold, italics, etc.), and size (10, 12, 18, etc.)
- Do all your images have captions?
Contrast: Create distinction by drawing attention to differences
- Can one single idea or a key takeaway of your piece be represented in a quote, a box, or a sidebar?
- Are you using different fonts, font sizes, or styles to show a distinction between your headings and text?
White Space: Use blank space in and around your text to create elegance and help the reader focus
- Do you have margins around your text and images?
- Should you change your line-spacing?
- Ask yourself: “If the reader scrolls will he/she see enough white space?”
Keep it Simple: Less is more
- Does anything in your piece distract the reader – too much colour, too may gifs?
- Can you use fewer words to explain an idea?
- Will a picture, a graphic, or a table work better than a paragraph of text?
Writers write to share, to inspire, to coerce, and to connect. It is crucial that their readers are paying attention. Graphic design goes a long way in making that happen.
Mumbai made the headlines on August 29th when it received 11 times the average daily monsoon rainfall for the city, in 12 hours. According to this IndiaSpend report, other Indian cities have also suffered in August. Chandigarh on August 21st received 23 times that city’s average monsoon daily rainfall. Bengaluru received 37 times its daily average on August 15th, and Agartala on August 11-12 received 11 times its daily average. In fact, South Asia has had so much flooding this monsoon season that the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) says it is becoming one of the worst regional humanitarian crises in years.
Heavy rainfall and floods are an annual occurrence in this region. In fact, because we experience flooding every year, it is the one ‘disaster’ by which the average citizen can judge how disasters are managed in this country. Let me say, that in Mumbai at least, we haven’t seen any improvement in disaster management over the years. That’s because you can only manage a disaster if you prepare for it.
So what is ‘Disaster Preparedness’? To me, as a citizen, my city’s disaster preparedness means that I have answers to questions that arise in the event of a disaster – answers both on paper and on the ground. Some of those questions may be:
- How will I be alerted of an impending emergency/disaster?
- How can I prepare for it in my home?
- During the emergency/disaster whom do I contact in case I need the assistance of any kind – evacuation, food, water, medicines, missing persons/pets?
- In case of a power outage, how do I alert authorities that I need help?
- Where in my locality can I go for refuge/food/medical assistance?
- How can I volunteer or donate?
- What is being done to ensure that I get clean water post the disaster?
- What are the steps being taken to prevent the spread of disease after the disaster?
- Are there expenses that I incur that will be reimbursed for by the government?
- What is the assistance I will get from the government to rebuild my home and my business?
I can certainly get organized and have answers to some of these questions at an individual or local community level. However, the scale of some disasters (or emergencies) in terms geography and the number of people affected requires contribution across the center, state and local levels. I’m not even speaking of funding, which is a must. I’m talking of organizational infrastructure.
No National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) presence felt: Let me use the Mumbai flooding on August 29th to explain my point. By the time authorities like the Mumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) or the Police started alerting people about the heavy showers that were expected, commuters were already at the office or on their way to work. On Twitter, while the Mumbai Police sent alerts about the most flooded areas, warnings to stay indoors, etc. and the railway authorities sent alerts on local trains services, the NDMA sent pictures of its do’s and don’ts. It is important information but definitely not adequate from the NDMA in a crisis. It was left to citizens, small businesses, and local community groups to organize shelter and food the night for stranded commuters, and to communicate that information across the city. There were no signs that a disaster management plan had been put into gear by the NDMA – no press conference, no status updates, no talk of relief centers, no indication that there was any coordination with agencies like the Police or the BMC or hospitals.
NDMA versus FEMA: The flooding in Mumbai happened while Hurricane Harvey battered Houston, Texas in the United States. This allowed for comparisons between how a developing country handles disasters versus how a developed country handles them. The first thing that a citizen would do in such a crisis is to look for information. One quick scan of the National Disaster Management Authority website reveals that is clearly for government bureaucrats. It contains information on plans, policies, training, budgets, etc. For an agency that is meant to provide assistance to citizens, it is ironic that information for citizens is relegated to a section called Citizens Corner in which the only thing of value is a do’s and don’ts list and an emergency kit list. Other than that, there is a helpline number flashing on the home page, with a Delhi area code. With the exception of the ‘alert’ ticker, the website is for all practical purposes, static.
If you go to the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website, it first shows you a page with a link to ‘find up-to-date resources and information on the federal response to Harvey’ (Between writing this piece and publishing it, the link has been updated to ‘information on returning home and cleaning up’. That’s how regularly updated the site is).
The ‘up-to-date resources’ link took you to all the information you would need about Harvey including emergency contact numbers, links to organizations helping with rescue and relief, links for donations and volunteering, etc. There was even a number you could call to report price gouging if someone was spiking up the prices of goods and services in an emergency. The FEMA website also has a link to another site called disasterassistance.gov. Its overview section says “Our goal is to improve survivor access to disaster information and make applying for disaster assistance easier. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), acts as the managing partner.”
Most of the work in managing a disaster is done in preparing for the eventuality that it will happen somewhere, i.e. assuming the probability of the disaster, without knowing where and when it will occur. It is clear by watching news reports on Harvey and browsing through their website that FEMA succeeds in disaster management because they focus on disaster preparedness. You can’t have one without the other.
So how can we begin to be prepared? Please note that in my list below when I use ‘we’ I refer to every level – individual (the citizen), local, state and central:
- We need a change in mindset from being reactive to being proactive. Trying to solve a problem when it’s at your doorstep can lead to a waste of time, energy, money and lives.
- The citizen’s needs and expectations need to be at the center of all disaster preparedness and disaster management plans, much like the customer is the focal point of a business.
- We need to train a lot of people on the ground. In a country like India where the population density is high (382 persons per sq. km. as per the 2011 census) and the infrastructure is non-existent or inadequate, citizens in every locality need to take care of themselves till more help arrives. To do that they have to be trained. There should be mandatory training for all citizens in the basics of first aid, fire safety, etc.; and any citizen volunteers should be trained in putting the disaster management plan into action. The more people know what they need to do in a crisis, the better the results in managing that crisis.
Finally, I started this piece by talking about the flood situation in India. It was an example of one type of disaster. Let me take you back to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) website and the ‘Citizens Corner’ section on the left of the homepage. The ‘natural disasters’ list includes floods, urban floods, landslides, cyclones, heat waves, tsunamis, and earthquakes – most of them, climate change related. Under ‘man-made disasters’ the list is blank. Go figure. We’ve got a long, long way to get to a state of preparedness.
It’s official. India’s job growth has slowed down and people are starting to worry. If you’re like me, when you found that one thing that you could do well you kept doing it for a number of years, without considering what else you could do. Maybe now is a good time to start exploring options.
Thoughts create things. So here are a couple of thoughts on creating more job options:
Pay attention to your ‘taken-for-granted’ skills and strengths: It is part of your standard introduction to state your designation and a list of five things you do every day as part of your job. But, in focusing on the big picture (and to make what you do easily understood by everyone else) you may have slotted yourself and overlooked other things you use to do your job well – your cognitive skills and soft skills. I worked in Human Resources (HR) for eleven years and found out: that though I liked HR, I liked processes and operations better; that I had the ability to connect the big picture to finer details; that I could problem-solve, anticipate bottlenecks and view an issue from all sides; and that I had organizational skills, and written and verbal communication skills. I’m no longer in HR and these skills that I discovered are now front and centre on the assignments I work on.
To discover your ‘taken-for-granted’ skills pay attention to the ‘little help’ that people come to you for. As you go about your day, are there parts of your job that you call ‘smaller tasks’ that put you in the zone and make you forget the rest of the world? Explore them further by finding more uses for those skills – either at your current job or as a side hustle.
Learn to work with your hands: I haven’t done it myself … yet, but I see merits in this. Most of us work at our desks for long hours. It does not leave us time to create with our hands. But think about this – chefs, bakers, artists, seamstresses, hairstylists, etc. are always in demand. So are skilled mechanics (just ask vintage-bike collectors), carpenters and electricians. There is a ‘je ne sais quoi’ uniqueness to their jobs that cannot be replicated. That’s why you agonize over who to hire when your car has to be repaired or your house needs new concealed wiring.
If like me, you don’t think you can create anything with your hands, please go back to the part where I said, “thoughts create things”. If you have ever relished a good creamy pastry or admired a unique piece of furniture, know that working with your hands is an alternative you can explore. I know… you’re thinking that the only thing you can do is fold paper. Then take a look at what origami artist Ross Symons does for a living. It’s true it takes time to learn a skill, maybe years, but isn’t it worth it to have an option B for a career?
Having a bigger basket of skills – either by recognizing every skill you have or by learning new ones – is the best way to increase your chances of finding the work you deserve.
To a school student composition means an essay. While that is one of the definitions of composition, the one I like is this – a creative work, or the action or art of producing a creative work – with the stress on ‘creative’.
Composition is very much part of the curriculum in schools but the ‘creative’ bit is brushed aside. Sometimes compositions are dictated. At other times, samples of compositions provided for reference are reproduced by students verbatim.
Composition and original works are dreaded in our school system because they requires students to pause, think and reflect, gather information, find the right words, express their opinion, and all that just takes too long to get the essay/letter/curriculum done.
Everything is improved when kids write their own essays. As they learn to express themselves on paper they are working on comprehension, grammar, spelling, vocabulary, sentence construction and structure of the text. Original essays written for English class start having a ripple effect elsewhere as better answers are written in Geography, History, Science, etc. Better writing also leads to better elocution. Overall there is less rote learning and less rote expression.
However, remember English composition is a subject taught only till Class 10. Students have just ten years to learn it, but they will continue to use it for the rest of their academic and professional lives – in email, in letters and notes, in business meetings, at presentations, on stage, at conferences and in speeches. As such, it is the first expression of creativity and independence in a student’s life and should be valued accordingly.
For parents and teachers who want to encourage better composition, here’s how I tackle it during the English classes I take. I pay attention to what is required by the school curriculum in terms of structure for an essay or a letter. For example while writing a letter to a municipal authority or the police: I make sure my students understand the structure of the letter (where the date, address, salutation, etc. should appear). I explain the format of the body – 3 paragraphs consisting of – introduction of the problem, stating the impact of the problem and what response is required from the authority.
Then we list real-life complaints like badly lit streets, potholes, chain snatching incidents, etc. Once students realise that they need to write from their own experience or imagination, original thought takes over. We spend 5 to 10 minutes discussing points for inclusion in the letter and the students spend 10 to 15 minutes in writing the letter independently. Suddenly composition starts to become less of a chore. Practice is vital of course, so periodically at least three letters or essays are written independently of each type.
All parents rightly dream of their children making a difference in the world, by working on weighty issues; fighting for a cause; inspiring, educating and instructing others. Those dreams require being able to express yourself in your own words, in writing and in speech. We need to recognize that the training and practice for all that happens in composition class in school.