I stared writing this post by asking myself the question "How do I write a good introductory section to a communications plan?". I was asking myself this question as I:
- am involved in developing several at the moment
- expect to be involved in developing more soon
- would like to make the plans I develop as useful and effective as possible
- find that understanding better the purpose of a thing I’m involved in creating, helps me shape it to better fit this purpose, and to do this shaping more quickly (i.e. to be more effective and efficient at the process of developing a plan)
- and that once I better understand the general purpose of a thing, I am better placed to consider and understand features of the structure and content of that thing that tend to make it fulfil its purpose more effectively. I can then use this understanding to attempt to include those features and content into the version of this thing that I create
- realised I didn’t have any strong evidence-based, deeply considered opinions on the topic
- realised I found the question interesting – in particular once I started to consider it in more broad terms, for example:
- why do we write introductions in general?
- what is it that characterises beginnings in general?
- what commonalities are there between the purposes of different kinds of introductions, and their commonly-used structures when they are effective?
Given that I found relatively little advice, and no empirical studies, about the purpose and structure of introductions/initial sections of communications plans, I started to explore more generally the questions of why we write introductions, and common features of them in general – hoping, expecting, planing to extrapolate from there to better understand the purpose of the communication plan introduction, and describe common features we’d expect to find in a useful one.
As I expanded my exploration of introductions in general, I found myself also interested in issues around the question of beginnings (and endings) in general – so have also written a bit about my reflections on that question here.
Initially (counter to much of the advice I’ve read, I wrote most of the introduction before I’d finished writing the rest of the text!) my plan was to then close up the text by extrapolating what I’d come to understand about beginnings, and introductions, in general, specifically to the context of communications plans. Hopefully this would help me come up with features of an ideal, or at least useful, structure to use for them, to help me write my own plans (and perhaps you yours) more effectively and efficiently.
However, once I went down the rabbit hole of wondering, more generally, about beginnings, the text got so long that I’ve decided to stop (er, as soon as possible – I still haven’t finished at the point of writing this!) as quickly as I can, and deal with projecting what I learn here onto the specific context of communication plans in a later post.
In case you’re wondering why I keep all this content (that I expect you won’t find useful) – it’s because, currently at least, the main reason I write these blog posts, is to help order my thoughts and reading around a topic, and to provide me with a reference and description of those thoughts for the future, so I have something to come back to if I’m wanting to consider the topic again. So for me it’s valuable to keep also the text that describes how I’ve come to those statements/conclusions.
Having said that, if you are going to find anything in here useful, it’ll be in the final "Conclusion" section where I try and sum up and summarise the things I felt I learned while writing this, and which I feel are likely to usefully inform my attempts, in future posts, to describe features of a useful introduction to a communication plan.
Introducing introductions – beginning beginnings
And, yes, in case you’re wondering, I’ve noticed that the section above is an introduction (a particular kind of beginning) to a text about beginnings. And that thus the process of writing it, and examining it after I’ve finished writing it, could serve for me here as a living example of the process of crafting, and structure of, beginnings.
People who know me, in particular professionally, know that I love using the experience of creating a thing as an opportunity to reflect back on how we do it, why we do it, a chance to learn together about the thing.
But, you know what? I’m going to resist the temptation to do that here. As I think I care more about writing (and finishing off) the other parts of this text. I’m impressed at my pragmatism! 🙂
All things (really? all things? for now, I’ll just leave this assertion here – what matters to me is that this is true for all the things I’m interested in for the purpose of this blog) have beginnings and endings. Certainly the texts I’m most interested in here have beginnings and endings – for example a first word (beginning) and a last word (ending) of a novel.
How do we recognise a beginning?
Although even here, even considering this very generally, I feel I’m forced to confront the fact that (always?) there will be uncertainty and ambiguity about the specific point, the specific part of an object or thing, that actually signifies or is its "beginning" (and the same for the "end").
- does this text begin with the first word, or character? i.e.
- at what level of granularity do we consider, or want to recognise, the beginning?
- which features of the object do we want to use to recognise, describe the beginning? Rather than focusing on the words, the text, we might instead consider "the top of the piece of paper that a version of the document is printed on" as its beginning – or do we consider that it begins with the title or not?
- are we considering the text as an idea, something ephemeral, or something that exists potentially in "hard"/corporeal form
- do we refer only to the current version of the document, or previous/future
- here we are highlighting our awareness that the document is something that has exists in many forms, was produced over time; that it had many different ("incomplete") versions while being written, and potentially may have many more after it is published
Guess what? "It depends". So, deciding where/when/how a thing actually begins, where it’s beginning is, is not a trivial act, nor is there likely to ever be one answer to the general question "What is the beginning of this thing?".
I expect that the pragmatic approach to this issue is to use the way of characterising a beginning, that is most useful given the context in which the question is being asked. Not a breathtaking insight, I know… 🙂
Musing over this question, I thought of several further contexts that I found interesting, where the issue of where a thing begins, and ends, is disputable, or is examined.
"Nothing in his life Became him like the leaving it."
Macbeth Act 1, scene 4
Thinking about our lived experiences, those of beginning and ending of our lives, of birth and death, are unique.
Hm, although, having written that, I guess that in a way every moment we live, experience is unique, it’s rather that some activities and experiences are very similar to others (the act of striking the "t" key on a particular keyboard, for example), yet different (happened at a different time, finger strikes a slightly different part of the key first, pressure applied is slightly different etc.).
So, to phrase it differently, taking the above into account, there are features of birth, and death, that make them very different from most other experiences in our life – death is the last thing we ever experience and could be aware of, birth is the first time we leave our mother’s womb, etc.
However, birth and death as the beginning and ending of life, are not perhaps as clearly defined as we might initially expect. Does a new human life begin with fertilisation? with the first cell division of the fertilised egg? with birth? at some point between? These, and related, issues are an important part of some of the debates around the legality of abortion. In the same way, when are we considered to be dead? In a fascinating discussion with Halldor Stefanson (an anthropologist whose research focused on the anthropology of death and death rituals in Japan), I heard about the impact of different definitions and cultures surrounding death on issues around organ donation – some of these issues are discussed in this article "Individual choice in the definition of death" by Bagheri.
At the same time, there is, I expect, for many (most?) people an understanding that a given human life (at least their life on earth – i.e. not including the "eternal life" i.e. life after death that is part of the Christian ethos) is something that begins (at some point) and ends (at another point). And things, and experiences, and responsibilities, and rights, and many other things, are different for the person who’s life it is, depending on whether or not it has started yet, or has started but not yet ended, or has ended.
Thus, considering how we think about a human life, and its ending and beginning (something we can hopefully all relate to as being valuable), highlights the uncertainties associated with specifying when it begins, or ends, and something about why, or how, specifying this can be important.
This question of "Where does a thing begin?" also remind me of Umberto Eco’s "The Name of the Rose", or Mark Z. Danielewski’s "House of Leaves" in which the authors deliberately present the reader with several different possible "beginnings" to their novels – this blog post by Kit Whitfield specifically addresses the topic of the multiple beginnings of "The Name of the Rose". These novels give the reader a lens through which to consider and reflect on how we define, and recognise, beginnings – and why, or whether, it might be important for us to recognise this point.
"Choose your own adventure" books
Another example of a context in which the beginning, and end, of a novel may be difficult to specify unambiguously are in the "Choose your own adventure" style books – literature in which the book contains a set of sections which the reader navigates their way through in an order specified by their own decisions, and sometimes also as the result of external factors (such as the result of dice rolls). Typically these have a clear "first section" – but multiple, and potentially different when the book is read/experienced different times, endings.
A similar situation (multiple – potentially infinite – different possible endings, the one that will be experienced not being known when the experience is begun) is the case, I expect, for many "interactive" experiences – for example games (board, computer, and other), improvisational theatre, dance, music.
Reflecting further, I’m also reminded of how different it is for me to experience starting reading a novel that is part of a series of books that are somehow linked – shared location, characters, storyline/narrative – and where I have already read previous books in that series – and starting a book that either doesn’t have, or I haven’t read, earlier ones in the series.
When I have already read a book in the series, then the introduction/beginning has to work less hard to get me to continue reading the book. I think this is because I no longer need to invest effort in getting to know, build a mental image and model of the main characters – and because, if I’m reading a second book in the series, it is very likely that I enjoyed the previous one, and liked the characters enough to want to "spend more time with them".
When I start a book, where I haven’t previous experienced a book in the same series (whether there is one or not), then it’s more effort for me to "get into" (start to care about, build interesting, useful, fun, accurate images of the characters, locations, etc. in the book).
Thus, when an author writes a second (or later) book in a series, they may well be aware that at the start of that book, they may have two different kinds of reader – one who already knows the characters etc., one who doesn’t – and shape the beginning to fit both audiences i.e. to get them both to continue reading, if they are likely to be someone who will enjoy, or benefit from, the process of reading the book.
Clearly, these issues are also relevant to any "serial" medium (film, television, radio, etc.).
I think that, in the above, I first thought about, and wrote about, books, as it’s more common for me that I pick up, start, and then put down a book, based on how I respond to the first pages/chapters of it, than it is I do the same for film or TV.
However, I think my relationship with TV programs is now very different from 20 years ago – I now consume almost all of the ones I watch via on-demand streaming, or via DVD. Thus, I no longer sit in front of the TV, flicking between channels, being presented with what happens to be on offer, at whatever point it is through its transmission, on the TV.
This reminds me of something I read about the TV show Elementary (something of a favourite of mine) written in the Onion AV Club (can’t find the article at the moment). This article highlighted how the series is shown on TV in a context where it is regularly interrupted by commercial breaks. And that this puts a pressure on the show, to be able to both remind the viewer who was watching before the break, what happened previously – and to hook in anyone who was switching channels during the breaks, didn’t see the previous
i.e. the beginning of the immediately-post-break segment aims to provide the viewer with the context they need to be able to quickly understand what happens next, and to start enjoying it more quickly.
I suspect that, when it comes to "shaped" or "crafted" (i.e. by humans) beginnings, this is a common feature i.e. one of their aims is to provide context to the consumer, in a way that makes the rest of the content easier to understand, more interesting, more engaging – i.e. providing information that makes it easier to process what comes after the beginning.
Memory and learning
In presentations and learning experiences, I’ve been told that evidence indicates that we remember better those things associated with beginnings and endings of activities in the learning experience, rather than what is experienced in the middle.
Ah, Wikipedia describes this as the "Serial position effect"
"Serial position effect is the tendency of a person to recall the first and last items in a series best, and the middle items worst."
i.e. our (perception?) of whether we are at the beginning or the end of a thing has an impact on how well we remember it. Another example of the impact of recognising, telegraphing, and shaping our experiences around beginnings and endings.
I’m also reminded of the films by Stan Douglas, such as Journey into Fear. In this, and other films, the artist shows the footage in a loop, designed for the viewer to begin watching it at any point. Dialogue clips in the film are randomly ordered by a computer. There is deliberately no "sense" in choosing to start watching the film at a particular point. In a way, it is designed not to have a beginning.
It’s also a great work – I loved it!
What is the difference between a beginning and an ending?
I wrote earlier in this post, that I’d assume that all things, at least of the kind I’m interested in for this post, have beginnings and endings.
However, thinking about that again, while I feel reasonably comfortable with that assertion in terms of "all of the kinds of events, activities, or objects I’m interested in here have a temporal beginning and ending" (i.e. their existence begins with a switch from not-existing to existing, and ends with a switch back from existing to not-existing), there are many things that might be considered not to have a "physical" beginning. For example, where does a circle begin or end? Or a piece of string? It has two "ends" – but which "end" is the "beginning", and which is the "end"?
I suspect that the "beginnings" and "endings" I’m interested in here (the beginning and ending of a communication plan, or other document or artefact created by humans, with the intention of it being in some way experienced by other humans – "read" in the case of a communications plan, "watched" for a television documentary, "played" for a computer game) refer to the intended, or anticipated, part of the artefact at which the consumer will start (for the beginning – or stop, for the ending) to engage with the artefact.
Thus, these "beginning" and "endings" are understood in the context of a process of consumption by a human – a process that we expect to involve experiencing the "thing" (i.e. that which has a beginning and ending, that which has been crafted by a human, to be experienced or consumed by another human) in a particular order or sequence. Indeed, thinking about beginnings and endings of things in terms of processes is not restricted to crafted things – a single-stranded mRNA molecule has two chemically different "ends", but which is the "beginning", and which is the "end" of the molecule? One answer to that would be to consider processes (of translation, or transcription) associated with the molecule, and to consider the part of the molecule associated with the initial moments of the process to be the beginning, and the parts of the molecule associated with the final moments of the process to be the end. Thus, the beginning and end would vary, depending on the "direction" in which the process being considered begins to interact with the molecule.
However, to return to crafted experiences, and wanting to understand how to craft an effective beginning, or introduction, to these experiences, relevant features of these beginnings are that:
- they are crafted (e.g. shaped, designed, written, built) deliberately by humans, to be experienced (e.g. read, listened to, watched, played, danced) by other humans
- they are associated with crafted experiences, that the crafter expects will have a beginning (a moment at which the consumer begins to engage with, to "experience", the experience – associated with some component or part of the artefact associated with that moment e.g. the sentence of a book, the title of an article, the first movements of a choreography) and an ending (a moment at which the engagement of the the consumer ends)
- the person/people crafting the experience make decisions about how it will be crafted, that impact the way the consumer begins their experience
The above text has wandered (and wondered) around a bunch of topics, without a strong "red thread".
So what did I, at least, take away from the experience of putting the text together – what are the things I want to keep in mind when I move on from this general discussion of "beginnings" towards putting together specific suggestions on how to build effective beginnings as part of a text (in particular for communication plans)?
- there is usually (always) ambiguity about where the actual beginning of something is, what the features are that characterise a beginning of that thing
- there is a difference between an ending and beginning of a thing only where there are time-oriented processes associated with the thing
- the beginning is the point or moment in the thing, at which the process begins its interaction with it
- if different processes interact with the thing, "beginning" their interaction in different parts of the thing, then we have an example of the ambiguity of identifying beginnings and endings.
- for experiences that we are able to decide to end, ourselves, when we want, then what we initially experience, the benefit we get from it, likely has a large impact on whether or not we choose to continue experiencing it
- when we are involved in shaping the beginning of an experience (e.g. writing a TV show) then something we typically include at the beginning of the experience, is information on the context in which what follows can be better understood – as this makes it easier to consume, enjoy, extract further useful information from the experience
To further summarise the above into things I think are key to remember for developing these ideas further:
- the beginnings (and things) I’m interested in developing (communication plans, but also many other things) are associated with being experienced by people, as part of a process – this makes it potentially useful to consider:
- how do I expect them to experience it (watching, listening, reading, dancing, playing)?
- do they have a choice about whether or not they experience this thing? If they do, why would I expect they would choose to allocate their scarce time resources to experiencing it? What do they hope to get out of the experience?
- it is important for me to consider why I’m choosing to spend my scarce resources producing this thing – once I understand those better, I can try and shape the beginning (and the rest of it!) to achieve those as effectively and efficiently as possible
I guess it should be no surprise to me, that the above basically comes down to describe and understand why:
- other people might want to do use/experience this thing, what they hope they will get from doing that (i.e. know your audience)
- I want to make this thing, what I hope to achieve with it
Maybe next time I notice I’m asking myself "What would be a good structure to follow to do this thing well?" I’ll start off by knowing that these are the questions I need to ask.
However, to be more positive about the effort I put into writing the above – I think the answers to those questions are often (for me at least) not obvious at first glance, and that reading around, and thinking about the topic, can improve the utility of the answers I give to those questions. And I certainly now have a deeper, more considered, set of thoughts and ideas around what it is to "begin" something now.
P.S. incidentally, another topic I was interested in but decided to not burrow into in the interests of time was ‘When does a beginning "end"?’ i.e. what are features of the experience that indicate it has passed from an initial "beginning" phase, into a "main body" (or perhaps already into the "ending") of the experience. Maybe I’ll look into that some other time…