Procedures That Get Read (Part 3)

I  am pleased to report that when I published Part 1 of this series, the good folks at Word Press congratulated me on reaching the 50-post plateau in my blogging career. It applauded me for “reaching my goal.” I do not ever remember setting a goal. I only endeavor to discuss instructional communication and encourage writers, trainers and managers in their efforts to maximize the quality of their organizations’ performance.

Okay, you aren’t here to read me prattle on about my blogging achievement, so let me get back to discussing attractive procedures.

Photographs are another wonderful enhancement to procedures, for the obvious reasons. And with the technology we have today, inserting photos into a document has never been easier. It was a mere 15 years ago when I had to do the following to insert a photo (black and white, of course) into a procedure:

1. Pull out the SLR camera (loaded with black and white film) and take the required pictures.

2. Take the completed film roll to the developer (how wonderful to be able to drop the film off at 11:00 a.m., go get lunch and return for my prints at 1:00 p.m!).

3. Using the best copier in the house, print an enlarged version of the photo.

4. Cut the photo out and place it into its required location in the procedure (hitting “enter” as many times as necessary to create the white space in the procedure).

5. Create a separate document that includes the caption and any labels I wish to apply to the picture.

6. Tape the picture, labels and caption to the procedure page, in the white space created in step 4).

7. Insert the page into its place in the procedure.

Give thanks that it is so much simpler today, with pictures taken digitally and inserted directly into the electronic version of the document. And in color!

Photographs in a procedure can enhance the descriptions and make the procedure more effective. Photographs can also disrupt a procedure and serve the opposite purpose. It all depends on how they are used.

Some key rules on the use of photographs:

1. Photographs should always supplement, never replace, the word descriptions in a procedure. I am sure you have heard it said, “a picture speaks 1,000 words.” If true, the odds that the picture speaks the same 1,000 words to two different people are astronomical. As the writer, I must control the context in which the procedure is interpreted (I need to control the 1,000 words being spoken by the picture.)

2. Every photograph should have an instructional value.  For example, if I write a procedure on operating a mixer, placing a picture of the mixer near the beginning of the procedure and captioning it, “This is the mixer,” I may have simply wasted space. Now in some cases, a photo of the mixer to differentiate it from other mixers may have value. You are the writer; it’s your call.

3. Use photographs for appropriate subjects. By this, I mean that photographs are two-dimensional. As a result, the best objects displayed in photographs are also two-dimensional. Control panels and software screens, for example, are excellent subjects for photographs (or screen captures in the latter case). In many cases, a three-dimensional object displayed in a two-dimensional photo can confuse the reader. And photographs are rarely helpful when describing step-by-step activities. Photos have the disadvantage of being stationary. If you desire to show a step-by-step procedure, create a video.

4. Make sure the reader knows why the photo is there. This is accomplished in two ways:

4a. The most obvious is the caption that accompanies the photo. The caption should not just identify a component or control, but to some degree reiterate the information on the component or control within the text of the procedure. (A caption should never include information that is not within the procedure text, though it need not include the entire description found in the procedure text.)

4b. When a picture of a machine component is taken, in nearly every case there are other objects competing for the reader’s attention in the photo. In some cases, these can be reduced or eliminated by cropping the picture. But cropping tends to remove the context of the component (i.e., where it is in relation to other components or controls). The use of arrows, boxes, circles or labels allows the writer to highlight the particular feature being highlighted in the photo. In some cases, an inset photo (providing an up-close look at a component) can be included with the main photo, so that both a contextual view and a detail (close-up) view can be provided side-by-side.

5. Too many photographs can severely impact the procedure’s effectiveness. For one, too many photos add length (pages) to a procedure, making the procedure longer and appear more foreboding to the reader. Too many photos disrupt the flow of the writing. I have seen procedures where three lines of a procedure were followed by a large photograph, followed by two more lines, another photograph, etc. In some cases, it was difficult to see that a line of procedure existed between the photos.

Photographs can be a great benefit to the procedure reader. They can enhance the words and increase understanding. The key is to use pictures only in a manner that supports the written description of the equipment or process.

In some cases, photographs may not be the best means to illustrate equipment. In Part 4, we will discuss the use of diagrams to support equipment descriptions.

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About Tim James "Mr. Procedure"

A communicator; all-purpose capability in writing, designing and presenting training for all facets of organizational function. While my focus has been manufacturing, my training/development experience includes supervisory and lead person development, audit processes, continuous improvement and Lean, and Quality Management System implementation.
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