Agricultural Communications, Purdue University
An electronic newsletter with communication tips and information

May 1999

Postmortems Mean Better Products

When you start to create an educational product, you begin by identifying your goal and your audience. Then you think about possible approaches, try one of them, and, when you're done, evaluate it to see if the approach worked, allowing you to reach your audience and achieve your goal. If it did, great! If it didn't, you've identified a new issue to look at, and another branch of the process begins.

You and your colleagues, as creators of the product, should do a "postmortem" as part of your evaluation. By doing this type of evaluation, you will be able to change your approach to future products, in turn making them more effective educationally, stronger artistically, and more easily accomplished.

That's because a postmortem focuses as much on HOW you created the project--on the approach you and your colleagues took in creating it--as on the final product itself. This evaluation process involves a few simple questions. Remember, you and your colleagues are not only looking at the final product in the terms of how it appears visually and worked educationally, you--all of you--also need to question the process that you used in creating the product.

By asking these and similar questions, the product you created and the process that you used become a great teaching tool.

In other words, a postmortem lets you learn from a finished product and encourages you to use what you've learned to enliven future products.

Cool the Anger in Summer Phone Calls

Ahhh summer. Flowers, warm weather--and heated phone calls. That's right. Summertime can bring on a rash of heated phone calls to county offices on any topic from county fair issues to land use issues.

What to do? Take control of the anger. Don't let someone else make you angry. "You own your own anger," Richard Feinberg, professor of Consumer and Family Sciences and Retailing, says in the video "Anger Diffusion and Leadership," part of the Call Center Professional Videotape Library.

It's one thing to say it and another to do it. But Feinberg adds tips to help control the anger.

Of course it helps not to take someone else's ranting and raving personally. And don't take abuse. Either end the conversation immediately, or take rational steps to shift the situation to a more positive exchange.

Feinberg's video and others in the Call Center Professional Videotape Library can be useful for offices in reviewing and discussing their own policies on customer service. They are available from Purdue University Press (1-800-933-9637).

For more on heated conversations with customers, see "Dealing with Difficult People" in the June, 1998 "On Target." Find it through the URL provided at the top of this issue.

Micromanage Microcontent

As Amy Gahran, Web designer and CEO of Content Exchange says, good writing is good writing no matter where you find it. However, she adds, each medium has unique considerations. One key point to consider for your Website is microcontent.

What's microcontent? It's all the short bits of text and design that give users a quick overview of the page. The basic categories of microcontent are:

According to Gahran, microcontent is especially important in Web writing for three reasons:

Therefore, every page in your site should provide near-instant orientation and context. Here are a few of Gahran's general principles for microcontent.

  1. Make it explanatory. Each element of your microcontent should quickly communicate the substance or significance of the associated content, ideally from the perspective of your target audience. Avoid cute, clever, or generic wording. A good test is to imagine the microcontent is the only thing visible on your page. Could users guess with reasonable accuracy what kind of information your page contains?
  2. Make it work out of context. On the Net, some key pieces of your microcontent will get passed around, displayed, and linked to in all sorts of ways you can't control, or even predict. Therefore, you should create page titles, headlines, and subheads that make a reasonable amount of sense if viewed totally on their own, beyond the context of your site. (An article by Jakob Nielsen at "" explains how.) This principle also applies to your link text. Visually, links stand out from a page like road signs. If your page is full of links that say "click here" or other such vague terms, your users will feel stranded.
  3. Keep it short. There's a reason they call it microcontent. It has to work fast, so it has to be short. The trick is to make it as short as possible without obscuring its meaning or making it awkward. Headlines and subheads should be no more than 40-60 characters. Other links ideally should be 1 to 3 words long.
  4. Don't overdo it. Good microcontent clarifies and directs. Pages with too many microcontent elements are like a busy intersection with too many road signs.

Gahran's comments are excerpted from an article in Web Site Journal ( Vol. 2, No. 15). You can subscribe to this useful on-line publication at "".

Grammar Trap: Use vs. Utilize

One difference between these two verbs is a relatively subtle, semantic one. Another has to do with style.

"Use" means to employ something for its intended or appropriate purpose.

Example: I often use suggestions from readers to determine "Grammar Trap" topics.

"Utilize" means to employ something for a new or unintended purpose, or to make do with an item meant for something else.

Examples: I often utilize the manuscripts I edit as sources of "Grammar Trap" topics. I didn't have a screw driver handy, so I utilized a knife.

So much for the semantic difference between the two words.

The style difference?

Many people seem to have gotten the idea that "utilize" is a classier, more formal version of "use." It isn't. It's just longer. And, because it's longer, it's to be avoided.

This is especially true when you're trying to reach a lay audience with material that's unfamiliar and perhaps already difficult for them to understand. Why make them work any harder than they have to? Why make your material seem more difficult than it is?

Tip: Don't write "utilize" when "use" will do. And it almost always will.

We want to hear from you.
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If so, please e-mail any of our writers or On Target's managing editor, Kevin Smith.

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