How to do Effective Online Public Engagement when you need to Tell (Part 1)

This selection comes from the upcoming book, Online Public Engagement, due out in 2016 from Routledge Press.  This section uses the framework for understanding different types of public engagement that I laid out in an earlier chapter, summed up as Tell, Ask, Discuss, Decide, and talks about how to do effective Telling-style public engagement in an online context, such as sharing background information or proposed alternatives that are being considered.

You can learn more about the Wise Economy Workshop’s strategy for doing more effective public engagement — whether online or in real life — in Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).  


Most Telling public engagement focuses on conveying information to a general public audience.  For in-person public engagement, Telling typically tends to take the form of lecture-style presentations illustrated with slides of maps and bullet points, accompanied by printed handouts that may be one-page summaries or simply print-outs of the presentation.  In an online context, Telling public engagement often consists of text descriptions, PDFs of reports (or the same slildes as were shown at the public meeting), maps, etc.

Both the online- and offline versions of this type of Telling public engagement may meet the project or legal minimum requirements of making the factual information available, but they do so poorly and in a manner that few people are likely to consume or make sense of. Not only do poor Telling methods negate the intent of the engagement (building awareness and understanding of the facts, options, analysis etc. surrounding a public need),  but they can create additional suspicion or distrust on the part of the public, which may believ that the agency is intentionally trying to make the information difficult to understand. This tendency may be likely to increase as people become accustomed to more sophisticated and visual presentations of information from media sources and marketers.

The reasons why this style of Telling public engagement is particularly ineffective in online public engagement stems from many of the issues we discussed in Chapter 3: established knowledge about how people learn and deal with information; changes in communication technology and users’ assumptions resulting from the rise of digital media; and the increasing diversity of the participants that we need to include in public processes.  These and other trends indicate the increasing ineffectiveness of lecture-based in-person public engagement, as well as long-form written communications in a digital format.

Good Telling public engagement is crucial to any public project and to any public engagement effort that intends to build higher level engagement, since we increasingly strive to understand existing conditions and project considerations in a comprehensive manner and seek to avoid creating the kinds of inintended negative impacts that public projects have too often engendered.  As a result, every online public engagement strategy, whether primarily focused on Telling or endeavoring to build a base of knowledge to enable a different kind of engagement, needs to convey relevant project information in a format that will be fully accessible to viewers in a digital format.  Here are some specific tactics to consider:

Text designed for internet consumption.  Recent studies back up what many of us have discovered in our own lives: reading long blocks of text in a digital format is for many people a more difficult and less appealing task than reading the same length of text in a book or other printed material.  Online format readers have been consistently shown to favor short pieces (hence Medium’s decision to estimate reading time on entries), concise statements and short paragraphs, and they have less compunction than print readers about leaving a passage of text before finishing it if the passage does not seem to promise a payoff proportionate to its length.  While some writers trained in more traditional formats may grumble that this trend reflects a lack of attention span, it could be alternatively interpreted as a sign that readers have higher expectations for clarity and directness, and less tolerance for impersonal passive language, florid showing off, or inability to get to the point than they may have had in generations past.  In either case, however, the public agency’s tendency to long, abstract, jargon-filled prose fits about as badly with an online format as an Elizabethan philosophical diatribe.

To present written information effectively in an online format, one should:

  • Write in short paragraphs, typically less than four sentences, and often as short as one.
  • Avoid the typical impersonal bureaucrat voice (“The City believes that”) in favor of sounding like a collection of humans (“We believe that”)
  • Avoid the passive tense (“the schedule has been set”) and use the active tense (“We set the schedule”)
  • Avoid jargon or, if a certain technical term is necessary, define it — not in a footnote or in an appendix, but in a call-out text box next to the paragraph where the word occurs, or in a “hover” box that appears when the reader places the cursor over the word and then vanishes when the cursor moves away.
  • Organize the information that you need to share with the public in the style of an journalist’s inverted pyramid, not the way you would write a traditional report. Journalists put the most important information into the first paragraph of the story – the lead paragraph gives the overview of the subject matter, an explanation of its importance, and any other critical information, and then subsequent paragraphs fill in details that add to the basic understanding that was established in the first paragraph.  The farther down the page you read in a traditional journalist’s article, the less crucial the information is to understanding the topic (this is because editors who have page or word count constraints will typically cut from the bottom). Place only the first section of information on the site’s landing page or at the top, most visible and accessible level of the site, and make that page the parent to the sections that contain less immediately relevant details.
  • Limit each section to no more than one-half to one traditional word processed page (150 to 300 words).  Given that you are using shorter paragraphs than you may have been taught to use in school, your online sections may consist of only two to three short paragraphs.
  • Cull the information to be included to the minumum needed to comprehend the topic.  If the topic is complex or potentially controversial, give the high-level information in the first-level overview and then provide hyperlinks to more detailed explanations, background information, etc.
  • Use hyperlinks generously.  Online readers do not typically navigate a site linearly, and a statement in one section may trigger the reader to want to re-read a previous section, or reference a map, or jump to a deeper explanation, or review a reference source outside of your site.  The purpose of a hyperlink is to decrease friction in accessing the desired information, so you will be best served to make the entire collection of information as free of friction as possible.
  • Do not post PDFs, unless it is of background materials that only a few people may want to study, or if you have something that you would like people to be able to print for themselves, such as a poster announcing an upcoming event.
  • Wherever possible, embed visual materials that enhance, elaborate or illustrate the topic within the text.  This not only breaks up the text and makes it less daunting to the reader, but it also enables viewers to interact with the information in different ways that may be more useful for certain viewers.  As we discussed previously, only a very small proportion of the population learns best through written text; most people retain information better when it is presented visually or in ways that allow them to interact with it.



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