30 June 2011

Communicating for survival

Whether by mass SMS campaigns or face-to-face conversation, getting information to beneficiaries can be critical to their survival. Technology offers new tools. But old questions remain: are they getting the message and how well do we listen?

This Red Cross report provides a first-hand look at communications in emergencies.

SEATED AT HER desk at the IFRC base camp in Port-au-Prince, Sharon Reader brings up a Google map of Haiti on her laptop computer. Scattered over the map are tiny blue markers representing cell phone towers. She selects a group with her cursor, then types a message in Creole and hits “send”. In less than an hour, nearly 24,000 people in the northern town of Port-de-Paix receive an SMS from the Haitian Red Cross Society reminding them to wash their hands thoroughly with soap to protect against cholera.


How many words on a page?

A question commonly asked when planning a new document, such as a corporate report, is: how big will it be?

Planning for the word count and pagination is very important, because somebody needs time and possibly money to write the words, and they usually need to be edited, proof-read and translated.

The number of pages is important for the designer doing the layout and for the printer ordering paper. It will affect the cost of freight and even have an impact on readers (will they take a small document seriously; will they be willing to read and even carry a larger document?).

Most people start with an idea of how many pages they want, and they might have an example in mind. It is worth checking that example (e.g. another organization's report or last year's report) because the layout and the use of graphics and other elements will affect the number of words on the page and the overall length of the document.

There is a range of standard page dimensions (A4, US Letter, Legal, etc.) and there is an even wider variation in the number of words you can put on a full page. So the number of words is not the most accurate way to describe a page, nor is the number of pages a clear indication of the number of words. Who has seen a 10-year-old told to write a one-page essay, then try to squeeze 700 words onto a single page, or blow up 200 words to cover the whole page?

The text is only a small part of telling a story. How many images will there be? Does this text need a table of data or a graph? Will the layout use pullquotes or other emphasis text alongside? Will there be a case study, example, anecdote, or sidebar story alongside?

The layout is highly influential on the overall length of a document. A scholarly book which is basically page after page of text will have a very high average word count. A corporate annual report will have a moderate number of words, accompanied by figures and other illustrations, while a sales brochure will likely have more images and fewer words. Importantly, the use of 'white space' or empty space on the page can have a remarkable impact on the overall number of pages as well as making the document much easier to read. Wide margins above, below and beside the text, large spaces between paragraphs and even generous white space between lines can make it easier to read even the smallest text.

Editorial elements such as headings, sub-headings, emphasis text (e.g. in the margin alongside the text) can all help readers get through a document quickly and pick up the main points. They also usually add to the number of pages required (but can also cut down the number of words you need to write).

Other things chewing up pages include the use of spacing pages or interstitials, such as photo pages, quotes and chapter openings. Count on having fewer average words per page if the document is short: these anciallary pages will occupy a larger proportion of the space.

If you are starting with a set amoung of text and trying to calculate how many pages you need to house them, remember that you can play with the layout and eliminate elements in order to keep the pagination down. You can add or remove graphical elements, adjust the layout (e.g .width of margins), the font size, line spacing (leading) and even the font and font spacing (kerning) in order to squeeze more words on the page, if needed. But please remember to make it easy to read!

When budgeting for proofreading and translation, you have to include pull-quotes and similar items that might fit within the margins and thus do not affect the number of pages, but can add e.g. 5% to the word count. You also need to calculate tables and figures which of course contain words that need to be checked and translated, can add a further 10-15% (and occupy e.g. 50% of all the pages). Note that a French or Spanish translation can be up to 20% longer than the English original.

As if that was not complicated enough, the style of language can have a dramatic impact on the length of each word and thus the overall pagination. A document with longer, complex words (e.g. scholarly texts) can have fewer words per page than a plain-speaking document. One way to manage this is to calculate and specify the number of characters per page (including spaces).

[750 words!]