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Comprehensive vs Comprehensible Communications

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Reading time: 5 minutes.

Have you ever found yourself reading a long email and struggling to decipher what message you should be taking from the words? Or sitting in a presentation wishing the presenter would get to the punchline already? Or perhaps reading a report and wondering how on earth the author came to the conclusions they did based on what little detail was included?

In an increasingly hybrid working world, effective communication is more important than ever. In particular, we’re sending more written and asynchronous communications, which increases the chance for someone to misunderstand, misinterpret or dismiss something they struggle to read. We owe it to the recipients of our messages to make their lives as easy as possible.

One approach I like to use is to consider both the comprehensiveness and comprehensibility requirements of my message.

Let’s start with the difference between comprehensive and comprehensible.

  • comprehensive (adj.) of large scope; covering much; inclusive
  • comprehensible (adj.) readily comprehended or understood; intelligible

If you are writing or presenting something which is comprehensive, you are likely going deep in the detail. You will include data and supporting information, perhaps history and context, or maybe a very detailed call to action.

When you’re writing something which is comprehensible, it will be easy to understand, using the simplest expression of the subject, and straightforward explanation of concepts.

Let’s look at a couple of examples. Imagine you’re sending an update to senior stakeholders because your web service is suffering an outage. Compare the following:

Comprehensive

At 11:08am, our monitors showed a huge spike in 500 errors in our app-routing application, and OpsNotifier started sending alerts every 5 seconds to the on-call support engineer, Jan. It took Jan four minutes to respond to the alerts. They reviewed the error logs, and noticed the issue was with an overloaded database server…

I’ll stop there. Clearly this is comprehensive! It includes very specific details, which are important for us to know when we review the incident. However, when our CEO receives this as a P1 outage communication, it might not be as useful.

Comprehensible

At about 11am, an outage began for our web service. We know the cause, and we are fixing it. It will be back online shortly.

In three short sentences, the reader knows there is a problem, they are assured it is in hand, and they know to expect a speedy resolution. They aren’t required to know anything about the technology, the team members, or the types of errors. They can easily comprehend the issue at a high level.

In this case, though, I immediately have questions, the most important of which is “what do you mean by ‘shortly’?”

Comprehensive and Comprehensible

At about 11am, an outage began for our web service. The cause has been identified and the fix is being implemented. We expect the site to be online by 11:15am.

During the outage, our site hasn’t been available. It affects all of our customers, and they cannot place orders. In the 15 minute outage window we estimate losing 500 orders, and about $1000 in revenue.

This is a much better version. The first paragraph succinctly explains the outage and the resolution expectations. The second paragraph details the high-level impact of the outage. As CEO, or a Customer Services Advisor, or a Social Media Editor, I have enough information to deal with the outage.

Finding The Balance

This is a simple example, and might seem obvious. At other times, however, it might be much less obvious how to find the right balance.

In general, the more comprehensive you want to be, the harder you will have to work to make your message comprehensible. Sometimes you require extra data to make your point or argument. Sometimes you need to share history in order for the reader to understand the “why” of your message. Sometimes you will need to include specific instructions for an action you are asking them to take. Any additional content increases the risk your writing will be harder to follow or understand.

The Implicit Third “C” - Context

To help find the right balance between comprehensiveness and comprehensibility, you need to remember the third “C” - context. Context helps you to decide how comprehensive you need to be, and how to pitch your writing to be comprehensible to your audience.

  • A software engineer sending a message about a change to a key shared component can make reasonable assumptions about their fellow engineers' knowledge of the source code and build systems. They can also presume a level of comfort with the jargon of software development.
  • A company-wide communication introducing a change to the company travel policy might need to summarise the key changes, and include additional FAQs or other supporting information
  • A call-to-action for employees to complete mandatory compliance training may only need minimal information - an short paragraph to explain why the training is important and necessary, with a link to the training and a deadline. Any other information could be included in the training itself

My Approach

Before I craft a message, whether that’s an email, a document or a presentation, I will take a moment to think through the following:

  • What are the key points or asks of the message
  • Decide on the Context - what assumptions can I make about the audience’s knowledge, history and existing understanding of the subject matter
  • Note the Comprehensiveness required - which information is critical, and which is superfluous
  • Decide where to spend extra time on Comprehensibility - which parts of the message might be more difficult to understand or act upon

For particularly important messages, I am a big believer in having a writing buddy - someone who I trust to be brutal as an editor, who can suggest better examples or simpler wording. Most of all, someone who can review my work with more of a “beginner’s mind” in order to give feedback on the balance between being Comprehensive and being Comprehensible.

(Header photo “Coloured pencils” by Jess Bailey)