Intranet publisher training course outline

Learning the mechanics of pushing a piece of corporate content through a content management system and onto the intranet is only part of the skills required to be an intranet publisher. Creating quality material that is engaging, findable and useful to staff is equally essential so that the intranet does not become a place for trash.

In addition to CMS training, we also offer staff a workshop/course entitled how to improve your online presence. It’s a 4 hour course split into 7 sections, with powerpoint slides and plenty of written and practical exercises.

Psychology of users

I start the workshop by focusing on the end user, emphasising that the reason we create and publish intranet material is so that someone can read it, use it, interact with it. I use a lot of Steve Krug’s material in explaining how staff read and search for intranet pages, how they are pressed for time and don’t read pages completely from top to bottom. I quote actual intranet statistics and illustrate, for example, that staff spend just over 1 minute on average in any “visit” to our intranet.

Writing for the web and plain English

The next section of the course gets down to raw writing skills and introduces editing, chunking and plain English writing techniques. Practical exercises, based on real corporate intranet material where possible, help participants to brush up their writing and editing skills, lower their word count, remove passive voice, be objective and use a consistent tone of voice which talks to the reader.

Accessibility

A condensed version of the W3C WAI priority checkpoints covers the main do’s and don’ts, including a practical exercise where participants have to close their eyes and I play the part of the screenreader software and shout out a list of “click here” and “read more” type of hyperlinks, and then ask participants to choose a specific link when trying to find a particular page. I also introduce ALT tags and how best to describe photo images to users who can’t see them.

Search engine optimisation

The next section explains how the search engine crawls and indexes HTML pages and binary documents (DOC, PDF, XLS…) I then talk about what we can do to help the search engine and ultimately our staff. I place great emphasis on the importance of page titles (especially in binary docs). I show good and bad examples of search results and a practical search engine optimisation exercise gets publishers into the habit of always checking metadata.

Image optimisation

You wouldn’t think that it is possible to get so many things wrong when dealing with graphics. Here are some of the bloopers that I’ve had to address:

  • stretched and distorted images that have been resized in HTML
  • enormous file sizes because images aren’t optimised (I’ve seen thumbnail images that are 2MB in size!)
  • horrible grainy four-colour JPG logos which should have been converted to GIF or PNG format
  • group photo shots, so small that you can’t recognise faces
  • dull and lifeless images which could use some colour correction
This part of the workshop aims to show how to decide on the best graphic format to use, how to optimise file sizes and how to crop and resize graphics to produce an image that is effective and in context with the page content.

Analytics and evaluation

Publishing content is not the end of the story. I introduce Google Analytics and encourage staff to monitor their content after it has been published. Are staff finding your pages? Are they staying and reading your pages? What search terms are they using to get to your content? I encourage continuous improvement through analysis and evaluation.

Housekeeping

In this section I cover file and folder naming conventions, awareness of the live server and the development environment, removing old content and files, and other tips to keep a tidy house.

Background

I designed this course with our intranet publishing environment in mind. We don’t have intelligent intranet software or a modern CMS system and as such, our publishing environment is very much manual, requiring publishers to think for themselves. I’m well aware that more modern publishing systems will automatically do a lot of the tasks I’ve described above, such as resizing and cropping image thumbnails and maintaining document version control.

Results

I have run this course many times across different departments and it always gets good feedback. Although it’s a bit of a long slog, the exercises keep people awake. Publishers leave with greater awareness of both the “content” and the “user” sides of the intranet.

Not everyone puts into practise what they have learned. And we still have to bow down to the HiPPO effect (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). It’s never perfect but, on the whole, search results have improved and the intranet remains free from clutter.

Plain English for corporate intranet content

At work, I teach a course on writing for the intranet. It takes an afternoon and covers online writing and editing techniques, SEO, how to handle graphics and accessibility. I also touch on writing in plain English. For this part of the course I usually use the latest IT announcement as a demonstration. IT announcements highlight how not to write plain English. Right on the button. Every time. Guaranteed.

While useful for my course, it always annoys me that people from this department (who now call themselves ICT, the C for communication!) often fail to think about the people they are writing for. Their audience is the whole organisation, yet they write from their own point of view, using acronyms, technical jargon and internal project and process language.

So here’s our latest announcement. I’ve colour-coded it to help with my analysis:

Important Windows XP and Office Security Patches will be available to all workstations on your IT network from 4th October. This is part of an ongoing process to ensure all IT equipment is secure and to minimize the risk from computer viruses.

 What do you need to do?

You are advised to manually install these updates onto your desktop PC as soon as they are available. This is a simple process that will only take a few minutes of your time. For instructions on how to manually apply these security updates please click here.

If you are unable to apply these patches for whatever reason, they will be automatically applied to your workstation overnight 9th October, 20:00. However, we do advise you to manually apply these updates where possible.

Switching off your workstations

To ensure the security updates are correctly applied, you must restart your desktop PC after installation. This can be done when you shut down your PC at the end of the working day. Users are reminded that it is recommended that they ‘Shut Down’ their PC at the end of every working day – see below.

To shut down your PC, click on the ‘Start’ button and choose the ‘Shut Down’ option. Please remember to switch off your monitor as it is not switched off automatically by ‘Shut Down’. Some monitors have a very subtle ‘on/off’ switch that is flat and touch sensitive and located on the underside of the bottom right corner of the monitor; the blue light will be steady or flash until the monitor is switched-off.

Remote Workers

It is recommended that remote workers are onsite and logged in to their workstations when the Security Patchesare being applied. If this is not possible then the patches will be available remotely, however the update may take a little longer.

Analysis

It is clear that the writer has no audience in mind. The piece switches from talking to me directly, to speaking about users, to some invisible person who isn’t specified because of using passive voice (“this can be done…”)

The message is inconsistent, taking ages to tell me how to shut down my PC but making me follow a link for the actual instructions to download the update, which is the point of the announcement. There’s a line that reads *see below*, below meaning the next sentence? And then there’s just plain daft stuff like recommending that I’m logged on to my workstation to download and install the udpate. No, really?

The message is mixed. Along the lines of “we have an update, you can download it yourself, or it will install automatically if you don’t, but, you know, you can do it yourself if you want.” Why not just install the update on my machine automatically and not bother me with having to read through this tripe? Is it that important that I know that this technical maintenance is going on?

The colour-coded headings below refer to the coloured sections in the original announcement.

Passive voice

I can spot passive voice a mile off. Years of editing online content tends to drum it into you. And there is a very good reason that IT people use it. To appear distant, to avoid the issue, to misdirect attention. Better for speech-writers and spin doctors. On the intranet, we want to get the point across quickly and clearly. Passive voice clouds the issue causing the brain to fire internal questions trying to fill in the gaps due to missing information in the text.

Captialisation

When We Capitalise The First Letter In Each Word It Makes It Really Hard To Read.

While not so bad in this IT announcement, you’ll often find capitalised project names, department names, process names and technical terms. In this announcement, what is so important about security patches or remote workers that they deserve capitalisation?

Bad names for links

Seeing a *click here* makes my blood boil. It is wrong for so many reasons. Staff using screenreaders will often request the software to group and read out all links on the page. Hearing click here, click here, more info, find out more, is not helpful. Similarly when the search engine reads the page and follows a *click here* link it does not help. It just registers a great page in the search index called “click here” that everyone is linking to. Even for staff who can see the page, it’s not clear from the link text what you will get if you click it. Link text should always accurately describe the target destination.

Fluff

Important corporate announcements should just give me the facts. Not self-promotional fluff. I don’t need to know that what they are asking me to do is part of their ongoing process. And apologies to my non-English-writing readers, but there is a Z where there shouldn’t be.

Content rewrite

Instructions for how to download and install an update, including how to shut down your PC are already available elsewhere on the intranet. Assuming that the IT department can’t automate the updates, here’s how I would rewrite the announcement:

Important Windows XP and Office updates for your workstation will be available from 4th October
What do you need to do?
You can install the updates yourself. Read instructions on how to install the updates.

If you can’t do this yourself, we’ll update your workstation automatically at 20:00 on 9th October.

Remote workers
You’ll find it faster to install the update if you login while on site. You can still update remotely but it will take longer.

 


I know what I’m talking about here isn’t so important in the greater scheme of the workings of the organisation. But by taking just a few minutes to stop and think about what we are writing, we can help staff to save time in reading and understanding the finished piece. My rewritten example is shorter and clearer. The simple instructions makes it easier (and more likely) for staff to carry out the task. I have cut down the original announcement from 302 words to 78 words. With online corporate content, less is more.