E-Communications 101

More tasks than ever are heading online these days-from student projects and field trips to virtual schools and electronic professional development. The big idea is that technology saves time and effort, focuses people quickly and easily, and commands attention in a world of too many demands, distractions, and delivery systems. So what are the keys to making the most of the e-resources at our disposal?

Design to Get Attention

To get people to read what you write or listen to what you present, the information has to be interesting, useful, and appealing. Being clear, concise, and to the point matters more than ever. According to Web analyst Jakob Nielsen, "People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences." E-mail newsletter readers also scan items and only rarely follow through for more information. As a result, electronic communications have to be presented so that busy people can pick up the information they need quickly.

Topics have to get and hold readers' attention, which means that titles and headlines must be meaningful. Articles should be clear and short and contain only one idea per paragraph. Organizing topics in a logical sequence helps people move along quickly. Bulleted lists help focus readers, and white space makes skimming easier. Adding images can make specific items stand out and hold readers' attention a little while longer.

The sound bite method of communicating-or chunking-is designed to catch our limited attention spans. Whittle a topic down to the basics and say it in as few words as possible. Then do the same with the next topic. This new writing style also borrows from journalists' inverted pyramid technique so that conclusions are first, essential information appears next, and details (for anyone who might want them) come later. People are used to idea surfing and tune things out fast.

To be effective, today's documents should have half the word count of conventional writing.

E-Mail

Because our readers often don't have time to pay much attention, technology can make a big difference. It's so much easier to shoot off an e-mail than to pick up the phone or draft a memo. We can send e-mail anytime and not worry if the recipient is at the other end; he will log on at some point and our words will be there waiting for him. Even better is that e-mail provides a written record so both sender and recipient possess a message trail.

However, e-mail has its downsides. It's easy to misunderstand someone's words without the nonverbal signals that occur when meeting face-to-face or the tone of voice that's clear on the phone. We interpret meaning from the words alone but often the missing context leads us astray. There are sometimes unintended consequences; it's so easy to write quickly and hit the Send button that we could offend someone inadvertently. Since e-mail provides a written record, it will be around when you want to eat your words later. Even worse is finding out that someone forwarded that message for others to read.

E-Presentations

Remember those sheets of acetate that you displayed on an overhead projector-at least until the bulb burned out? Most of the time, the presentations were pretty dry, even when slides were in the right order and not upside down. Today's version is an electronic presentation, usually in PowerPoint and often including colorful graphs, photos, and video clips. With it, you can focus your audience's attention on something other than your haircut, but their attention will drift if there isn't any real substance along with it. The good news is that presentations can look so much better these days. The bad news is they can be as dry as ever without the right content.

Whether you're speaking to the school board, explaining NCLB results to a community meeting, or giving a pep talk to your staff, there are ways to make presentations work for you. If you show confidence and begin by relating to your audience, you can have them eager to pay attention. Some speakers start with a controversial idea or by assuring the audience that their lives will improve if they listen. Others begin with an anecdote that leads right into a point they want to make. Whatever you do, grab the audience's attention quickly. Then make sure that every word you say and the power of your message keeps their attention.

E-Meetings

Busy people often see meetings as a waste of time and effort, especially if they have to stop what they are doing to travel to a meeting place. Having the option to participate by logging on to a Web conference from the comfort of home or office makes a big difference. Conducting an effective meeting online requires many of the same skills as conducting a face-to-face meeting. Time-tested tactics include assigning roles, creating and sticking to an agenda, accepting all input respectfully, and making sure there is follow-through on action items.

With Web conferencing and Webinar software, online meetings and collaborations can happen more easily than ever before. If you're making one point or three, upload your PowerPoint presentation and talk through the ideas. If you want to show how a classroom looks, take a walk-through with a Webcam on your laptop. When you want to collaborate on a grant proposal or policy statement, mark up the draft together online, agree to changes, and get buy-in in real time. From working with a small team to make a decision to assembling a large group to deliver policy changes, electronic meetings can save everyone time and increase productivity. At the same time, because attendees are on a computer rather than face-to-face, the risk is that they will multitask and focus on other things. The leader has to be vigilant to keep conversation focused on the topic and end discussions when they are getting nowhere. It is common in meetings to summarize next steps and state who is responsible for what and by when. If you write it on the Web conference's whiteboard and record the event, there's no forgetting or shirking later.

Web Sites

Improving communication from school to home is easier when all it takes is putting information online. According to 2002 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 99 percent of public schools have access to the Internet, 86 percent of these schools host a Web site, and 68 percent update their Web sites at least monthly.

A Web site is a reflection of the culture of a school or district and can serve several purposes. For example, if students forget to write down assignments, the information is often online. When parents want to know "What did you do in school today?" the answer is available rather than "nothing." Want to find out dates for standardized tests, home games, school musical performances, and field trips? Chances are there is an online calendar that lists all these activities and more. Grades, projects, and even attendance are available from some school and district Web sites, properly password-protected, of course.

Decisions about what to include on a Web site vary from district to district and school to school. (You'll find many examples on www.techlearning.com under "School Site of the Month" and "School Site of the Week"). Useful administrative items include mission statements, policies and procedures, curriculum guides, materials, and resources. Many districts include Web pages with data about each school along with photos, handbooks, directions, and how to contact staff members. Often, individual teachers create class Web pages with assignments and projects displayed. Student activities, special programs, sports records, awards, and student publications provide an inside look at district functions. Many sites include parent and volunteer information. In addition, there are often local information and community links, sometimes posted as the result of student projects.

E-Newsletters

Everyone likes to be kept informed. With No Child Left Behind stressing accountability and parental control, it pays to be a transparent organization-or at least look that way. Sending out information regularly satisfies stakeholders that things are going well. Using e-mail helps keep the information timely and flowing regularly. E-newsletters help you get your message out quickly, easily, and effectively.

E-newsletters can serve different purposes. Some are strictly for public relations so that parents and the community will learn more and feel better about the district or school. Others are internal documents that highlight staff achievements and present directives and information. When planning an e-mail newsletter, decide what your purpose will be. Are you sending a newsletter to provide information or to get people to react in some way?

Some administrators use a business strategy called customer relations management. The lesson is to know your constituencies, understand their needs, and communicate intelligently with them to keep them happy, loyal, and productive. One way is to personalize the messages. Even if the information is basically the same, send a slightly different version to different groups. For example, teachers and parents look at many issues differently. Address them accordingly.

Another strategy is to treat the readers like professionals by including news or research with a link to more information. Whether it's something in the news or on your district's Web site, suggesting they will want to learn shows respect. Some systems let you monitor data about your newsletters; if yours is one of them, find out how many people open the message. If you provide links to more information, check to see which items are most popular. Then use these numbers to rethink what you say and how you say it the next time.

E-Publishing

You know that your district or school is doing great things, but who else has heard about it? As often as not, the media prefers to focus on the bad news, so making people aware of the good news is difficult. The only way to get the real story out there may be to tell it yourself and hope that someone will listen. The Web is a great tool to publicize successes. Teachers, administrators, support staff, and community members all have experiences to share, especially about technology.

Where do you go to find information about other districts' uses of technology and write about yours? Technology & Learning's Web site, techLEARNING.com, publishes articles by teachers, technology coordinators, administrators, researchers, and others in the education community. The articles present ideas, models, strategies, and information about the use of technology for teaching, learning, and administration. New articles appear each month, and everything remains searchable online forever. So as you follow the advice in this article, don't forget to write.

Gwen Solomon is director of techLEARNING.com.

E-Communication Quick Tips

Write E-Mail Messages

1. Write short and clear sentences.
2. Put only one idea in each paragraph and use spaces between paragraphs. You can use a numbered list at the top so readers know how many items will follow.
3. Be polite. Say "please" when you give orders so no one takes offense.
4. Review your message before sending. You might not have said what you meant.
5. Proofread your spelling and grammar. Some people may think it's a dumb mistake, not a typo.
6. Think twice. If you're angry, don't send the message until later when you're calm. Read it again first.
7. When you reply to a message, cut and paste the portion of the message you're replying to even if all the previous messages are below. If you say "yes," the sender may not remember what she asked.
8. Only use "Reply to all" when you answer if you really want everyone to read what you said.
9. Use upper- and lowercase letters. Typing all capital letters means that you are SHOUTING, and in e-mail, that's rude.
10. Send messages to group mailing lists only if you want absolutely everyone to read them.

Make Your Point with PowerPoint

1. Know your subject. Make sure you have all the facts at your fingertips.
2. Speak with enthusiasm and be sincere.
3. Organize your presentation logically. Start by telling the audience what you're going to tell them. End by telling them what you told them. Put the details in between.
4. Make sure that your slides have a coherent, consistent look. (Use a template.)
5. Create short titles that have meaning.
6. Use bullets and write short statements that focus readers' attention on the main points.
7. Don't read the bullets; instead, talk about the details that support them.
8. Use photos and charts to illustrate when they help you make a point.
9. Use cute features such as transitions and animations sparingly.
10. Provide a printout of your slides.
If you hand it out at the beginning, the audience may even take notes.

Conduct E-Meetings

1. Develop an agenda, e-mail it in advance, and stick to the items listed.
2. Start on time. End on time.
3. Display presentations to make your points quickly.
4. Share documents that are on your desktop so all can collaborate and view changes.
5. Draw diagrams on the whiteboard.
6. Illustrate with streaming video, audio clips, images, and charts.
7. Type chat messages for feedback on issues from individuals.
8. Ask polling questions and view data about the responses then or later.
9. Encourage discussion and share control to get all points of view and ideas across.
10. Record the meeting electronically for absentees and as a review of decisions. Send out the URL with a summary.

Start a School or District Web Site

1. Establish a planning committee that reflects all stakeholders.
2. Review other school and district Web sites to analyze what works well and what doesn't.
3. Identify the purpose of the Web site and establish goals on what you want to achieve as a result of creating it.
4. Set policies, clear expectations, and procedures. You need a policy for the use of student names, photographs, and projects. Decide how you will protect the safety of students and staff and make information secure. Address legal issues such as copyright and fair use, student permission to publish, and acceptable use policies.
5. Determine who your audience is. (Your site probably will address several groups, such as parents, students, staff, and the community.)
6. Decide what kinds of information you want to present to each.
7. Identify roles and responsibilities: Who will create, update and add content, how often will they do so, and under what conditions? Who will have oversight over what is published and monitor quality?
8. Determine the method for creating the site. Programmers can write HTML code or others can rely on Web editing software or Web-based tools. Keep in mind that you want a template that's attractive, consistent, and easy for others, even students, to use.
9. Develop the structure for your site. Use careful organization and navigation. For example, plan a menu page carefully for quick access to everything and decide if you want to include interactive Web services for communication among school, home, and community.
10. Plan for change; Web sites are always evolving.'

Create an E-Mail Newsletter

1. Plan your newsletter layout and create a template.
2. Know your audience. Personalize as much as possible.
3. Use short words; write short, punchy sentences, and keep each item short and sweet.
4. State the facts and benefits in full. Don't be cryptic just to be brief.
5. Make the subject line stand out to encourage people to open the e-mail.
6. State an important point right away. Some people use auto-preview to delete e-mail without reading.
7. Make sure they know when you want an answer to something and why it matters.
8. Be clear. People tend not to read carefully anymore.
9. Proofread. Then proofread again and then send.
10. Hope that you will hear from people on the issues, and check the data to see what they read.

Write for Publication

1. Write about technology in K-12 education from your perspective (classroom teacher, technology coordinator, librarian, administrator, parent, researcher, or others).
2. Provide information that is new and practical.
3. Write so that your article is clear and easy to read.
4. Make the point obvious. (What is it that others will learn?)
5. Tell your story with as much detail as possible.
6. Use resources that are available to you on the Web (graphics, video, sound, links to student work, and other Web documents).
7. Use good judgment about length. The article should be long enough to give real detail but not so long that people tune out.
8. Ask questions if you need help.
9. Use other articles on www.techlearning.com. as models.
10. Send the article or story in a Word document as an e-mail attachment to gwensol@earthlink.net.

Resources for Keeping in Touch

Presentations

PowerPoint Tutorial
The purpose of any good presentation is to communicate your subject matter and to ensure that your audience understands the information being presented. Read PowerPoint tips and tutorials from techLEARNING.com's April 2004 Educators' Outlook: "The Basics of PowerPoint".

Online Meeting and Presentation Tools
For small group meetings or large presentations, there are online solutions that make it easy to communicate with others remotely.

Breeze Presentation; Breeze Live
Macromedia

cast:stream
Cast Stream

Centra Knowledge Composer for PowerPoint
Centra

Genesys Meeting Center
Genesys

Impatica for PowerPoint
Impatica

Mediasite Live
Sonic Foundry

Microsoft Producer for Microsoft Office PowerPoint; Microsoft Office Live Meeting
Microsoft

Pixion PictureTalk
Pixion

Session
Wave Three Software

WebEx Presentation Studio; WebEx Meeting Center
WebEx

Tapped In
For information about Tapped In, read "Online Training: What's Really Working" from our May 2004 issue.

For more information about these meeting and broadcasting Web sites, read "New and Networthy Presentation Apps" from our April 2004 issue.

VOIP

If you still like to use the telephone to communicate, there are new ways to make calls. Voice over IP products can help schools make the most of their existing network infrastructure.

AVVID (Architecture for Voice, Video, and Integrated Data)
Cisco

Business Communications Manager
Nortel

Infinite DVX, Starplus, and Triad systems
Vodavi

IP Office
Avaya

NBX 100 Communications systems
3Com

NetLink IP
SpectraLink

3100 Integrated Communications Platform
Mitel Networks

For more information, read "Networking Trends: Consolidating Your School Network" from our March 2002 issue.

Web Site Design

Dreamweaver
Macromedia

FrontPage 2004
Microsoft

GoLive
Adobe

Netscape Composer, a part of the Netscape Communicator 4.0 suite
Netscape

Communications: InstantPoll Comments

TechLEARNING.com ran an InstantPoll in which we asked readers to let us know what forms of electronic communications are used in their school and how effective they are. We ran two parallel polls — one for administrators and one for staff.

The Comments box provided a glimpse at the story behind the numbers. While several answers were of the “We use them all†variety, those people are ahead of the curve. In most places electronic communications have a long way to go. Visit the poll results pages if you want to know what school leaders and educators are doing—or if you want to find out what not to do.

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