June 1997


Why The Book Is Always Better Than The Movie

Guidelines For Developing Online Content

by Chris Lapham

As I packed for a recent vacation, I directly faced the information glut that now plagues everyone, and especially those involved with online communication. As I sorted through the books, magazines, newsletters, mailing lists, and both snail mail and email, I realized just how much information I was receiving each day, and the time I was expending simply sorting through this mass. I believe we can all benefit from streamlined communication that relates very precisely to what our readers and visitors need and want to know. Vanderbilt Marketing Professor Donna Hoffman calls this close matching of readers needs with messages perfect information. The term "perfect" may be daunting, but the closer we can match our words and ideas with our audience's expectations, the more useful, meaningful, and successful our communication will become.

Where to start?

A great place to begin is to first ask these questions:

  • "Who is my audience?"
  • "What information do I have that they need or want?"
  • "What do I want them to do with that information?"
  • "How can I present my message in a compelling and memorable way? and, finally,
  • "What story can I tell?"

Telling a good story is the best way to communicate effectively. The one information source that found its way to suitcase was not a computer magazine, or online newsletter but a novel I was reading. We all want, crave even, a good read. And a well written, compelling story will always stand out and be memorable. I wrote Tony's Story to describe the good work of a preschool for children with disabilities. What I hoped to give readers in Tony's Story was a strong, memorable impression of the physical, social and emotional struggles this brave little boy faced. In your own writing, think about leaving "mental post-it notes" with readers that they can carry around in their heads.

IMHO, the reason why storytelling is so effective when communicating online comes from a personal theory of communication I call "the book is always better than the movie." I have never heard someone say, "The movie was better than the book." (If you know of some instances where the movie is better, please write to me and let me know.) Why is it that we are so often disappointed when we see words on paper played out as a drama before our eyes? How can mere ink on paper (or characters on a computer screen) compare with beautiful actresses or fast action heroes?

The book is always better than the movie because of the power of our imaginations. I believe there is a "space" of sorts that exists between the reader and what he or she is reading. Readers fill that space with the fertile fruit of their imaginations--their individual expectations, hopes, dreams, flaws, achievements, and all their past experiences. Depending upon the novel, article, and yes, even a Web site, what happens in the space can be emotional, evocative, and even magical.

This personal reaction to a good read can and sometimes does happen now on the World Wide Web. It is not happening more often because many content providers and Webmaster still view the Web as a broadcast medium and are neglecting its power as an interactive channel of information and ideas. How can we write and design content that recognizes this "magical space" and takes full advantage of what the each individual reader brings to our Web site?

I think we can all learn something important about effective communication from one of my favorite National Public Radio (NPR) shows, Car Talk. The show is funny. I listen to it primarily because I know that eventually Tom and Ray, the Car Talk brothers, will make me laugh. This show is successful, in part, because of its tone and ambiance. It is light, entertaining, and amusing--goals we can all strive for in our online communication. Use the forum you have to add some charm, wit, and personality to your site--the first step in creating memorable online content.

Rule Number One: Have a sense of humor!

Car Talk is much more than a funny talk show: listeners get concrete and detailed answers to their specific problems. I am constantly amazed that these two men know so much about cars. They can answer questions that range from wheel rims on BMWs to the functioning of a corroborator on an old Toyota Celica. Listeners poses real problems and get real answers. Which brings us to....

Rule Number Two: Establish and display a specific expertise.

The most successful Web sites--those that will survive the glut of information and bandwidth hogging now going on--will be sites that are deep. The Web is indeed a niche medium. Because it is built on hypertext links, the Web allows people who are looking for very, very detailed information to follow a trail and find it. Conversely, it gives webmasters and content producers the opportunity to build a specific identity and become know for creating and maintaining information about a certain subject area. For example, John December, the publisher of CMC Magazine and an Internet author, is well-know for his lists of information about computer-mediated communication, John Makulowich is known for his awesome journalism list and there are many others. This is the value-added of your site. To generate new and regular traffic to your site, you should strive to build and maintain a regular and *unique* source of specific information.

Rule Number Three: Provide Opportunities For Meaningful Interaction Online--Let Your Audience Know Your Are Listening

Just as radio programs like Car Talk create a lively dialogue between two people, the Web is designed for two-way communication. Without an awareness of and adaptation to the Web as a two-way medium, our information and content might as well be available on newsstands or in books. Beginning with email, push the envelope and find new and better ways to include your readers and visitors in developing information for your site. Surveys, forms, and chat rooms are just the beginning of the rich potential the Web provides for building communities. Online special events, real time meetings of multiple users, and serial writing are just some of the ways we can make our online content sparkle.

Rule Number Four: Do Something Different, New, Great!!

The final rule is there are no rules. In fact, I highly recommend your break all the rules and "boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before." The Web is crying out for compelling content. People, especially newbies and those who have not yet joined the wired world, need *good reasons* for getting online. Let's give them some. There are no formulas, reasons, or rhymes. You just have to get out there and trust yourself, explore, and share what you find.

Chris Lapham ( is a technology writer, Internet consultant, and contributing editor of Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine.

Copyright © 1997 by Chris Lapham. All Rights Reserved.

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