The 5 Key Features of a Definition that Delivers

Terry Smith, Intraversed

ESTIMATED READING TIME: 5 MINUTES

The 5 Key Features of a Definition that Delivers

We’ve been helping businesses write gold standard definitions for their most tricky business terms for well over a decade. We’ve learned that there’s five key elements a business term must have in order to really deliver on the benefits mentioned above.

Feature 1: Structured Layout

Have you ever thought about how you lay out your definition when you write it?

Generally, people assume it has to look like a sentence, written in lines across a page. We assume this because that’s how English is written and in general, we’re using software (either Word, Excel or a glossary software) that assumes that’s how we’ll write things. But when writing complex business term definitions, a different layout can make things much simpler and clear.

Definitions often include a number of features, each its own succinct statement, all of which need to be present to meet the criteria of the term. Laying these out so that each statement is clearly delineated is the key to a shorter and clearer definition.

For instance, the definition of the term “Student” might be written:

A student
is a person
who must have enrolled in a course of study
but has not graduated, unenrolled or had their enrolment cancelled.

This layout makes the definition easier to understand. It’s also easier to see whether there are inconsistencies or ambiguities.
We can more easily determine whether:

  • we need to add another clarifying statement (for instance, in the case of a University, perhaps a reference to the census date – the cut-off date for enrolment - needs to be added), or

  • we can remove something to reduce the definition length (for instance, perhaps the final statement can be reduced to “and enrolment has not ended”).

Feature 2: Structured content

Well written business term definitions contain different types of information. Those different types make the best sense when placed in a certain order.

As you saw in our example above, we:

start with the Term itself
define its Class (for the term Student, this would be “a person”)
list off the Characteristics that differentiate the term from others in its class or those characteristics that the definition must have to identify this term. There can be as many characteristics as required, but ensure that each one truly is needed – it’s easy to include things that aren’t actually necessary. We find that focusing on describing the purpose of the term, or the consequence leading to the existence of the term, will achieve the 80/20 rule.

When definitions are structured this way, the reader gets the information they need in the order they need it, to understand what’s being described easily and quickly.

Feature 3: Correct grammar

Correct grammar ensures things are understood clearly, reducing the risk of ambiguity or misinterpretation.

The most common grammatical problems we see in definitions fall into three broad categories.

  • Not including commas when you need them. Make sure your commas are in the right places (using Oxford commas is always a good idea). But for the most part, when Intraversed write definitions we get around the comma dilemmas by using our structured layout approach, which uses conjunctions (and / or / but) to separate the phrases rather than relying on punctuation.

  • Poor choice of modal verbs. Your choice of modal verb (must, can, may, should, will) is central to conveying the correct intent of your definition. The differences between them can be subtle, especially if English is your second language, so ensure you’re choosing the right one.

  • Incomplete sentences. I know, it sounds ridiculously obvious, but if we had a dollar for every definition we’d ever come across in an organisational glossary that was only part of a sentence, or an unfinished statement, we’d have taken early retirement by now. Please make sure the phrases of your sentences are complete!

Feature 4: The simplest language

When you’re writing with the explicit intent to convey an exact meaning, using the simplest language possible is always – ALWAYS – preferable. We know it feels good to use the big words that can sound clever, or the “insider” language that shows you know a lot about a topic, but neither of these choices makes your definition stronger.

Simple language means you:

  • Avoid big words when small words will do.

  • Say what needs to be said in as few words as possible BUT always use full sentences and easy English.

  • Don’t use jargon, acronyms, or synonyms in your definitions – they assume too much knowledge on the part of the reader.

  • Use shorter sentences or statements that make a single point.

Feature 5: Clear and thorough calculations

When defining a term that is a metric, the definition should contain the exact calculations required. Don’t skimp on this.

Imagine the next generation of employees at your organisation using this definition to help build dashboards or create reports. They’ll need to fully understand what numbers get combined in what ways to form this metric.

You want to give someone all the detail they need to get that dashboard or report right, first time. Even if that means there’s some complex content in your definition, make sure you put all the info in there. This is where your company will record how metrics are calculated. I’ll say it again, don’t skimp on this.

Incorporating Best Practice into your Definition Writing

Definition writing is a much bigger task than most people realise when they agree to participate in it. And the more they learn about what a definition should be, the more overwhelming it can get.

But, as we’ve mentioned so many times before, we’ve seen the poorly written definition of a single term cost a company many years of effort and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Good definition writing matters!

If you’re interested in learning how to incorporate these five features into your definition writing, as well as learning other ways Intraversed create definitions that deliver, why not register for our Writing Better Business Term Definitions class?

It’s a small investment in your ongoing professional education that can set you apart from your colleagues, save your business money and wasted effort, and help you understand why your efforts to create a really great glossary are truly valuable.

Register your interest today and we’ll notify you when the next class is scheduled.

Terry Smith, Intraversed

Terry Smith

Terry is a co-founder & Chief Education Officer at Intraversed. She spends her days helping information governance teams implement the Intralign Ecosystem, an award winning methodology that builds stable information foundations for reliable reporting.

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