Coming from someone who has made toolkits and guides used by absolutely no one to tens of thousands of people, here are some tips you can use to create and use guidance that will help people in their work and lives.
For anyone who has had the experience of making a toolkit, the need for guidance often arises out of a complex problem or set of circumstances. There are many kinds of toolkits and guides, but this set of tips is referring to a specific type of toolkit: One that helps define the issue/s at hand, pulls together information and resources to provide actionable ways for people to surmount a challenge or implement the best possible solutions.
Here’s an example of a toolkit in support of challenging conversations about education equity that I created for superintendents as part of my work with Region 16 Comprehensive Center.
It can be frustrating when a lot of work goes into this kind of resource, only to have a handful of downloads. It’s possible to prepare for high usage of the toolkit through four methods:
- Identify your primary and secondary audiences, and create it specifically for them.
- Include content people can copy, paste, and customize.
- Keep it simple, short, and accessible – not encyclopedic.
- Make a plan to revise after it’s been tested out.
Identify your primary and secondary audiences, and create it specifically for them.
Put yourself in the shoes of the person with the problem. Even better, talk to people with the problem about what they need and what they don’t need.
The first thought of a person who is dealing with, as an example, broken relationships over the topic of equity is not going to be “Where can I find a toolkit about this exact situation?” That person’s first thought is “Who do I know who really understands what I’m going through and can help me?” In other words, the person with the problem calls someone with knowledge, experience, power, and/or resources. And that is the person who needs the toolkit on hand.
People who regularly support the people with the problem will get the most out of the toolkit, and can even help write and review it to make it relevant to their needs and the needs of their colleagues, friends, and/or clients. In the context of this problem, it might be crisis communications professionals, association support staff, and state level education employees with a strong network.
Include content people can copy, paste, and customize.
Include useful content that will save them time, especially templates, messages, and other content that can help shape with and for the person or people with the problem to solve.
For example, in the toolkit about how to have challenging conversations about topics related to equity in a school community, include some conversation starters, a template letter to the school community, and remarks for a school leader to use at a public meeting. All can be modified to fit the unique issue and the specific context of the local community.
Keep it simple, short, and accessible – not encyclopedic.
It’s so tempting to want to be comprehensive and address every possible circumstance or question that can arise. When the circumstances are chaotic, full of misinformation, and when people are at odds, it is tempting to try to solve that problem in the toolkit or guide. But a toolkit that is long and daunting is simply less likely to be used because it overwhelms people who are already in the midst of a difficult situation.
No document can solve a big cultural problem in any major way. So instead, it’s tempting to treat a toolkit like a receipt — proof that you understand the problem and did your best to take on the loudest critics. A toolkit that is a receipt is often more lengthy and less useful than a short document designed for the people who will actually use it. All the explanatory, argument-based text covering every foreseeable critique makes it less useful to them. The change is not the toolkit — the change is what happens after it gets used extensively.
Make a plan to revise.
Your toolkit likely has a shelf life of just a couple of months unless you’ve already made a plan to iterate and revise it. This will allow you to incorporate critical feedback, adjust as circumstances change, and add helpful information as situations change and arise. The toolkit linked earlier was revised after six months of use.
This type of iteration works best if the people writing and revising the toolkit have some serious overlap with the primary audience — the people using it are the ones writing or editing it (and being compensated fairly to do so). And those editors are getting direct feedback from the people they are supporting using the toolkit.
With this plan, you can count on getting more miles, use, and impact from your hard work. And if you wish you’d have thought of a few of these tips, lean into the last tip and make a revision with the first three in mind!
About the author
Jenni Kotting (she/her) is a Communications strategist with a PhD in Human Geography from University of Minnesota who believes in narrative shift as a brace for systemic change. She brings a decade of Communications experience in collaboratively producing strategic messaging, branding, storytelling, and innovative media through a strong racial and social justice lens. Find her at jkotting.com and torresmontoyakotting.com.