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It’s Time We Had a Talk About….Handbooks

Recently, we debuted our FORMAT series and our inaugural training How to Make A Better...Handbook and wanted to share a few key takeaways to consider next time you are creating or revamping a handbook, manual, or other similar type of document for your participants and colleagues.

What is a handbook?

Let’s get on the same page first. What do we mean by a handbook? Let’s take a look at this definition: a short book that gives information or instructions about something. We will use the term handbook here but think about any type of information you might share. This could be:

  • A new volunteer manual

  • An orientation packet for new students or program participants

  • A housing handbook

  • A workforce program overview

Most importantly, handbooks are meant to be tools to enhance a user’s experience and give them access to the information they need to be successful. This also means that they often need to be revisited on a regular basis to ensure that they are accurate and useful.

What do we want our handbooks to do?

Oftentimes, when creating content, we get caught up in thinking about the information we want to deliver rather than centering our audiences and their needs (this is a common theme you’ve perhaps heard us talk about at Clear Language Lab!) The more a handbook (or any other document for that matter) better serves its audience, the more it will also serve your organization because it can better anticipate questions people have, provide clear answers, and avoid confusion.

So what is the purpose of a handbook? Of course, it depends. It can have multiple purposes including but not limited to:

  • Giving folks insight on what they can anticipate and setting clear expectations

  • Sharing information with new stakeholders

  • Giving users an understanding of the rules, values, norms, or culture of a program or organization

  • Acting as an ongoing reference tool for participants or users

  • Getting people excited about your program

Do you find your handbooks are affected by these pitfalls?

  • Punitive and deficit-focused rather than trauma-informed and strength-based (Don’t do ABC vs. You can XYZ.)

  • Organized to make sense for the writers but not the readers (Missing a table of contents or reasonable chunking of information)

  • Lacks visual hierarchy and has too much information (Too many headings or not enough)

  • Assumes readers are familiar with concepts that they might not be familiar with (Talks about new ideas with no context or examples)

How can we do better with our handbooks?

Here are some questions to think about next time you are creating or revising a handbook in your work.

Consider Your Audience

What is critical for your audience to know? What does your audience need or want to know? How are you incorporating feedback from your audience and how they feel about your communications?

Think about any feedback loops you have in place. Find out what your participants want and need to know. Identify common challenges and questions that folks have and how they could better be addressed. Regularly update your documents so that information is accurate and relevant to your audience.

Examine the Values Embedded in Your Content

How might your content be upholding values of white supremacy culture (such as paternalism, individualism, and power hoarding, for example)? Is your content trauma-informed? Do you create content that values safety and builds relationships?

Check out our recent training on trauma-informed communication to consider how your tone and content are affecting your readers.

Organize Content in Clear and Meaningful Ways

How is information presented? Do you use formats that match the content and needs of the audience? Is information organized and designed in ways that are understandable and accessible for the reader?

For example, if you are using Word or Google Slides, make sure you use the Heading Styles features. Getting comfortable with these features can help you be more cognizant of the visual hierarchy or heading levels (or lack thereof) in your document and create a document that is more accessible for screen readers. The Table of Content feature is another tool that can help you stay organized, too!

Determine the Best Format For Your Audience

Is a paper copy the best way to go? Would a Google Site or a video be useful? Or would some combination of options work best? It depends on what your audience needs.

Examine a variety of formats and seek out what works best for YOUR audience.


Making time for updating your documents is critical. If information is out of date or incorrect, this will just cause more confusion. Build in this time. For example, if your “new year” starts in July, put it on your calendar in April or May to begin working on these updates. Once you get a strong foundation, adding updates will be easy and ultimately create a better experience for everyone.

Interested in having a handbook revised? Contact Melanie to discuss how we can support your team. Or interested in other mediums? Join us for our next FORMAT series workshop, How to Make a Better...Form, on March 19!



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