clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How to use Google Docs to make it look like you know what you're doing

Article Goal

Here we outline a few best practices for document organization, including many specific to Google Docs, that may help you become a better communicator and collaborator. We incorporate essential business terminology in order to convey our depth of experience. We encourage further lighthearted conversation on this topic with the larger Media Tech Internet Cloud Community in the comments below.

Pro tip: this article is also available as a Google Doc you can duplicate and upon which you can comment.


Congratulations! You've reached a point in your career where you've started replacing some of your Maker time with Manager time. You jump on and off conference calls, and mentally slice your time into hour-long chunks. You find yourself closing Sublime Text or Photoshop, and instead opening Google Docs to capture ideas or distill plans. Maybe you need to articulate processes for yourself and a small team, or develop proposals to impress an Important Bossperson and win support for a new project.

But disirregardless, here are a few tips that will help you communicate clearly and trick your business associate contemporaries into nodding their heads with appreciation, convinced you are a capable adult able to handle new responsibilities.

1. Consider your audience.

By now you've created a new Google Doc and spent 15 minutes crafting a perfect title. So ask yourself: who is this document for? Maybe it's just for you, to organize your thoughts as rough notes. But if you're composing reference materials, outlining project specs & plans, or capturing complex ideas, it's quite likely that various people in your org are going to come across this document with little context.

Provide that context. Orient the voice of your writing and the hierarchy of information in your document with that audience in mind. Are you trying to tell a story, or just showcase data? Most of the time, your document should provide concrete value to its primary audience, making actions and decisions easier. Then you'll get all the credit, and will reap manifold rewards. "Thank you, thoughtful employee," they will say, "for assembling such an empowering document!"

2. Be brief.

Everyone is busy, especially executive types who jump in and out of documents and meetings in an all-day game of business hopscotch. Not everyone will have time to carefully read through the entire work. So to be respectful of their time, you should probably:

  • Include Goal and Summary sections at the start of the doc, so that readers can tell at a glance what on earth this 8,000 word essay is about.
  • Structure the doc to flow from broad ideas toward specific details, so people who don't read all the way through can still get the gist.
  • Really, be brief. Remember to do your best to omit any unnecessary words such as linking verbs and other such superfluous or long-winded professional-sounding phrases. Writing on Twitter is a great way to hone this skill.
  • Bold key words and terms, so someone scanning through quickly can still understand (and speak to) the ideas you're trying to communicate.
  • Consider moving less essential sections to a supporting document, and linking them inline using the hyperlink button.
  • Sprinkle emoji generously throughout your document, to be more professionaler.


3. Use the built-in semantic formatting.

Google Docs includes some handy tools to help create a smooth reading experience. You're already a developer obsessed with semantic markup, or a designer who can't stop considering relative type sizes. Give your ideas the same consideration here.

  • Use the built-in Headings dropdown. Oh, you don't like the fonts? Change the global defaults with two clicks, per the image above. These headings make it really easy to keep formatting consistent throughout your doc. And most importantly:
  • Google Docs will automatically create a Table of Contents out of your headings and subheadings! So use them, and phrase them carefully. Insert a TOC up top to help your readers scan & navigate, and to instantly turn any document into an amazing scientific-looking essay, suitable for publishing in respected international medical journals. If you make structural changes, you'll need to click on the TOC to keep it current.
  • Use bullet points to keep things clean and encourage brevity. But, you should also probably:
  • Try to avoid excessive list nesting. Once you're two or three levels deep, it all just turns into unreadable crazytown. Create a new subheading instead.

4. Collaborate with people outside your brain.

The collaborative editing functionality in GDocs is a game-changer, so why go it alone? Invite some of the geniuses you already work with, and outsource the job of fixing your grammar and spelling errors to them.

  • Adjust sharing permissions depending on the help you need. On Vox Product we often give full editing rights to folks, but "comment only" mode may be preferable depending on the nature of your work. When you share, explain how far along you are and what kind of collaboration would be helpful.
  • Write together in realtime, especially if you're together in a meeting or on a Hangout. We've struggled to find collaborative whiteboarding equivalents for remote employees; Google docs and drawings seem to be the best option. Five people editing a document simultaneously can be hilarious and productive fun. Nothing feels quite as collaborative as someone literally finishing your sentences.
  • You can always expand revision history to roll back some of their awkward mixed-metaphors, like a modern digital Sysiphus shedding an old, scratchy snakeskin.


5. Make good use of your work.

Now that you've created a document that perfectly articulates your hopes and dreams to the people who are able to make them happen, make sure you follow through.

  • Circulate the document well before meetings where it will be discussed, so everyone has enough time to read or scan it.
  • When talking through a doc, don't just read it out loud. Speak to its context, and any open questions you and others have about the ideas it conveys.
  • Include a Next Steps section at the bottom of the document, so folks discussing it know how it fits into a timeline of things.
  • During discussions, scribble into a Notes section at the bottom, to capture loose thoughts outside the context of your organized document. You can always deputize someone else to do this for or with you.
  • Recognize that most documents get outdated very quickly, but will still be floating about the cloud. Google Drive shows last-updated timestamps, but you may want to update the very top of your doc with changing project information or links to newer, more relevant docs.

6. Next Steps

You're well on your way to success within your organization! Trust, responsibility, and professional accolades are soon to be yours, both in your office cubicle and here in the cloud. If you have additional Google Docs pro tips, relevant productivity webinar seminars to discuss, or would like to share your own success testimonial, please join us in the comments. Thank you for reading.

Update: Please enjoy this article as a Google Document. Feel free to comment, duplicate it, and play with it.