One of the daily newspapers recently ran a competition for a short story that had to be completed in 6 words or less. No doubt the idea was inspired by Ernest Hemingway who penned the following: Fire Sale. Baby’s shoes. Never used. While few can aspire to Hemingway’s genius, we can set our sights a bit lower and still write really well. So, here’s the question: Are you a good writer? In my opinion, writing is a hugely important part of the executive toolkit and you need to get good at this. Take this quick test:
Positive Indicators (pat yourself on the back)
You enjoy writing and can pull your thoughts together quickly.
You read a lot of books, including novels (increases vocabulary).
It’s easy for you to find words to express what you mean.
Contra-indicators (start worrying)
You dislike writing and avoid it where possible.
It takes you a long time to capture what you want to say.
You can bang off an email, but longer reports/analysis material is difficult to construct.
Becoming a Great Writer: One approach is simply to eliminate the typical ‘mistakes’ that people make when writing even simple emails. Ignore the following points at your peril…
a. Albert Reynolds: Writers often overestimate the amount of information that the human brain can process. Keep it simple (use short words and short sentences) and keep it single (one purpose). Think of your reader as ‘Albert Reynolds’ (the former Taoiseach would not accept any briefing that was longer than 1 page).
b. Too Much: Who wants to read a 3168 word email? Perhaps this is more a ‘CYA’ for the sender than a message to the receiver? Central point = responsibility for effective communications stays with the sender. That responsibility doesn’t end when you press the ‘send’ button. It’s up to you to ensure that your message gets through. In writing, less is more.
c. Too Soon: I had one colleague who liked to send ‘draft’ materials. He drove me nuts with ‘stream of consciousness’ stuff which had not been thought through, structured or edited. But he felt good that it was ‘done’, one more thing off his mental to do list. That’s like throwing a pile of logs on the ground and thinking that it will assemble itself into a table. Unless you are in the Pentagon, most things don’t have to be sent immediately. Draft it. Then correct it. Right doesn’t mean ‘right now’ and most writing is re-writing!
d. So What? Lets assume that you have described the situation in clear language and people understand the core point. So what? What do you want the reader to do? (e.g. torture the CEO, make a €1 million donation to Amnesty International, fly to Australia to sort out a massive Koala Bear infestation?). Make your ‘ask’ crystal clear.
From Great To Inspired: Now, let’s assume that you have mastered the basics and want to step it up a gear. You don’t want to be a good writer; you want to be a great writer. What should you do next? There are a couple of possibilities to hone your art. You could…
Current Style: Analyse your current writing. Ask a journalist or a professional writer to look at examples you’ve completed. Do you have a ‘style’ that is powerful and persuasive?
Writers Group: There are a lot of writers groups around (mostly focused on fiction; it might help with the annual report!). While you may not wish to become a candidate for the Booker Prize, some of the ‘tricks’ learned can be applied in your day job.
Reader Focused: The central principle here = identification, getting into the hearts and minds of your audience. Remind yourself of the American Indian Motto: “To understand another it is necessary to walk in his moccasins”. Recall a personal contact with the person you are writing to. Relate recent events to the group which will interest them. Use logic & emotion to get inside their guard and lift the communication beyond the mundane.
Good News: Most business writing is boring and you won’t have to do much to appear smart in this space. I could say more but this bloody quill keeps breaking and it took so long to catch that last Golden Eagle and to pluck it.
Till next week…
PS True Story: This blog was inspired by the following true story. A couple of years back I wrote a novel, a thriller set in Dublin called The Badger Ruse. It was going to be such a big hit, that I would be on every media show and retire on the proceeds. Well, John Connolly can sleep easy in his bed. It was a worst-seller! Perhaps it needed more sex? Definitely more violence. God knows what it needed. Anyway, last week a royalty cheque arrived from the Publisher for €2.53. I just need to add 7 cent and have enough money to go into town on the bus for free. My kids thought it was great craic. Later that day, Cillian was doing a project for college and I offered to ‘critique’ it. For some reason, he declined. Told me he’d “Cheque in with me later”. He thought that was hilarious and fell around the kitchen laughing. Then the others all joined in. It’s hard to be a hero in my house!
PPS: Wind Energy: On the subject of brilliant communication, check out this advertisement. Thanks to Cariona Neary for passing this on.
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