Remember when you first discovered finger painting? There sat the blank paper and pots of gooey, vibrant color. Miraculously, adults encouraged you to dive in with both hands and express yourself. Joy!
Do I dare compare that delightful experience to the writing assignment that currently dogs your work days? Yes, I dare.
Granted, many professionals find work-related writing a slog: Hard to get started. Easy to get lost in the weeds. All that information to present with clarity and good grammar (not to mention in a style that people actually want to read)…How to soldier through?
Here’s an insider secret: There’s no mystery to good writing and it doesn’t have to be an epic struggle.
Writing is a creative process with user-friendly steps.
Learn those steps and you understand how to generate ideas, banish the dreaded blank screen, and organize thoughts into compelling copy. If you do get stuck in the weeds, you know how to navigate your way out.
Science confirms it: Writing that is vivid and easy to read holds your audience’s interest, gets remembered, and influences thinking (see links below).
Written communication is, after all, a human-to-human connection, even in a high-stakes business setting.
When you command your creative process, writing assignments become welcome opportunities to:
• Teach colleagues what you need them to know.
• Motivate people to take the action(s) you want them to.
• Get your ideas and viewpoints in front of the right audience.
That’s what effective writing is all about.
It is possible to spend less time wrestling with logistics and more time connecting with your readers. One place to learn how is in a 7 Steps to Better Writing workshop. We teach a process to remove the stumbling blocks and create a path to get your good ideas “on paper” and out to the people you want to influence.
We encourage you to dive in with both hands and express yourself!
Know thy audience.
If you could take only one action to improve your work-related writing, understanding your readers is the one that delivers the greatest return. Answer this question before you begin any piece of writing (yes, even emails):
Who is my audience and what do I want him/her/them to know?
Does this sound like an obvious, almost automatic first step?
Far too often, people start out writing in hopes that what they intend to say will become clear as they type. This approach tries readers’ patience. Who has time to rummage through your heap of words to find the relevant nuggets?
You’ve got eight seconds to grab your readers’ interest. Make every second count by recognizing a foundation of modern business communication:
It’s all about them, not you.
Distractions are many, time is short, and your readers are self-centered out of necessity. To draw them in, convey right up front why they should continue reading. That applies as much to the quarterly report for the department head as it does to your organization’s website.
“I have some information that will bring value to your world.”
Is this the message conveyed by what you write at work? If not, you have a clue as to why your writing may not have the effect you desire. People are more likely to get the message when you deliver it in a style that engages them and considers their interests. That has always been a tenet of good writing. Now–in a world where people are primed to demand “personalized experiences”–it’s The Holy Grail.
To craft relevant content, you must first…
1. Define your audience.
Here are some questions to consider:
- Are your readers professional peers, authorities in other fields, the general public?
- How much do your readers already know about the subject? Are they experts, somewhat familiar with the topic, or new to the ideas you’ll present?
- What is the “temperature” of your audience? Friend or foe, interested or indifferent, respectful or unreceptive?
- Who are you to your audience? Mentor, colleague, advocate, authority?
2. Define your purpose.
What do you aim to accomplish? What effect do you want your words to have? What action do you want your audience to take when they’re done reading?
Be specific and concrete. If you don’t know where you’re headed, it’s going to be tough to take readers with you. Here are a few examples:
Vague: Announce new research findings on addiction.
Better: Describe new research findings on the neural mechanisms of addiction and how they may lead to more effective treatments.
Vague: Compile your federal agency’s annual report to Congress.
Better: Present the benefits delivered by agency programs and describe how they meet legislative mandates in order to justify continued funding by Congress.
When you get clear about your audience and purpose, you gain insight into the best medium for your message. You can evaluate the most effective length, tone, and writing style.
Here are examples of some possible audiences and venues for those research findings on addiction:
- Neuroscience peers – Research.gov, peer-reviewed journal article
- MDs, psychologists, social workers – Features in association/professional magazines and websites, blog
- General/specialized media – Web and mobile friendly news releases and fact sheets
When you know who your readers are, you can also scope out which social media channels your audience frequents–LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc.–and target posts accordingly.
Understand your audience and purpose and you’ll be closer to sharing your knowledge where and how it will have its greatest impact.
Further reading on the modern attention span:
Bad writing costs American businesses $396 billion a year.
You read that right. Companies waste 6% of total wages on employees struggling to understand poorly written material, says Josh Bernoff, business communications expert.
Bernoff calls this profit drain the “poor writing tax.”
You lose a sale because a potential client clicks past company website jargon that obscures your value…tax penalty.
A colleague misconstrues the meaning of an unclear email…tax penalty.
A challenge sets you back because a report buried the issue in meandering paragraphs…well, you get the idea.
Why do poorly worded documents add up to such a hefty burden? Because professionals spend 22% of their work time reading, according to Bernoff. High earners read even more on the job.
Did you realize that so much of your success rides on how well your team members get their points across in writing?
Clear communication is a strategic imperative. For the sake of your organization’s prosperity and mission, employees need to learn to say what they mean to each other…and to customers, vendors, and partners.
Time for Some Tax Relief
Training people to write better makes solid business sense. But before you tackle the poor writing tax, consider this:
Corporations already spend $3 billion a year on remedial writing training, according to a survey of Business Roundtable members. Meanwhile, the “people can’t write” problem persists.
Here are three steps to help you get your money’s worth from training and set up your team for success:
1. Make good writing a tenet of your company culture.
Support from management is vital if clear, concise writing is to take root in your organization. People need a “why?” in order to change habits.
Good writing takes focus and practice. What’s the point of all that effort if there’s no reward? When leaders hold up effective written communication as the standard and a prerequisite for success, suddenly employees have a compelling why.
2. Make written communication part of your permanent training strategy.
You wouldn’t expect the software training that your employees took a couple of years ago to be relevant for a couple more. The same goes for your writing training.
- Technology and trends change the way people get their information. For example, at the dawn of the decade, few people were evangelizing about “writing for mobile.” Now you need to be read on smartphones and tablets.
- Readability is a science and writing conventions change with new discoveries. People don’t read a printed page the same way they do a laptop screen or mobile device. If you want to reach your audience where and how they read, you’ve gotta keep up.
- You’ll always be hiring new employees. They need to know what your company considers “good writing.”
You can’t evade the poor writing tax with a once-and-done burst of training.
3. Choose training that is customized for your organization’s needs.
One size does not fit all when it comes to a writing workshop.
Research scientists don’t write about the same subjects for the same audiences as financial planners do. Government contractors speak a different language than entertainment marketeers.
Yes, there are writing basics that apply across the board, but there are also specific challenges that keep your staff from being clear communicators. People pay more attention when they engage with the kind of real-life writing they face on the job.
Isn’t it time to exempt your business from the poor writing tax and boost your team’s communications skills?
Josh Bernoff’s The State of Business Writing
The Writing Project’s Writing: A Ticket to Work…Or a Ticket Out
Did you know there’s a near full-proof way to improve your writing…hang on a sec. Just got a text.
Anyway, you can start right now and it doesn’t require…excuse me, I think I just got the email I’ve been waiting for all morning.
OK, I’m back. There’s no grammar involved and…oh, major client calling. Gotta take this.
By now you’ve likely guessed the button you can push to become a better writer almost instantly. It’s the button that silences the electronic device that’s distracting you. The text ting. The email notice. The buzz from that incoming call.
Create the conditions that are conducive to good writing and your work-related communications are much more likely to hit their mark.
The most important pre-writing step you can take is to eliminate distractions.
You’ve heard this a million times before: there’s no such thing as efficient multi-tasking. Go ahead and roll your eyes. I’ve got some science on my side.
First, what’s your motivation to even bother with this whole “no distractions” thing? Poor writing might cost you the job of your dreams.
Your employer wants you to write well because it costs a pretty penny when you can’t. A survey of Business Roundtable members–the executives of America’s leading corporations–reveals they spend some $3 billion a year on remedial writing training. Almost all of that investment goes to train current employees, not new hires.
To nip the problem before it starts, 80% of surveyed companies work to identify weak writers during the hiring process. Fifty percent also take writing into account when they make promotions.
Bottom line: good writing can take you places.
Now on to the science that shows why you should tame your technology to become a better writer.
Distractions drain your intellectual mojo.
Not all distractions, mind you. Minimal harm is done if you’re interrupted in the middle of a task by another short, low-demand activity, according to research by Gloria Mark, professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine.
If your colleague pops in to confirm that you’re on for lunch, you can slip back into the groove of writing that report. Mark finds this is also true if an interruption deals with the same topic–say, pausing to look up a statistic for your report.
But if you have to switch your cognitive resources to a completely different topic, it takes an average of 23 minutes to bring your full attention back to the task. Mark finds that people switch between unrelated small tasks an average of every three minutes and five seconds. Workers jump between entire projects every 10 and a half minutes.
Do the math. That’s a major chunk of the work day spent on just refocusing.
Along the same lines, a group of management experts studied the psychic costs when workers switch between tasks that require different mindsets. To change your mindset, you must shift to a different perspective or way of thinking to perform a new activity.
Results show that frequent mindset shifts throughout the day have a negative impact on workers’ persistence, focus, and patience. The management gurus recommend workday schedules that group together activities that require the same mindset.
If fighting off distractions seems like an epic slog, you don’t have to go it alone. Software and techniques abound to help you ignore your worst electronic distractions…or at least organize them to work in your favor.
Your new-found freedom and focus will make you a better writer. And good writing is one way you’ll make your mark at work.