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January 2016

Linking Your Profits To Your Words

"It is my job to ensure proper process deployment activities take place to support process institutionalization and sustainment. Business process management is the core deliverable of my role, which requires that I identify process competency gaps and fill those gaps."

Translation: “I’m the training director.” Thanks to Dianna Booher, a communications training consultant for Fortune 500 clients, for sharing that tangle of selfish, pompous business writing. (How about that "core deliverable?" Are other deliverables "non-core?" And if they are, why deliver them?)

Experts in the dismal science of economics can argue about wage stagnation, but the rest of us know one thing: This economy is on the mend. How long it will stay that way depends in good part on the rest of the world, particularly China. But in the meantime, productivity is sure to play a major role in post-Great Recession prosperity.

There are, of course, economies in shop floor scheduling, parts ordering, distribution, and all the other factors that go into being competitive. The physical nature of producing goods and services has been intensely scrutinized by industrial engineers for more than a century, and as efficiencies are put into place, businesses need fewer workers for the same -- or greater -- output.

But for my part, as a communications trainer, there's another way to view productivity, particularly in white-collar office work. It's about writing so efficiently that -- internal or external -- it goes out with a minimum of fuss (editing) thanks to clear expectations about the message. A few times since my first monthly newsletter eight years ago, I’ve mentioned three crucial writing guidelines:

  • Know -- and write for -- your audience.
  • View writing as a chance to expand and deepen your thinking.
  • Edit and revise yourself rigorously because a lackadaisical or rushed attitude toward self-review before you put a stamp on it or hit the "send" button can leave a harmful impression of you and your firm or agency.

Fine, you might say, but what’s that got to do with productivity? Plenty, if you view that triad as a unified whole aimed at clear and concise communications. If you don't take the time to know your readers, you risk irritating them and, at worst, confusing them and sending them off in the wrong direction. When I run writing seminars for federal employees, the more candid among them admit that when they communicate with the public, they’re motivated largely by the need to cover their own behinds.

That is, they're thinking first about their bosses, who in turn have their own superiors -- not to mention agency lawyers who want everyone to write defensively. Somewhere in that mix, the citizen readers' needs are often lost. I've seen memoranda from regulators to the regulated that would have business owners scurrying for their own lawyers because the writing is impenetrable.

And when the message isn't clear, the citizen -- a small business trying to live within confusing regs, perhaps -- tries to figure it out and come back with questions, and the agency in turn has to call a few meetings, and time fritters away. Or worse, the business owner, faced with time-sensitive marketplace pressures, takes action based on misreading the directive and then has to devote staff time and money -- eroding productivity -- to getting things right when the government finally says what it actually means.

That feeds right into the "writing is thinking" mandate that, if taken seriously at the early stages of the writing process, can vitalize communications in a productive and competitive company. The process takes writers through four overlapping stages -- exploratory, drafts, edit/revise, and final publication. The first stage is one that many skip because writing intimidates us and we want to get started, fill the legal pad or computer screen, and put it behind us.

By far the better course is to jot down everything that occurs to you on the subject in a sort of interior dialogue, then cross out what you don't need as you narrow things down to a manageable topic with subtopics that support the main point. What do you want the reader or readers to think, say, or do? From there, the writing organizes itself because you've done a thorough job of thinking beforehand.

When it works -- and it will -- readers come away from the experience informed, persuaded, queried, or simply entertained in something very close to the way you intended. They'll be grateful that they got your message in one reading. Good writing doesn't stand up and call attention to itself with big words and long sentences; it does seek clarity and understanding for the busy reader. Remember: The goal is to edify, not to impress.

Finally -- and continuously throughout the writing process -- there's editing and revising. As Ernest Hemingway, one of the great prose stylists of the last century, said, "Everyone needs an editor." And that editor should be you, the one who wrote it in the first place. Whenever possible, find someone else to look it over, but ultimately, read it yourself with a critical eye for spelling, grammar, length, and internal consistencies. Try to put yourself in the reader's place.

As an example of pathetically poor editing, imagine my reaction when I read through a "presolicitation notice" for "Train the Trainer Training" for Air Force recruiters. The notice was one endless paragraph with clotted sentences and numbered clauses citing Federal Acquisition Regulations. Wading through it, I thought I had some faint idea of what they wanted, and then I hit the last sentence: "This procurement is intended to be awarded as a sole source to The Brooks Group." Someone was covering his or her behind, and the hell with the reader.

Best wishes for 2016.