Insights Into Effective Writing

Ed BurghardWords are a lens to focus one’s mind.
– Ayn Rand

Communicating with Management is a unique and important challenge.  Many people find it a real challenge to articulate their ideas in a way that Management can quickly understand and make decisions on.  But, if you expect to be a leader, becoming an effective communicator is mandatory.  It is a skill you need to develop.

One of the most efficient ways to communicate is in writing.  But, most academic programs do a poor job in teaching students how to write for the business environment.  And, my personal observation is that an increasing reliance on email seems to be encouraging the development of poor writing habits.   This translates into documents that are not as impactful as they could be.

Why Write?

As I have thought about this question, six reasons come to mind.  I think it is important every written document has a clear purpose.  I encourage you to always think about and identify that purpose.  It will serve as a guide and make the actual writing much easier.

Six Reasons

  1. stimulate action
  2. analyze experience
  3. confirm agreements
  4. keep people informed
  5. reply to Management questions
  6. summarize learning for future guidance

If you think about it, writing makes good business sense.  It can lead to faster decision making.  And, it gives you an opportunity to share your thinking in a way that minimizes the politics and lets logic be the go/no-go decision driver.   Consider these four benefits of effective writing.

Four Benefits

  • It is the most efficient way of communication
  • Management is accessible to everyone in the form of written communication
  • Your ideas are judged on their own merit
  • It gets the entire message, idea, or proposal before the decision-maker

One of the tools I learned at Procter & Gamble to guide writing is the TOWELS model.  It is a process flow that increases the probability of creating a quality document.  It is a model you might find helpful whether you are writing a memo or an email.  I particularly like the time lag between Leave and Send.  It has been my experience that too often people writing emails hit Send too quickly.  The auto correct feature on many devices can create embarrassing errors.  Taking an extra moment to double check what you write before you hit the Send button is a very smart habit to develop.  If you don’t believe me, check out these examples of awkward autocorrect mistakes.

TOWELS Model

  • Think
  • Outline
  • Write
  • Edit
  • Leave
  • Send

Tips For More Effective Writing

Everybody tends to approach writing differently.  But, there are some steps you can take to help ensure your writing is as effective as possible.  Here are seven steps I have found helpful throughout my career.  One thing a manager once told me is that writing isn’t about telling the reader everything you know.  It is about giving the reader everything needed to take the action you want them to.  In writing less is more often makes sense.  Extraneous information can confuse the reader.  I always found this a challenge.  But, my writing was always stronger if I heeded that advice.

Here are seven more tips to consider.

  • Determine who your reader is and what you want him or her to do or know
  • Define the key factors your reader will want to consider in making the decision
  • Gather all the necessary information relating to the key factors
  • Find the organizing idea.  What holds all the information together?
  • Decide what information to use as evidence
  • Write ideas randomly. When you write, don’t worry about the order at first
  • Trim from the bottom up.  Use the strongest material and eliminate the rest

Guiding Principles

At P&G, writing is viewed as a leadership tool.  We spent a lot of time training employees on how to write in a way that makes it easier for the reader to understand what you are trying to communicate.  I took some time to review the principles for better writing I learned during my P&G career, and have summarized the seven I thought might be most helpful to you.

  • Use clear, familiar words
  • Keep it short and simple
  • Use active rather than passive tense
  • Include people in your writing (words like “I”, “We”, specific names, etc.)
  • Use conversational style when appropriate
  • Gather all info before you start writing
  • Use positive words and phrases rather than negative

Discussion

I tend to believe writing is a very important skill to master for anybody who wants to be an effective leader.  Of course, my years at P&G have strongly influenced that perspective.  I do think the quality of writing I have been reading lately has declined and the discipline I grew up with seems to be lacking.  I do think one reason is emails and tweets are contributing to the “lazy writing” I am seeing.  My counsel to you would be to make the time to ensure your writing is high quality and as effective as it can be.  I’d love to know if your perception is the same as mine.  Do you feel the quality of writing you have been reading is declining, improving or has remained the same?  Leave a comment with your thoughts.

Leave a comment with your thoughts.

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3 Comments so far

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  2. Kimberly Kline

    September 10, 2013

    Wonderful! I really like your emphasis on “leave” before “send”. Proofreading is crucial if you want your words to have the desired impact. I also believe in the “less is more” philosophy. I try to use just enough words to convey my message.

    I will be sharing your article in my online paper so more can benefit from your suggestions! Thanks!

  3. Aigars

    September 29, 2013

    Fully agree that writing helps to clarify thinking and trains writer to be better salesman for his ideas.. On flip side, writing is much less action loaded.. Talking face to face makes leadership complete to me.. Writing sometimes may mislead into feeling of accomplishment, before the action and results are delivered…

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