Sunday, January 1, 2012

Why Executives Can’t Write

Executives achieve their positions, in part, because they’ve developed several very valuable talents and skills. It’s rare that effective writing is among those skills. Why would most executives disagree with that statement? Perhaps, because they think of writing as  an innate attribute, like being smart, rather than as a learned skill. There’s an old saying that, if we all communicated as well as we thought we did, there wouldn’t be any need for lawyers. While lawyers might find value in confusing documents, executives should not.

For executives who want to communicate effectively through business writing, the following issues might get in the way:

Lack of goals
In spite of the fact that everyone knows better, there’s a tendency in business to skimp on planning and get right to work on a project. This applies to business writing, as well. Remember, though, the more time you spend planning the documents you write, the more effective they’ll be.

In a business setting, the goals for writing boil down to two: to inform or to persuade. Be clear at the outset which you need to achieve. Follow Stephen Covey’s advice and get a picture of the end result you seek. Do you want your audience to be better informed on a certain topic? Do you want them to take a certain action, as a result of what you write? Then make what you write support that goal.

What you learned in school will still help you today. Determine your goal; create an outline to develop and organize your ideas; write from the outline; and take time to edit what you’ve written. If you can, have someone else edit it for you.

Lack of time 
Let’s face it, executives are busy, and the idea of giving extra time to something they write seems wasteful. However, there’s a relationship between writing effort and effectiveness that can’t be circumvented. Quick, unplanned writing will achieve a certain level of results. But, as the amount of effort increases, the level of effectiveness will also increase. It takes a certain amount of time for thought, organization, writing and editing. There’s no escaping the fact that someone has to put in that time, whether that’s you, or not.

If you can take the time for all the necessary steps, your business documents will be all the better for it. But, if you can’t, perhaps you should consider delegating all or part of the task to staff. If that's not feasible, consider hiring a freelance writer. Only you can determine which method is more cost effective.

Erroneous assumptions
Everyone starts with assumptions about their business writing. Be open to challenging your assumptions, and start with these:
  • You’re a natural writer. Don’t kid yourself. There is no such thing as a natural writer. The skill of writing, like any other, is learned and developed through focused study and practice. If you haven’t focused attention over a long period on the skill of writing, you probably don’t write at the level you think you do. 
  • If your spelling and grammar skills are high, your ability to write is also high. Spelling and grammar are essential tools of writing, but they are not synonymous with it. They are separate skills.
  • Repeat things for better understanding. Lawyers provide redundant and confusing language in contracts in order to gain advantages in negotiation and in court. For executives, on the other hand, adding more than one version of the same thought can only confuse readers.
  • You should try to impress others with your writing. If you’re a novelist, essayist, or poet, the language you use is part of what causes people to like your writing. In business, on the other hand, your writing should be invisible. It should support your goals without drawing attention to itself. Avoid wordy, ornate phrases. Shorter words and shorter sentences are easier to comprehend.
  • Business writing requires a serious tone. You should certainly strive to be accurate and business-like, but avoid a stiff, formal style of writing. Today’s business writing style is more casual and personal than it was in the past. Adopt a spare, crisp style that doesn’t waste words getting to the point.
  • Including lots of detail is helpful. Unless your audience is highly technical, and they expect a lot of detail, always remember that, “Less is more.” Include only as much detail as necessary to make your points. The amount to include is nearly always less than you think it is, so practice cutting excess verbiage. Bear in mind, the more detail you include, the more you shift the burden of deciding what’s important to your audience. It’s your job as the writer to tell them what is important.

Executives can’t write because they assume they are much better writers than they are. As a result, they sometimes make faulty assumptions, and they tend not to allocate sufficient time for the full writing task. To overcome these problems, they need to put in the time needed for effective writing, or they need to offload this responsibility to someone else. No one can make this determination for them, since there is a subjective consideration involved. However, their experience as an executive will enable them to make the decision that’s most beneficial, both to them and to the organization they serve.

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