Getting clarity – how do I write more clearly?

In all my trainings, with hundreds of professionals each year, this is the thing people ask for above all else:  How do I write more clearly?

The answer is so simple it’s almost embarrassing:  Write the way you speak.

Yes, really.

Write the way you speak.  In every document.

I don’t care whether the audience is a CEO or board or minister in government or guys on the street or a scientist.  I don’t care whether you’re writing a technical specification or a standard or a policy or an email or a website.  Just write the way you speak. 

Here’s why.

You’ll increase your credibility

Research shows that writing more like the way we speak gives us more credibility.  It makes us sound smarter.  That’s good for our career development, for our brand, for our business outcomes.

So,

  • write using everyday words – use instead of utilise, today instead of on today’s date, we recommend instead of it is recommended
  • write the kind of sentence patterns we use for speech – in a nutshell, that’s the active voice over the passive voice (and that’s a whole other article – check out this one while I write mine)

You’ll appear more confident

Confidence sells.  It reassures.  It stands out.  It gets remembered and responded to.  Studies support that expressing things confidently gets better outcomes.

So,

  • own your statements – say we think, I recommend, you should, not some have observed, it is recommended, should be considered…
  • use fewer words – the more words we use, the weaker the message. Think of an EXIT sign.  It doesn’t say Consider removing yourself from the building through this orifice in the event of an untimely or unexpected occurrence.  It just says EXIT.

You’ll revert to what comes naturally

Imagine how much simpler business communications would be if they were more like conversations?  It’s faster to write that way, it’s faster to read that way, and we can all get on with our to-do lists.  We know this for a fact.  So,

  • trust your instincts about how to express an idea – we’re all actually pretty great at communicating verbally
  • read what you’ve written out loud – does it sound like you’re actually having a conversation?

You’ll get rid of confusion and misinterpretation

When we write the way we speak we’re more direct.  The academic, legal, and traditionally formal corporate voice is a minefield of ambiguity.  It’s learned and affected and therefore not natural.  That means it’s harder for us to get right.  It’s commonly recognised that the active voice is strong from a legal standpoint.

So,

  • start your sentences with a whothe client damaged the car, not the car was damaged
  • break up long sentences – the more ideas and words in a sentence, the more opportunity for misinterpretation

As I always say in my trainings – just test it out.  Just give it a try and see what kind of response you get.  If no one mentions anything about the change, that’s a win!  It means your writing is working.  Even better, people might comment on how easy something was to read, or how quickly you’ve been plowing through the emails.  Again, a definite win.

The only caution I have is about expectations.

If you want to dramatically change the way you’re writing documents that others have to approve, give managers/reviewers/end users a heads up.

Get buy-in.  A disconnect in expectations is guaranteed to bring out the red pen – and resistance to change.

Other than that, go!

Be free!

And write the way you speak.

How to write a resignation letter

So you want to quit your job

It’s time to move on. You’ve got a better offer. Or you’re ready to tell your boss, F*ck you and the horse you rode in on.

Whatever the reason, there’s usually a legal obligation to give written notification and a period of notice.

(Check your contract. You might want legal advice. If there’s any possibility things could go badly in future, you want a written record that you met your legal obligations when you left. I’ve used a resignation letter many years later in court, and it was vital in showing the organisation had a long history of certain behaviour.)

To figure out how to write your resignation letter, you need to know what it needs to accomplish for you.

Every situation is different

To know how best to write your letter of resignation, you need to think about:

  • What does this need to accomplish for me?
  • What do I need them to know?
  • What do I want them to know?
  • What risks are involved in anything I potentially want to say?
  • What level of risk am I willing to accept?

Let’s look at some scenarios.

Scenario 1 – You’ve told them verbally, and you’re just meeting your obligation to give written notice

(This also works when you haven’t told them verbally, and you have no interest in giving them any information about why you’re leaving. It’s professional and matter of fact.)

Hi Donna

Just letting you know that I’ll be finishing work with Dream Job as of 1 February 2019.

Thanks,

Shelly

Keep it simple, short, and to the point. It’s hard for someone to read anything into it, the simpler you keep it.

Scenario 2 – You’ve loved working there, and you want them to know you’re grateful.

Hi Donna

Just letting you know that I’ll be finishing work with Dream Job as of 1 February 2019.

I’ve been offered an exciting role as a unicorn trainer at Even Dreamier Job.

It’s been great working with you – I’ll really miss the team!

Thanks for everything, 

Shelly

Scenario 3 – You want it on the record that there are reasons you’re leaving, and you hope to create change by letting them know.

Hi Donna

Just letting you know that I’ll be finishing work with Dream Job as of 1 February 2019.

Why I’m leaving

  • I’ve let you know my concerns that my values don’t align with the values of the company
  • I’ve struggled to work effectively with Carol and what I consider to be her micro-managing
  • I’ve let you know what’s happening but nothing has changed
  • For my own wellbeing, I’m moving on

My hopes for the company

  • I hope that future employees won’t be subjected to this treatment
  • I’d hope you get Carol some leadership training, or take disciplinary action to get her behaviour under control

I wish you all the best

Shelly

Scenario 4 – You just want to stand up for yourself because you deserve better, and there’s no risk to you in doing so.

Hi Donna

Just letting you know that I’ll be finishing work with Dream Job as of 1 February 2019.

Why I’m leaving

    • I’ve felt unappreciated
    • I believe I deserve to be treated with more respect
    • I won’t continue working somewhere where getting shouted at by my boss is allowed.

Shelly

Scenario 5 – You’re hurt, you’re angry, and you want to let them know.

Be careful. What will this achieve?  What risks might it cause for you? Be very purposeful. I suggest you revisit Scenarios 1, 3, and 4, and go with one of those.

Now get that sucker written. Then go be a Unicorn Trainer.

Be free!

How to be concise – strip out the fluff!

Being wordy is only good if you’re a dictionary.

If there’s one thing we know about text, it’s that messages get weaker as the word count grows.  But, flick our writer switch, and what happens?  The more concerned we are with getting our point across, the more words we use!

Doh!

We’re worried people won’t get it.  We’re worried they might miss something.  So we say the same thing over and over again, in slightly different ways, trying to cover all our bases.  All the “just in case”s.  Every eventuality.

You know what that gets us?  Really badly written legalese.

Brief = strong

The best business writing is stripped back to just what’s needed to make your points and achieve your outcomes.

So how do we strip our writing back, but still be comprehensive enough to get the job done?  Here are a few quick approaches.

Strip out fluffy, wordy phrases

It’s easy, when we’re trying to put our most professional foot forward, to take on an unnaturally wordy voice.  Because we want to be taken seriously, we try to sound a bit more formal.  Resist!

UseInstead of
toin order to
canbe able to
becauseas a consequence of
considergive consideration to

Write less formally and more conversationally

We think a conversational voice is waffly, and that’s true in one respect – we speak in very long, run-on sentences with lots of “and”s.

But if we use conversational to mean the active voice and everyday words, that will be less wordy than a traditional formal voice.

Use headings and bullets

A well-written heading speaks directly to your reader.  It engages them. The following approach forces you to think first, write second, and do that in a very focused way.

  1. Separate your thinking into key points
  2. Turn those into statement headings
  3. Then list supporting info as bullet lists beneath them

And no, before you ask, I’m not suggesting that you then flesh out each of those bullets into a paragraph.  The bullets are enough!  Use them as often as you can (but keep each list short – no more than 7 bullets).

Stay concise and outcomes focused and your business readers will love you for it!