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 persuade and get buy-in

How not to argue

If you’re in an energetic discussion with someone, what’s a sure-fire way to get them to dig their heels in?

Flat-out tell them they’re wrong. Point out all the faults in their logic. Deny their point of view.

The more you do that, the greater the barrier between you. You’re building a wall (aye, Donald).

How to argue with a chance of winning

But if you want any chance of getting them to hear you, getting them to consider there’s a different way to look at the issue, if you want to be heard, they need to feel heard first.

To influence, persuade, and get buy-in to your ideas, you have to remove the barriers between you.  You have to create connection, clear some common ground, so that then the foundations of your reasoning can be built together, one block at a time.

But Shelly, how do you know?

I’m a writing trainer. You’d think I spend most of my time training people in the skills of good writing. But really, I spend most of my time winning people over.

I teach plain language. And plain language is the polar opposite of most of the ‘rules’ of good writing you learned at university. It goes against all the things you learned about using higher-level, more complex language to sound more intelligent, against the written voice you’ve always believed is what will give you credibility at work.

The people I train have had those ideas reinforced (and been rewarded for them) for years – often decades.  The only way I can get them onside is to make sure they feel heard, validated, affirmed in their position, and then gently persuaded to consider a different view. And to sit with that different view. To play with it. To experience it. And to decide for themselves.

I’m a professional mind-changer.

The principles are the same when writing

So, to be persuasive in your writing, you need to do those same things.

1. Acknowledge the reader’s position

Like in all good business writing, start with your bottom line up front. Tell them where the destination is before you start the journey. That’s always a thing. And then, address their concerns. In NLP it’s sometimes called objection inoculators. Don’t leave objections simmering away in the background. Address them straight up. Acknowledge them as real and valid.

2. Validate their concerns

There’s a careful balancing act here of acknowledging validity, showing you understand the thinking and can see that it’s a reasonable position, without adding fuel to the fire.

Try using phrases like:

  • It’s a common and understandable position…
  • We’ve previously believed…
  • Understandably, we have fears around…

3. Know their points of leverage

Here’s where intimate insight into your reader’s way of thinking becomes vital.  If you know your reader is swayed by financial benefits, address those – and do it hard. If you know they’re particularly concerned with efficiency, processes, streamlining, show them benefits related to those. If long-term strategy is their thing, focus there. Maybe it’s quality. Maybe it’s ego. Know your reader, and use what will sway them.

4. Emotion always plays a part

Again, it’s a careful balance. Most influencers in the workplace will respond negatively to writing that is overly emotive – we’re so used to being sold to through informercials and hard sales pitches. So don’t do that. But the occasional subtle and well-placed emotive word for impact will work. While we don’t want to overuse emotion, we also don’t want to fall into the trap of believing that there’s no place for emotions in business. That’s simply not true – humans run businesses. Humans are emotional. The end.

5. Everything else is an extra set of steak knives

After all that, hit them with all the bonuses.  All the added extras!

Once you’ve addressed their concerns and leveraged their wants and drivers, show them all the benefits they never even considered.

Make it too good to say no to.  Just too valuable, too beneficial.

Overpower their arguments – not by fighting against, but by winning over.

Ready to go?

Practice this in conversation. Then plan out a well-sculpted argument and write the damn thing.

You’ll never know whether you can win someone over if you don’t try.

How to write a report

#SorryNotSorry but there’s no such thing as how to write a report.

A  REPORT.

Like there is one kind of report and there’s one right way to write one.

Meeehhh! Wrong. But thanks for playing.

There are endless kinds of reports

  • status reports
  • research reports
  • analysis reports
  • financial reports (hundreds of kinds)
  • investigation reports
  • incident reports
  • audit reports

See what I mean? You’re not asking the right question.

How to write a report isn’t the right question.

You need to be asking how to write THIS report.

Every single report needs to be written in a way that’s fit for its own purpose. So there’s a set of questions to ask so you can build a report that will achieve what it needs to.

  1. How’s this report going to be used?
  2. Who’s going to use it?
  3. Therefore, what sections does the report need?
  4. And lastly, what level of detail do those people need in each of those sections, so they can use the report for their purposes?

Now you’re on the right track

If you can answer those questions, you have a plan. Once you have a plan, you can write the pieces that are easiest first, and work your way from there. Lots of reports should have an executive summary (pretty much any report that’s 2 pages or longer needs one), and you can write that last.

Reports.

They can be big beasties, but they are certainly manageable. And there’s definitely NOT one right way to write a report. Please stop asking!

You can’t please everyone

When I first started writing professionally I felt really confident in my writing abilities. I’d already been a writer with a masters in creative writing for almost 20 years. I’d published, edited, and taught writing at high schools, universities, and on an international academic stage.  I was ready.

So it surprised me just how much editing feedback I got from clients. On one hand, I thought I’d done a good job finding just the right words and weaving and sculpting them in just the right way. On the other hand, my ego thought they should defer a little more to my professional expertise (*roll eyes here*).

In some client organisations, I’d get feedback from 10 or 20 people, much of it contradictory. Faaark.

I’d spend hours sculpting and polishing after the initial drafts. My confidence started to waver. Why couldn’t I get it right?

Well, I gotta tell you, that didn’t last long. I started sculpting and polishing less and less. Each time I’d write and submit work to a client, I’d invest a little less time to that last, wordsmithing stage.

And guess what? I still got the same amount of feedback. EXACTLY. THE. SAME.

You know why?

Because #humans.

Language is subjective. Humans are fickle. We’re individuals. With our own experiences, biases, perceptions, values, all of it.

What that means for you and me when we write?

THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS PERFECT.

YOU CAN’T PLEASE EVERYONE.

No matter how much time I spend trying to find the perfect word or shimmery turn of phrase, someone will think there’s a different way to say it. They’ll think there’s a better way to say it.

So.

Write purposefully, planned, and with a strong lens for clarity and your reader’s needs. Follow that with a strong plain language edit and a final proofread. Any minutes and hours you spend beyond that are likely to give you a low (if any) return on your investment of time and effort.

You can’t please everyone. Write what works for the majority, know people will always have ideas about alternative ways to say/write it, and move on. You’ve got plenty on your to-do list, right?

The formal business voice is dead

In PR we know what makes a successful apology and what doesn’t. SUCCESSFUL APOLOGY = a conversational, human approach:

Hi Shelly We’re sorry we got the date wrong for setting up the internet at your new home.  We know that was really inconvenient. Thanks for letting us know about the mistake so we could fix it.  We’ll do our best to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Thanks,Your Favourite Internet Provider

UNSUCCESSFUL APOLOGY = the traditional, formal business voice

Dear valued customerIt is with regret that we write to express our apologies for the recent error.There was an unavoidable disruption within our system due to a service upgrade.   We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.SincerelyJust Another Nameless Faceless Internet Provider

I imagine you would struggle to think of the last time you were happy to read something written in that voice.  And I’m not just talking about apologies.  So I want to say this to you:

The formal business voice is DEAD.

There is no longer ANY place for it in business today. I cannot find a single situation where the formal voice is helpful. Oh no wait, that’s not true.  There is one time:  If you want to threaten, use the formal voice. “Should the undersigned not comply with the aforementioned conditions, immediate remedial action will be undertaken.” If you want to alienate and intimidate and put the fear of god (or the courts) into someone, use the formal voice.  If you want to achieve almost anything else on the planet, use a conversational voice.

I imagine that so far you’re reading and thinking, well duh, that’s obvious.

But here’s something I’ve learned through training thousands of people to write better in business contexts:  Our writer selves don’t know what our reader selves do. You know good writing.  When you read (at work) you want clear, straight to the point, no fluff, no mucking around.  But when you sit down to write, a completely different set of knowings takes over, and we completely forget what we know as readers (or we think we’re different.  Special.  Unusual because we want those things.  We’re not – sorry ‘bout it.  Everyone wants concise, clear, direct writing). Our writer-selves believe:

  • there are unbreakable rules for good writing at work (and we learned them at school/university)
  • we’ll sound unprofessional (or unintelligent) if our writing is too casual
  • the examples of bad writing that we see all around us (that we HATE to read) are what’s expected of us in a business setting, period

Are you scared?

You wouldn’t be alone.  I may have just shaken your foundations. Alan Siegel, who’s known internationally for his work simplifying legal documents (while retaining all their legal power), describes what he does as “a means to achieving clarity, transparency, and empathy – building humanity into communications.” I LOVE THAT because right there is my issue with the formal business voice and why I say it’s DEAD:  The formal business voice removes the humanity. It takes out the people.  It takes out the you, we, us and switches to third person – the client, the user. It removes ownership and accountability and instead just talks about things “happening”, like: Mistakes were made.  [isn’t that wonderful?  They just happened.  No one is to blame.] It is recommended.  [By whom?  The universe?]

Don’t believe me?

People have been researching this stuff for decades.  And we know that a simple, conversational voice is far more successful when compared to the formal voice:

  • It’s shorter
  • It’s easier to understand
  • It’s more engaging
  • It deescalates situations rather than escalating them (the formal voice sounds pompous and the last thing you want when tensions are high is to sound pompous – cos that helps. )

Still don’t believe me?

Think about brands you love.

Think about how they write to you – by email, in agreements, terms and conditions, on the web.  They have a conversation with you.  They don’t talk down to you.  And you know what?  If THEY can use a conversational, everyday voice and drop the formality in their business writing, SO CAN YOU. The formal business voice is DEAD.  It’s old, shrivelled, fossilised. You’re not! So write like a human.  Preferably a live one.