What place does empathy have in business writing?

What place does empathy have in business writing?

All the places. All. Of. Them.

If your writing isn’t empathetic to your readers’ needs, you’ve failed. End of story.

Who are you writing for? YOU?

All those bad, waffly, long-winded, not-fit-for purpose documents you see at work? Those are the result of writers writing to satisfy their own needs.

Don’t believe me?  How about these needs writers have:

  • the need to look good in their role
  • the need to come across like they know what they’re doing
  • the need to “do it right”
  • the need to show evidence of enough work
  • the need to sound knowledgeable
  • the need to sound “professional”
  • the need to not sound stupid

See what I mean?

Those are very real drivers, and I believe they are the root cause of most bad business writing.

But. If you switch your focus to your readers’ needs and write for them, not for you, magic happens.

What happens when you think about your readers

I’m talking about the kind of magic that happens when you:

  • Give your readers the bottom line up front, instead of making them look for it.
  • Omit those sections that no one ever reads, but that are there because they’ve always been done like that (or just push them further back, like to the appendices, if you need them there to cover butts).
  • Answer your readers’ questions before you tell them all the stuff you want them to know.
  • Acknowledge the fact that business readers skim-read, and then write to support that behaviour (headings, bullets, tables, white space)

We’ve been lying to ourselves

For such a long time we’ve tried to believe work and emotions are separate. But we do so much work on “soft skills” and emotional intelligence these days. We know those are vital!

We spend millions of dollars building empathetic leaders.

Can we PLEASE bring some of that knowing to our writing at work?

Writing for outcomes part 3 – tools for document structure

OK, so you’ve taken care of your up-front framing, and you’ve started to drill down to the clarity you need to write an amazing, fit-for-purpose document that’s gonna help you take over the universe.

But now you’ve got to the real guts of it:  what do you actually write??? (Press play for dramatic sound effect.)

Why is writing so hard?

So here’s the thing.  You know your stuff.  And that’s both a blessing and a curse, because

  1. you know everything your reader needs to know, but
  2. YOU KNOW FAR MORE THAN YOUR READER NEEDS TO KNOW!

And you really want your reader to know all that, too.  Which is a mistake.

Because let me be clear: the more words you use, the weaker the message.

Yes, I said it.  The key to good writing is to write less.  The more words you use—the more text on a page, the more you think in someone’s general direction—the more likely they are to miss your point.  Your bottom line.  Your slap in the face.  Or kick in the ass.  Or pat on the back (I thought I’d better add in a warm fuzzy—apparently my violent alter-ego is writing today).

Filtering through everything you know and want to say—and stripping back to only the key points—is the real challenge.

A process for stripping back

First of all, read and follow the steps I gave you in part 1.  Then part 2.  There’s stuff in there you need to produce before you follow this process.

Once you’ve nailed that, do this:

  1. DUMP – get that shit out of your head. Brain dump.    Sketch, purge, freewrite, list, use Post-its.  Do whatever you need to do, to get your thinking outside of your head.  Because outside is where you can work with it.
  2. CHUNK – take that messy dump and group it together into chunks of related info. (If you wanna feel really cool, call this a thematic analysis.)
  3. LABEL – describe each of those chunks of info. But don’t use one-word labels.  Describe the chunk, like ‘How we got here’, ‘What we found’, ‘How we can fix the problem’.  These will become your headings.  And your readers will love them!
  4. FILTER – using the purpose and the primary reader you identified in part 2, look at each beautifully labelled chunk and ask Does my reader need to know THIS for my document to achieve its purpose? Now here’s the gold (I love this. I’m excited.  Can you tell?). If your answer is:
    • YES – put it in! YUSS!
    • NO – leave it out! DUH.
    • MAYBE / I’M NOT SURE / SOME READERS NEED IT – then either mention it, summarise it, point the reader to where they can find it outside of the document, or push it to the appendices. When in doubt, go to the appendix.  It’s like magic.  All the evidence that you know your stuff and you’ve done a shitload of work and you’re worth your weight in gold, without losing your reader.
  5. ORDER – look at the chunks you have left and put them in order based on what’s most important to YOUR READER.

Now you have a plan!

Some people might call it an outline.  But that sends way too many of us back into PTSD-like flashbacks from our university days.  So let’s just call it a plan.  A map, maybe.

That plan means you can now write.  With ease and clarity.  Without second-guessing yourself and angsting over what to say or what not to say.  It means you can write fast and that’s good on every level (read here for how good writing saves money).

Your extra set of steak knives

My favourite thing about this process is this: it gives you confidence.  It’s one of the most common comments I get from participants in my trainings: I feel confident now.  I know what I’m doing.  I can relax. (Press play for a heavenly chorus celebrating your  amazingness.)

And that, my friends, is what it’s all about.  Now write!