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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
start your sentences with a who – the 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.
OK, I need to take you on a little bit of a journey to explain what I mean here, so bear with me.
I have a background as an educator. I trained as a high school English teacher. I started teaching at universities at 21 years old. I worked in indigenous tertiary education for 7 years.
I now train adults for a living.
Trainer. Teacher. Educator. Facilitator.
In the education sector we have strong feelings about all these words.
In the school of education, we frown on the word ‘train’ because there’s a history of seeing teaching as a vocation rather than a profession.
In indigenous education we prefer the word ‘facilitate’ because it rejects the ‘empty vessel’ pedagogy that has such close links with colonisation.
When teaching adults, we are less likely to use the word ‘teach’ for similar reasons – working with adults requires a more co-constructive, facilitative approach than a teacher-student model.
I make good money as a corporate trainer because that is what companies are looking for. When adult participants come into a room with me they want me to teach them things. They are looking to me to have the expertise I can pass on to them.
But here’s the curveball: in a lot of ways, what I’m delivering to people when I train, teach, educate, or facilitate, is CONNECTION.
I teach people how to connect with other humans, because that is the foundation for all the other things we want to achieve.
And this is coming from one of the most loving and empathetic people I know (that’s me – yes, I’m saying nice things about myself. And?)
I’ve believed since I was a teenager that I’m on this earth to love. Empathy is one of my superpowers. I was raised in a family who are incredibly skilled and generous with expressions of love.
But. People are still frikn irritating.
I road rage a bit more than I should. I roll my eyes at people too easily. I’m certainly intolerant with my children fairly regularly.
Now that we’ve established the fact that I’m human and imperfect, I have some advice.
Every day in training rooms, my first task is to connect with every person in the room. I believe they can learn better, I can teach better, and we’ll have a more positive experience if we’ve found some way to break down some barriers and feel a bit connected. It’s the purpose of icebreakers (I just puked in my mouth a little bit). It’s just that icebreakers get used badly so most of us hate them.
In every group, there are always 1 or 2 people I have to try a bit harder with. You know those ones you just don’t gel with? Maybe they have a resting bitch face. Or maybe they don’t laugh at your jokes. Or maybe they only give one-word answers or don’t make eye contact. Whatever it is.
To connect, share
The only way I know to get past that is to keep going until I can find a commonality. To find things in common we have to share stuff. If I want people to share stuff, I have to go first. So I’m an oversharer in a training room. Consciously. Purposefully.
You’ll find out that my moko kauae is still fairly new. That I have grandchildren – holy f*ck – and I’m still surprised by that. You’ll find out I live in Hamilton and that we were once the chlamydia capital of New Zealand.
I talk. I share. Until people start to see I’m just human. A bit of a weirdo. Until they see I might have some things about me that are like them.
Then, ask questions
Then I need to ask enough meaningful open-ended questions to give people a chance to share useful stuff with me.
Commonalities we might find:
things we hate
activities we love
embarrassing experiences we can relate to
schools, towns, countries, trips
If you can connect at a values level, there’s no looking back
The more we talk, the more we share, we inevitably find that we share values. And once you’ve discovered that? Those other difference seem less significant.
You wear a hijab and I wear a moko kauae. Different, right? But both expressions of our identity and the things we believe in. We’re both committed enough to what we believe in to wear it on the outside. To make our beliefs visible in a crowd.
And all of a sudden?
We’re the same. Deep down.
If you want to connect with people, you need to find things in common. Things that build a connection. Do you have a neighbour who pisses you off? Find some things in common. Things you can build on. Connections that will outweigh the irritants. Got a co-worker you want to throat punch? Find commonalities. One of your children who just keeps rubbing you the wrong way? Build on the things you can find in common.
In PR we know what makes a successful apology and what doesn’t. SUCCESSFUL APOLOGY = a conversational, human approach:
Hi ShellyWe’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 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.
In my trainings, structure is one of the most common things participants say they want help with. They hope I’m going to give them a standard report structure. *snort* That’s like unicorn farts – would probably be really lovely but there’s no such thing. Sorry bout it.
The structure of the rest of the document determines its success (ie – YOUR outcome).
Shall I say it again? Write for them. Not for you. That’s the only way you’re going to ultimately get what you’re after.
Purpose, purpose, bla, bla, bla
Any writing trainer worth their salt will tell you to identify the purpose of a document before you start writing. This is true. But I find purpose – both the word and the concept – problematic.
Firstly it’s overly and inappropriately used as a heading (how many documents have you read that have the heading purpose followed by a waffly, non-specific introduction??).
And second, when I ask people what the purpose of their document is, they give me answers like –
to inform… (for what purpose? We don’t tell people stuff for no reason)
to analyse… (documents don’t analyse things. People do)
to define… (see above)
to describe… (see above above. For what purpose?)
None of which give a writer the drilled-down clarity we need to develop a fit-for-purpose structure.
Instead, I train people to ask 2 questions:
What does this document need to ACHIEVE?
If this document works, what will HAPPEN?
Both questions direct us to a tangible, observable action by our reader.
Know your audience, bla, bla, bla
Again, everyone tells us this. And it’s true. But what’s most common in business documents today is that we have multiple audiences, with differing needs. So knowing that can make the writing process even more daunting and definitely not simple and clear.
How about this as an alternative: list all the readers of your document. Who will access it? Who will use it? Who will sign off on it? Who might need to refer to it?
Now look back at the solid outcome you identified with questions 1 & 2.
And ask the 3rd question:
Who has the authority, ability, or position to make this document achieve its purpose?
Answer that and you’ve identified your primary readers. They matter the most. Write in a way that works for them, above anyone else. (By the way – this also gives you the ability to push back when an approver wants a document written a certain way, but you know that won’t work for the end user. Handy!)
Now create the headings/sections/chunks of your document
With clarity on outcome and readers of influence, you can now create a fit-for purpose structure. I wish I could wave a magic wand and tell you what that structure looks like. But again, unicorn farts. From where YOU sit, with YOUR knowledge, expertise and insight, and with the new clarity about purpose and readers, YOU have all the pieces to the puzzle. You can create a structure that will work best.
Ask yourself –
What does my primary reader need to know so I can get my desired outcome?
Does my primary reader need to know X (ie, any chunk of information) for my doc to achieve its purpose?
It’s all connected.
Want to know more? Bring me in for a training. I’ve got so much more!!!!