I recently got the opportunity to speak at the 2014 SpiceWorld IT conference in Austin. It was a great conference and I had a wonderful audience for my talk. My session was on the career development track, and I talked about how improving your writing can help your career prospects.
I love talking about writing in this context, since it’s such an effective way to improve your overall communication skills. Writing allows you to carefully craft your message and make sure you’re saying what you want to say, before anyone else reads it. IT professionals are not generally known for being great communicators, so if you can improve those skills, you can set yourself apart and gain recognition from your colleagues and managers.
Let’s face it, if you’re in IT, there may not be anyone else at your company who is even competent to evaluate your technical skills. So, you’d better find other ways of making an impression!
In my talk, I outlined an approach you can use to write better in a business setting. The main message is to Write Like a Journalist. Think about the qualities of good journalism writing. It is direct and concise. It organizes itself so key information is conveyed quickly. It’s accessible to a broad audience. It speaks with a voice of authority. These are all great qualities in business writing as well. Here’s how you do it:
Use an Inverted Pyramid Story Structure: A news story starts with the “Lead”; the most important “who, what, when, why and where” information. Next comes the “Body”, a longer section containing additional facts that add context and meaning to what you read in the Lead. Last, the “Background”, where you’ll find detail information that you don’t need in order to understand the story, but that highly-interested people will want to read. The great thing about the inverted pyramid is that every reader can read to his or her “depth”, and not have to go hunting for the information they want.
I like to illustrate the concept by thinking of the inverted pyramid next to an org chart. Say you’re writing an important memo that the whole company needs to read. The Lead is the information the executives need in order to understand the broad implications of your memo before they move on with their day. Middle management will dig as far as the Body text and make sure their departments have the information they need to respond to the memo or take action if they need to. Your peers and others who are directly involved with the topic of your memo will dig into the Background information since it’s relevant to them. Everybody gets what they want, and no one has to read further than their time and engagement level would allow.
Avoid Jargon: You don’t make yourself look smarter by talking over people’s heads with a lot of technical Jargon. Usually people see that as a defensive move; that you’ve made your language confusing because your own thoughts are unclear. If you can say what you need to say without using insider terms or difficult-to-follow language, you might just help someone learn something. And that will reflect positively on you.
Take Yourself Out of the Story: If you read the front-page of a newspaper, you’ll notice that you can’t really tell which writer wrote which story unless you check the bylines. This is because the stories are written from an objective viewpoint. Consider the following examples:
The other day, I was talking to Jimmy and he mentioned reports that the new version of the application was slow. That didn’t sound right to me, so I asked Anne in support and she said that those customers just had a firewall problem
Three customers have reported performance problems with version 2.0. According to Support, those customers had firewall configuration issues, and saw better performance after fixing their configuration.
Not only does the second version have more information in fewer words, it’s more authoritative and believable. The personal narrative in the first version does nothing but remind the reader that they’re reading the facts according to you. It invites them to consider their opinion of you, and Jimmy, and Anne, when they’re considering the story. Taking that narrative out lets the facts stand on their own, uncolored by people’s perceptions of the cast of characters.
Applying these ideas, not just to big important documents, but to everything you write, down to emails and wiki pages, will help you in so many ways. If you can get into the habit of writing everything clearly, concisely and assertively, you will find these habits creeping into your spoken communication as well. As your writing becomes engaging to larger and more varied audiences, you’ll find people all over your organization recognizing you as a communicator, and an influencer.
SpiceWorks (the organizers of the SpiceWorld conference), will soon be posting recordings of my talk, along with the other sessions from the conference. I’ll update this blog post with the URL as soon as it’s available, but in the meantime, you can check out my slides below or read more about additional resources that can help to improve your writing.