My high school English teacher, Mrs. O’Shea, is probably wondering why I, Mark S. Latham, am writing about writing skills! Yes, I always earned As with Mrs. O’Shea, but it was with a lot of help from her big red pen. Using “which” versus “that” or “who” versus “whom” was very important in high school and is still important today. I was lucky I had a teacher willing to help me in my impressionable years and who understood the importance of inspiring action by getting a point across.
So now, I will take twenty plus years of training from Mrs. O’Shea, my co-workers who help me edit for grammar and content, and my wife who forces me to use proper English, and condense these years into a few pages. These few pages will help you quickly see how to inspire action by your boss, partner and friends by effectively getting your point across.
Getting Your Point Across to Your Audience Writers Training
Have you ever written a business plan and had it rejected? Have you written a proposal and found nobody read it? Have people ever seemed more confused after reading your case documentation or knowledge articles? Are you only 75% effective at logging your incidents? If you answered yes to any of these, you should help yourself be better at inspiring action within others. Your number one objective when putting something down on paper is to inspire action by getting your point across to your audience. When you can do this, you will be even more successful in your personal and professional life.
Many of you have seen the Maturity Service model. For my purposes, I will relate writing skills to moving up the service maturity scale towards Strategic Customer Focus and Knowledge Center. Each one of the steps on the way to maturity requires documentation and writing skills. From creating incidents and logging tickets to service level management to problem management, writing skills are heavily required. Why is the industry average of logging all incidents only 75%? Why can’t all support professionals write/type information for 100% of the incidents? I think if you ask the professionals they will say the two biggest factors are: 1) process, and 2) time. If excellent writing skills are ingrained into all professionals, these two factors go away. If all of us possessed excellent writing skills, it would be a desire and not just a need to explain the business impact of each problem so you could inspire action to correct the problem. If everyone could type a minimum of 45 words per minute, we would be able to type and talk at the same time rather than writing on sticky notes, then re-typing the information later. How inefficient is that?
Better Writing Skills for a More Productive Organization
Why is problem management a lesser activity than incident management? Is it because we can’t inspire action within other support areas to eliminate the problems from happening to begin with? If we had sufficient writing skills, we could do root cause analysis and be able to inspire action, through our writing, by other departments so these organizations could delete problems and keep the organizations more productive. Do better writing skills equate to a more productive organization? Absolutely! Some have estimated that more than 30% of work time is spent in writing communications whether it is in email, proposals, business plans, or web chats with customers. Improving your organizational skills, where 30% of your work-time is affected, is a huge organizational gain. I say this is a great place to focus your efforts.
What are the easiest ways to better your communication and inspire action?
1. Know your audience
2. Keep words clear and simple
3. Use short and uncomplicated sentences
4. Use active verbs rather than passive verbs
5. Continually revise all of your documents
Know Your Audience
One of the most critical elements of writing is your reader. If you are to inspire your readers to take action, you must know something about them. This helps you decide which jargon to use, types of words to use, reference material to use, and decisions on general content. For example, if your audience is the “Charismatic CEO”, you will most likely want to use words like focus, results, proven, actions; and stay away from words like academic, suspect, previous and power. It is never just the content of the proposal or document that persuades the reader, but also how you present the information. It is a must for you to find out whatever you can about your reader before presenting your document to them. Do you think they will read the entire document or just a summary? Do you think they want to be amused while reading? What questions do you think they will ask about the subject? All of these questions should be of concern to you while writing your document.
Keep Words Clear and Simple
I would like to give you an example of what is NOT clear and NOT simple. It may have been a joke, but I once saw a sentence that read, “A digital human-computer-interface data-entry mechanism….” A simple and clear word to use instead of this long complicated sentence would be “keyboard”. I don’t want to criticize other professions – I am sure they have reasons for their jargon – but when I read business contracts, they don’t seem to follow any of these “clear and simple” rules. Surely the reason is not so that the company submitting the contract can charge more! Keeping your words clear, precise, and simple is now easier – and more difficult at the same time – because of the shift F7 key combination on your “keyboard”.
Tool Tip: Those of us that use Microsoft Word can use the shift F7 keys to bring up the Thesaurus tool. Many people use this to find words they think are more intellectual or fancy. Please use this function as it was intended; to keep your words simple and precise. The word “keyboard” is always better than “a digital human-computer-interface….”
Use Short and Uncomplicated Sentences
For a reader to be inspired to take action, they must first understand what you want them to do. You want your audience to be able to see your information, digest it, make a decision, and then take action. To do this, you must use uncomplicated sentences. Complicated sentences cause confusion and make your document hard to read. Once it is hard to read, they cannot make decisions or take action. Do you think it is easier to eat smaller chucks of food or larger chunks of food? Do you think it is easier to understand smaller modules of code or the entire software program? It will always be easier for your reader to read and understand smaller, concise thoughts rather than long, complicated thoughts. To do this, you should use sentences that are, on average, 15-20 words long. Please remember I said average; NOT all sentences must be 20 words long. As you know, if all of your sentences are short, your document will appear juvenile and boring. If all of your sentences are long, your document will seem wordy and boring. Either way, your reader will lose interest quickly and will not make any decisions or calls to action.
Tool Tip: Using Flesch Reading Ease scores within Microsoft Word is an easy way to measure your document’s reading ability. For business purposes, a rating of 40-70 is acceptable. Using the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level to measure your document is another good tool. A score between 9th and 12th grade for business writing is acceptable.