HOW WELL DO YOU WRITE?

On many occasions in this series of articles, I have addressed the topic of verbal communication.  Since almost everything you do as a manager involves some type of communication with somebody else, your ability to convey a clear, accurate message is directly related to your prospects for getting the result you desire.  Moreover, because the actual words you use convey only one part of the message received — tone of voice and body language having far greater influence in this regard — the prospects for miss-communication are significant and well worth seeking to avoid.

This is why the best managers never take their communication skills for granted and work at them constantly.  Fortunately there are numerous training opportunities available to most managers that can both enhance one’s oral communication strengths and smooth out the rough spots.

But HOW WELL DO YOU WRITE; the other critical way we often communicate with others? We live in the era of email and text messaging — to say nothing of the occasional memos, forms, and notes you write that receive your superior’s and other’s attention — and the quality of our written communication says a great deal about us to our readers.  At a minimum, the quality of what we write sends a message about the time we are wiling to take to do it well.

Everywhere I travel, I note the sheer number of professionals with their fingers flying across tiny keyboards answering some question or another, or giving somebody an important instruction from afar.  How many of those written communications are as precise and clear as they might be I wonder at times?

It is easy to assume a great deal about the quality of our personal writing skills until some incident painfully reveals a need for some improvement.  In my case, it was the first paper I submitted for review as a new intelligence analyst many years ago.  With a Ph.D. in hand at the time, I fancied myself a decent writer until that paper landed back on my desk with what seemed more red markings than the words I had written.  “On the road to failure” was a thought that came instantly to my mind, accompanied by a deep sense of embarrassment and humility.

With the help of a sage and experienced editor and many months of work, I improved;  that is the red markings decreased, I became less long-winded, and I began to appreciate the keys to written clarity and message packaging.  Of course, I was fortunate by virtue of my profession at the time to have access to the right professional help.  But help in developing one’s writing skills is available to most managers once they conclude that they need it.  So let’s start there.

How well do you write?  If you are uncertain, seek some advice inside or outside your organization from someone with expertise.  Try to keep your ego in check and focus on sensible advice concerning improvement.  Key areas include spelling, grammar — especially tense and active vs. passive voice — and appropriate vs. inappropriate professional language.  The best written communications are short, clear, uncluttered, and to the point.  Managers are not paid to write novels or include everything but the kitchen sink.

Above all, believe me when I tell you that poor writing gets noticed and can make a lasting negative impression.  I have seen it elicit ridicule and sympathy in equal amounts.  Neither of these furthers professional advancement and often nobody will tell you face-to-face what others are thinking behind your back.

My workshop for managers features “effective communication” — both oral and written — as one of the six core ingredients of what the best managers know and do.  Deficiencies in this area are a critical negative factor in making hiring, advancement, and assignment decisions.  Thus, making needed improvements is always well worth the hard work involved.

I have looked back often at that embarrassing first paper of mine and acknowledged the gift it represented in advancing my professional career.  So remind yourself frequently of how many times you put a pen to paper, or your fingers to a keyboard, and be certain you are giving your written communications the best quality effort you can.

2 comments

  1. I can tell you that it is one of my biggest pet peeves when I see emails from very senior executives or emails going out to a wide portion of the workforce where there are blatant grammatical, punctuation, and word choice errors. It frankly makes the sender (even if their staff wrote it) look sloppy or stupid and totally dilutes the message.
    I also have learned, the hard way, that if you want someone to do something in an email then you have to put that up front and be very clear with what, when, how, to who and why or they may never actually understand they have an action.
    I also hate, although it does get people’s attention, the HOT! or ACTION! in the subject line because it is overused.
    Frankly, with the amount of email we use in my job, it is the most overlooked skill and shouldn’t be.

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