As technology leaders, we might assume that writing skills are relatively trivial, and far less important than technical, program management, and leadership chops. However, the world's best leader is unlikely to be followed if they can't communicate their vision in written form, just as a superlative technician will struggle if they can't effectively relay the nuances of a technical problem to their team or management. Effective written communication, whether in a company-wide memo or simple Slack post, drives the right action at the right time, and ultimately reduces costly misunderstandings and requests for clarification. With so many means of written communication at our disposal, using them as effectively as possible will pay long-term dividends.
The tips below apply whether you're writing a formal memo that will be shared with the entire company, or a quick instant message to a colleague; they're just applied with a different level of diligence depending on the medium and audience.
SEE: 44 simple ways to sharpen your writing skills (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
1. Consider your objective
Before tapping out the first letters of your missive, take a moment to consider what you want the reader to do after he or she reads you message. Most of us make a mistake in assuming the goal of most written communication is merely to inform, when we ultimately want the reader to take some action. That action might be changing their opinion on a topic, communicating with a superior or their team, or performing a task. Consider what thought should pop into your reader's head the moment they finish reading your communication, and use that as a guide as you craft your message.
2. Take the time to write a shorter letter
One of my favorite writing-related quotes, often attributed (perhaps incorrectly) to Mark Twain, is: "If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter." As technologists, information and data are the currencies of our realm, and it's easy to assume that more is always better. However, if you've carefully considered the objective of what you are writing and stick to it, you'll naturally filter superfluous information. This holds especially true with time and attention-starved leaders, where three carefully-constructed sentences often generate more action than multi-page missives that explore every detail.
3. Consider your reader
While it's perfectly legitimate to develop your own communication style, don't forget to consider your reader. If I'm emailing an international colleague who speaks English as a second or third language, I'll take extra time to reduce complexity and subtlety that could be misinterpreted. If I'm communicating to a colleague who frequently reads email on her mobile device, I'll reduce the length of my paragraphs so it's easier to digest on a narrow screen. At the end of the day, your communications are a product of sorts, and the more appealing the product, the more likely your reader is to buy the objective you're suggesting.
SEE: Electronic communication policy (Tech Pro Research)
4. Validate before sending
Before hitting the send button, I always reread my written communication from the perspective of the reader, asking a few key questions along the way:
- What action am I, as the reader, going to take after reading this communication?
- Does that action match my objective?
- What questions might I naturally ask that could be readily addressed in this communication?
- Is there anything I can remove or clarify?
If I'm sending a key communication to my leadership, or need a critical outcome from my team, I might repeat this exercise a dozen times. While this might seem excessive, the process rarely takes more than five minutes, and those five minutes pay significant dividends when I can accomplish my objective with a single communication.
5. Consider the medium
An IM or Slack chat might not be effective for a complex technical communication, just as a one-sentence email can become lost when you need a fast response to a specific inquiry. Furthermore, written communication in general may not be the best path to your objective, and anything from a phone call to an in-person meeting may be the better route. Take a moment to consider whether your written communication might be misinterpreted, or if there are subtle nuances or details that might not be clear. Also consider whether you're writing something that you would not want anyone else to read due to confidentiality or other reasons. If any of these are true, a phone call of in-person communication is usually a better route.
In some cases, you'll discover the carefully-written missive is communicating something better accomplished via another medium. All is not lost, however, as your writing can easily serve as call notes, an outline for a meeting, or the basis for some slides to support an extended presentation.
At the end of the day, high-quality written communication results in high-quality outcomes. Rather than assuming you need some specialist skills to write more effectively, considering the outcome and audience, and spending some time clarifying and "sanity checking" your communication, will dramatically improve the results of your writing.
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Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.