Innovation

Flip your writing on its head to communicate more effectively

What are some of the biggest complaints that IT personnel have with their end users? When you get past the ones that have to do with intelligence, you will almost always get “if people would only READ!”

In a workshop I participated in the other day, that exact topic was brought up. Why don't people thoroughly read directions, memos, e-mail messages, reports, etc.? While the answer may have been different years ago, the answer today is time and volume.

Most people are inundated with information and can’t or won’t make the time to thoroughly digest what they have read for complete understanding. A quick glance and a scan are about all you are going to get from most individuals, and during that brief time, you need to capture their attention to convey your message. How do you do that? By flipping your communication upside down.

Most of us are taught in school to write in the “traditional method”. This method is very familiar to you and goes like this:

· State your problem.
· Build your case.
· State your results.
· Wow them with your conclusions.

Reports usually build a case to justify the decision, just as suspense novels build to a dramatic conclusion. Most of the writing done in the workplace follows this pattern; however, this method is probably not the most effective way for us to communicate with our harried and overloaded audience.

A journalist in the workshop I attended talked to us about writing in a style that is standard in journalism, called the "inverted pyramid." The inverted pyramid style flips our communication upside down and instead of leading up to a conclusion, you START with your conclusion and work your way back from there.

Specifically, you write in the following fashion:

· Conclusion
· Supporting Information
· Background and Technical Details

In his words, “You put the most important information at the top of your communication so a drunk editor can come along and hack off the majority of your piece, and it still make sense.” While his words make sense in the world of journalism, they have a greater impact for business communication.

Stop and think about it. If you need to get your message across to a harried individual with 200 messages in her inbox, what better way to communicate than to give her the crux of your communication in the first sentence, and then let her go from there. If she reads no further than your first few sentences, she's got your message.

Stop and reflect on this for a moment and think about how powerful this kind of writing can be when you are communicating with your boss, coworkers, and customers.

The best way to appreciate this is to see an example. Let’s take a typical email:

Subject: Follow Up

John,
Based on our meeting of the 27th, there were three items I needed to get back to you on. These were: the amount of disk space remaining on the SAN, what if anything can be removed, and how much additional space would cost us?

The answer to the first question is that we have less than 2% free space remaining on the SAN. The answer to the second is, having spoken to users we may be able to free up a maximum of 5% additional space. Lastly, adding an additional terabyte of space would cost us $10,000. Based on the above facts and knowing that we have the money in the budget, I recommend that we purchase the disk space ASAP. Please let me know if I have the go ahead to purchase.

Thanks,

Mary

Now let’s flip this communication upside down:

Subject: Urgent Need for Additional Storage Space – Your Approval Needed.

John,
I have examined our budget and we have the necessary $10,000 to purchase an additional terabyte of space. I highly recommend we do so immediately and need your authorization to do so. Per our last discussion, I investigated our situation and learned the following: (A) We have less than 2% space remaining, (B) Users can only free up an additional 5%, and (C) Based on our usage pattern, a terabyte of additional space will serve us well for over a year.

Thanks,

Mary

I hope the differences in the two e-mail examples are obvious. Both contain the same information, yet the while the first is courteous and builds to a conclusion, the second gets straight to the action desired—we need space bad, let’s buy now—and then fills in the details. Additionally, the subject line of the second e-mail let’s John know exactly what the topic is, conveys urgency, and lets him know what he needs to do.This style of writing can make your communications stand out in a sea of messages and get you heard. It can take a little while to break the old habit, but once you do, it will be well worth it and your audience will appreciate it. Given that IT professionals are rarely classified as great grammarians, it would be worth your time to investigate this a little further. If you would like to learn more, check out this link: http://mtsu32.mtsu.edu:11178/171/pyramid.htm

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