They say that success is 10% technical ability and 90% communication ability*.
I doubt this is accurate, but despite its dodgy scientific foundation, it makes the point that how we impact the people we work with is often more important than the tasks.
How we communicate is the main way we judge each other, and this makes it open season for our unconscious biases to get stuck in. If someone sounds waffly and incoherent, we jump to the conclusion that they don’t know what they’re talking about. If they sound doubtful, then we assume they’re probably wrong because confidence is so much more convincing. If they’re difficult to understand, then most probably we will make the leap that they’re not worth listening to.
The same is true for writing: bad writing makes a bad impression.
Here’s a real-life example from the Plain English Campaign’s Golden Bull Award 2020:
The Executive Team concluded that it was appropriate to adjust our plans for the transition to blended learning, by rephasing the commencement of the transition phase for two weeks.
They could have just said it was two-week delay.
It’s so easy to sound muddled and confusing, to find your argument lost in poor structure, bad grammar and inappropriate tone. How often do you read something that sounds like a hyperbolic appeal to the emotions, a superficial waffle of opinionated bluster, when what you really need is an objective evidence-led explanation that will help you make a more informed decision?
Professional writing skills are key to our personal impact at work, and avoiding words like “key” is a good start. Unless you’re talking about an actual key, it’s a lazy cliché of a word that is really just an opinion dressed up as a fact.
So I asked some professional writer friends of mine to share some advice for a webinar I was running. They include a publisher, a communications expert, a (retired) consultant, a professor of creative and professional writing, and the director of an international NGO.
Here is what they said:
Always answer the “so what” question: be very clear what question you are answering and what conclusion you are drawing. The reader should know exactly why they are reading it.
Spend most of your time thinking about the Title, Executive Summary and Introduction: similar point to the above, be clear about the purpose of the piece and its main points. Make them accessible to the reader, ideally in the title if possible.
Read it out loud: we get very close to our writing and lose sight of the flow, so reading it aloud helps you see it from a different perspective: “clarity of meaning is often obstructed by a lack of ‘flow’ in the prose”
When proofreading, if you stop paying attention or struggle then stop. If it does not flow for you it will not flow for your reader: if there is any part of it that doesn’t quite work, redo it. Don’t be afraid to start again or delete sections, even if you really like some of the clever stuff in there.
Tone matters: know your audience(s) and pick the right tone, are you trying to instruct, inform, influence or interpret? Do you need to be objective and evidence-led, or more persuasive and opinionated? Do they just need the facts, or do they need a bit of gentle empathy?
Use examples: don’t start in theory, start in context. Illustrate with examples where you can.
Short sentences: Try to keep sentences short, and limit the use of “and” to join phrases, and try to keep paragraphs to three or four sentences, focussed on a single point (yes, I know I just did it then, I was being ironic and clever).
Edit ruthlessly: less is more. Try to cut at least 30% from your initial draft; with fewer words you have to be more precise.
Adverbs are evil: Stephen King said the road to hell is paved with adverbs. He writes in the creative field, but adverbs have a nasty habit of cropping up in professional writing too (“the board were highly supportive of the proposal”, “the project is perfectly designed to meet the needs of the business”).
Don’t use them, they destroy prose and make your writing sound unprofessional.
Be precise: forget all wishy-washy rubbish words like “really” and “very” or meaningless fluff like “synergy” – they lack clarity and sound clichéd and lazy. Be precise and direct, and include the relevant facts.
“I hope you will be really impressed with this very important work, it will bring fantastic synergy to the organisation”
I hope that last sentence made you physically sick.
This links to a bonus tip from me: separate opinion from fact.
For example, which would you prefer to read if you have to make a decision:
- “The XYZ system is very expensive, and we would prefer to explore alternatives”
- “The XYZ system will cost £10m over three years. We believe this is expensive and recommend exploring alternatives”
I know I would prefer the latter. I get the facts, and I get their advice, but I know which is which and so I feel informed not just influenced.
There are many other tips and techniques to make professional writing sparkly and I might write more posts on this subject, but no guarantees because there’s a few videos I need to watch on YouTube … so that’s the last tip: to get in the writing zone, get off the internet.
* I don’t know who “they” are, the best I can find, after a short internet search, is “management is 10% work and 90% people” from a 2018 Forbes article by Victor Lipman: https://www.forbes.com/sites/victorlipman/2018/03/02/management-is-10-work-and-90-people/#639b9e2f6f0c (accessed Oct 2022)