Good communication makes good leaders. Or, as a speechwriter to 5 US presidents said, ‘The art of communication is the language of leadership.’ (Thanks, James Humes.)
One vital skill for managers is the ability to write simply, clearly, well – especially when so much communication happens via email. But like being a manager, often we’re left to sort this out for ourselves.
Perhaps you were a mechanic before you were made a manager, so since when did you have to write so many emails anyway?!
As a professional writer and editor, I rely on my ability to get my words right so I can feed myself (and my reading habit!). Let me share my secrets for good, clear writing – 16 strategic steps that will stop you wasting your time writing things that staff and clients just don’t read.
Let’s use an example: a scenario of a middle manager in an Aboriginal organisation with offices across the Northern Territory and in remote communities. Your organisation has just updated its policy for sick leave and cultural leave, and it’s up to you to write an email to your team.
Here’s how you can start writing clearly, step by step:
Before You Start Writing
- Be clear about your topic. Know what you want to say, and make sure you have all the facts you need before you start.
- Know your audience. Think carefully about who you are writing for. Choose words, phrases and situations that your readers will understand.
- Understand why you are writing. Sketch out the information you want your readers to take away, and what you want them to do once they’ve finished reading.
- Be specific. Choose real-life, relevant information over abstract concepts. Concrete examples are often the strongest.
So you’ve planned to write about the leave policy, focusing on your staff in remote areas, to make sure they understand the new rules, and you’re going to use the example of sorry business. You know this will come up for everyone, so they’ll relate to it and pay attention.
Now what about the writing itself?
Choose Your Words Carefully
5. Keep it simple. Use short words that are easy to understand – ‘use’ is better than ‘utilise’.
6. Don’t use jargon. Avoid all that special terminology you’ve learned to impress your higher-ups. Write for the people who are reading your words.
7. Write short sentences. Keep sentences between 12 and 25 words so they are easy to understand. Governments around the world try to keep an average of 14 words per sentence – no more.
8. Use the ‘active voice’. Write sentences where people do the action. ‘A meeting was held…’ is boring from the get-go, but ‘Jordan and Alex met yesterday…’ is clearer, as well as being more interesting.
Do a quick check in your head: will Sam in Tennant Creek get what I mean?
When it comes to learning a new skill, implementing small steps leads to lasting change.
For the next three emails you write:
√ Think through the first four tips before you start to type
√ Take them seriously
√ Notice the change in your writing
√ Notice the change in the response to your writing
You’ll see that your emails are more direct, more focused, and get a better response from the person who receives it.
Simple Writing Improves All Documents
These tips work for position descriptions, performance management plans, policies, procedures, operational manuals and strategic plans, plus that request for a pay rise that you’ve been putting off because you didn’t know what to say!
Communicating the right way will stack the odds in your favour – you’ll be more likely to get the outcome you want.
I’ll be back in a few weeks with the final tips that will take your writing from a bunch of words to easily understood instructions that people actually follow.
Take care of your words until then, and take care of your people, too.
Jodie Lea Martire is a communications and publishing professional who has been in the field for almost 20 years. Jodie has worked with indigenous people in Australia and Mexico, taught English in three countries, and translated and edited documents for the United Nations. She has travelled the world vicariously as editor for Lonely Planet. Jodie is currently studying a Master of Communication for Social Change and preparing a master’s thesis into small publishing houses in Australia, like Alice Springs’ own Ptilotus Press. Jodie’s passion is making language strong and effective. See if Jodie can help your organisation here.
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