Reader-Centered Writing: The Latest Survival Skill

Reader-centered writing is a corporate necessity — competitiveness depends on it.

Reader-centered writing is a corporate necessity — competitiveness depends on it. In their constant quest for efficiencies in technology, supply chains or operations, most business leaders haven’t realized that the next frontier is right in their inbox. But chief learning officers at high-performing companies have already discovered that a common writing standard and consistent output are no longer “nice-to-dos.” They have become “must-do-nows.”

Daily communication is out of control
Whether it’s e-mail, sales letters, reports or PowerPoint presentations, writing is an ever-growing task, even when “writer” isn’t in the job description. Most businesspeople see writing as secondary to their “real” job, but this casual approach, especially in e-mail, is costing companies time and money. Tom Friedman says we live in the “Age of Interruption” — every few seconds another message or call arrives. People are drowning in e-mail, and the confusing, unformatted “brain dumps” of many messages block action rather than driving it.

A recent McKinsey & Co. global survey of 7,800 business executives found that nearly 40 percent spent half to a full day each week on useless communications. A quarter of the executives at the largest companies said their communications were nearly or completely unmanageable.

Poor writing takes a huge toll
Six Sigma advocates hail quality as an ultimate goal, but often forget that successful communication is one of the most powerful quality and productivity tools. Writing: A Ticket to Work…Or a Ticket Out, a compelling survey of business leaders by the National Commission on Writing, reveals that employers are spending billions annually correcting writing deficiencies. Poor writing is truly a quality process defect that drains productivity.

Managers recognize that their team’s poor writing is wasting time and alienating prospects or customers, but they often lack training programs and other tools to help their people improve. Consequently, teams fail to drive action through writing. Instead, they obscure their messages in hastily typed e-mail or disorganized reports that reflect their own agenda rather than their readers’ needs. The time and money lost in back-and-forth clarification or misunderstanding is staggering.

The good news: Reader-centered writing is a learnable skill
Reader-centered writing is far more than correct grammar and spelling. By highlighting, organizing and simplifying the content that readers care about, it combats information overload, strengthens relationships and produces results. Reader-centered writing:

· Has a strategic purpose.
· Responds to the readers’ needs and answers their likely questions.
· Includes clear action requests and deadlines.
· Is sequenced logically, with the most vital information first.
· Is designed for visual appeal and easy reading.
· Uses appropriate tone and simple, concise language.

Guidelines, training and reinforcement are key to competitive success. For example, a short checklist with the key attributes of effective writing ensures that it meets a common standard. As writers internalize the checklist and their managers reinforce new skills, the cumulative improvements in document quality will enhance their company’s competitiveness. Clear and efficient communication not only drives action and produces desired results, but it also leads to a culture of confidence and credibility.

Many companies offer internal workshops, but neglect follow-up reinforcement to assure that skills actually change. Writing must be integrated into the performance management system, measured and tracked. A one-day workshop is just the beginning. One company “certifies” its people using a system that requires employees to be accountable for their learning. After employees learn reader-centered writing, a manager monitors their progress for three months to make sure that they are using the strategies they learned. Those who successfully improve their writing skills receive their certification.

Managers can spend less time editing

Leaders in every industry and job function spend too much time plowing through their overflowing inboxes and reworking — often badly — other people’s writing. A case in point: The top managers of a telecommunications company locked themselves in a conference room with their highly paid consultants to figure out the obstacles to achieving their daily goals. After two days, they came out in unanimous agreement, declaring, “It’s mostly our inboxes!”

Two simple strategies would have helped those managers:

1. Put the bottom line (main idea) in the subject line. Clear, action-oriented subject lines help people manage their inboxes and projects. Recipients can easily scan for crucial information rather than waste time opening e-mail they don’t need. When possible, writers should put their entire message in the subject line and indicate that the reader doesn’t need to open the e-mail at all.

Example: “Today’s 3:00 process meeting moved to 4:00”

2. Always answer three key questions. Readers save time when every e-mail, and indeed, every communication, clearly explains what it’s about and what they’re supposed to do. Costly back-and-forth clarification diminishes once writers highlight the answers to these questions:

· Why am I writing this?
· What main message do I want the reader to remember?
· What do I want the reader to do? By when?

Writers can incorporate the answers in headlines as a guide to crucial information.

What results can leaders expect?
Company leaders have a responsibility to model and coach communication skills. When they do, they will notice a significant increase in their team’s ability to communicate strategically and influence both customers and colleagues. Crafting a message that is easy to understand and implement will create confidence, simplify decision making, drive competitive action — and ultimately lead to success in the marketplace. Only the fittest communicators will survive.