With Martin G. Moore

Episode #38

Communicating With Impact: Cutting through with the written word

Some of the lowest hanging fruit for motivating your people comes simply from better communication.

This week, we delve into a few ways to improve your written communication!

Email, investment proposals, and technical documentation all get a bit of a workout, before we reveal the simple bit powerful “golden rule” of writing anything in a business context.

If you want to improve your ability to communicate, and your people’s ability to work out what to do, this episode is a must.

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Episode #38 Communicating With Impact: Cutting through with the written word

We’ve had some pretty deep and heavy topics in the last several episodes on people, culture, motivation and so forth. I really hope you enjoyed last week’s episode on managing change when your boss is only really interested in ‘talking the talk’ and not ‘walking the walk’. That is such a common question for us.

I just want to give you something this week that’s a little lighter but still enormously useful in a practical sense and something I see most leaders struggle with, whether knowingly or unknowingly. I’m talking about communication in all its forms. Some of the lowest hanging fruit in delivering results come simply from being able to communicate more effectively. We had a request from one of our die-hard listeners, Brigid, to do an episode on how to use email more effectively as it has become the bane of many people’s existence. As a senior executive in the finance sector, she’s seen it all. I’ve decided to broaden this out just slightly to look at written communication overall and I’ll give you some ideas for improving your effectiveness in this area.

You need to be at least a competent business writer if you’re going to have impact as a senior leader. Anyone can learn this. It’s much simpler than a lot of the other leadership concepts I expose you to. It just takes the will and the effort to improve. So we’ll start with a focus on email, one of the most problematic areas of communication. I’ll then have a crack at business and investment cases, particularly looking at how to deliver complex information succinctly. I’ll then move on to talk about technical writing; processes, contracts, policies and so forth. And then I’m going to finish with the ‘golden rule’ of business writing.

I’m not going to touch board papers, so I’m going to be putting future episodes in about managing the board and I’ll include something here about writing the board papers. I’m also not going to touch presentations because that’s more on the verbal communication side, which once again, I’ll craft future episodes on. I’ll also stay away from communicating the high-level purpose, vision and strategy, all very important elements of getting buy-in from your people and something we’ll dedicate an entire episode to at some point in the future. So let’s get into it.

In general, written communication inside organisations is pretty poor, especially in large organisations. There are countless people-hours put into writing stuff – emails, procedures, documents, presentations and so forth. Most of the stuff that’s written is never read. Let me just say that again. Most of the stuff that is written is never read. Most reports that are produced out of your computer systems are never looked at. Now, I ran an experiment many years ago when I was Chief Information Officer at ASX 50 company. What I did, was that I stopped all reports that were being produced. Now, I didn’t get stupid about it. I’m not talking about the critical financial reports that run the business that we knew were going to be needed, and I worked with the CFO to identify those and quarantine them so the business could still run and the executive and board reporting wouldn’t be affected. But everything else that came out of our systems, we just stopped.

The theory was let’s start with a zero base. Let’s see if we stop all this, who comes back and asks us where the reports are. As a result of this exercise, we eliminated over 90% of the reports that were being produced, and in those days, it was all on paper. Just under 10% of those reports was actually asked for and reinstated, and that is a really low strike rate. So just take a moment to think about this in respect of your writing. A lot of what you write is never going to see the light of day. Let me just make one more point before I get onto email.

The perceptions about you and your written communication starts before you even join an organisation. When you apply for a role, you send cover letters, resumes, emails and so forth. And for those of you who don’t know me that well, I’m actually a huge fan of irony so you can’t possibly imagine how much joy I’ve had over the years when I pick up a poorly constructed and written resume, only to find, in black and white, the words, “I have excellent written and verbal communication skills.” No, you don’t. Self-evidently you don’t. And now, you’ve just compounded the felony by showing me that you lacked judgement and self-awareness. You’re not getting hired.

I’m pretty sure all of you agree that email is a problem. For a start, there’s just simply too much of it. Email was designed to speed the flow of communication and information in an organisation and the benefits to be realised are astronomical. But over time, this has not turned out to be the case for most, and there are a number of reasons for this. Here’s half a dozen reasons that just occurred to me off the top of my head. The first reason is it’s an awesome way for lazy people to communicate. It’s fast. It takes little effort, and the words are captured for future reference. For leaders more insidiously, it enables avoidance of conflict because it is impersonal in its nature, but there’s a real downside to this lack of personal impact. For example, if you ask somebody to do something via email, it has nowhere near the likelihood of getting done as it does when you talk to someone face-to-face, look them in the eye and ask them to commit to delivering something. If necessary, you can follow up with a few lines of confirmation email later.

The second issue is that people write things in emails in a language and tone that they would never dare say to someone face-to-face. This allows weak leaders to pretend they’re doing their jobs while hiding behind their firewalls. And I mean that both physically and metaphorically. The third problem is just the sheer volume. There is simply too many emails. It’s become the default mode of communication, and the information is virtually impossible to assimilate and digest. It’s almost impossible for people to do all the things they’re asked to do by email and also focus on the priorities they have in their work plans. So it is the thief of value. Fourth issue, intent is a problem, whereas it can be used for innocuous things like work allocation and disseminating information where what you see is what you get, it can also be a bit more sinister. It gives people plausible deniability, allowing them to cover their asses on things that they’re worried about.

For example, have you ever heard, “Oh, but I asked you to do this.” when something’s buried on page three of the complex email? Or, “I told you I was doing this, boss,” when it’s buried in the fine print of a status update. Sometimes it’s appropriate to have something on the record. For example, a record of a performance conversation after you’ve held it. But generally, that’s not necessarily the case. And one of my pet hates, the blind copy feature where the recipient doesn’t know who else is party to the exchange. This is like sanctioned deception.

The fifth issue, verbosity. Poor writing skills lead to overly verbose emails. And this was one of my big problems when I was younger. I won’t go so far to say I was a good writer, but I was certainly an elegant writer. I was an English and Latin scholar in my younger years and I also read a lot of the classics and I have pretty good vocab. But what I found, funnily enough, when I was studying my MBA over 15 years ago, was that people actually don’t read all the wonderful words that I would agonise over to make just so. When I realised this, it hit me like a pie in the face. Since then, I’ve been working on communicating more succinctly, but it takes time, effort and thought to do this really well.

There’s a great quote that I love, and over the years it’s been attributed to everyone from Mark Twain to Blaise Pascal and Winston Churchill. I think I even saw it in my LinkedIn feed last week, attributed to Kanye West, but it goes like this, “I would’ve written a shorter letter but I didn’t have time,” and that really says it all. Take this one to heart. The final issue, email is unidirectional for the most part. There’s no feedback, clarification or questioning allowed, and this one-way communication doesn’t enable you to listen and hear. Once again, this makes life easy for leaders who lack the fundamental courage, strength of will or confidence to expose themselves to face-to-face exchange, which could end up in confusion, disagreement, or conflict.

So, what to do?

four tips for improving your email communication

Don’t just look at this from your perspective. Insist upon these behaviours from your team. Set the example. Create the standard.

#1 Use email as a last resort, not the default mode

Always ask yourself, “Can I do this face-to-face?” If not, go through the hierarchy. Technology is awesome these days. “If I can’t do it face-to-face, can I use zoom or Skype or FaceTime? If I can’t do that, can I do it by phone so I’m at least having a conversation that goes both ways?” Try and get out of the habit of using it as your default mode.

#2 If you do use email, be clear about the purpose of any email that you send

Is it to give information? Is it to ask for advice or opinion, or do you actually want people to take some action? Just be really clear about what it is you’re after.

#3 Don’t use email as a work allocation system if there’s any way you can avoid it

Why? Because everyone tends to do this. How can you, as a leader, possibly keep your people focused on creating value and not just polishing knobs with non-valuating activity? You can actually refuse to take actions that come in via email.

Here’s a thought. Probably best not to do it with your boss, but when they come in from beside and particularly from below, don’t just succumb because something happens to be written down.

#4 Cull the copy list

So many times I’ve seen a copy listed that is so full of people that I’ve just written back and simply said, “I notice you’ve left off Ban Ki-moon, who at the time was the Secretary-General of the United Nations.” Just make sure that you only put people on for necessity, not for just in case.

#5 Keep it brief

Email should be short but not shorthand. Make it actually clear what you want.

Let’s move on to business and investment cases. I spend a lot of my career around big investment cases. Big enterprise software development projects, rail infrastructure construction, large scale procurement projects and maintenance and development of power plants. The reason I want to single this out is because of their importance. This is the lifeblood for maintaining and growing a business. No business has unlimited resources though, so choices have to be made about where to invest. If you’re seeking funding, you are competing with other projects or investments that are targeting a limited pool of capital, so you’ve got to remember this. I found that people generally find it quite difficult to write business cases and this is a little mystifying as there are so many templates out there, you just need to Google it. But I think the biggest problem is that people only write from their own perspective, their knowledge, their expertise, and their comfort zone.

I remember a few years ago after labouring through a major investment proposal, which was over 50 pages long, I called in the accountable executive and I said to him, “I’ve just read through these reams of technical detail, financial projections, risk assessments, and despite this, it doesn’t tell me even one of the five things that I need to know to make a decision.” So those five things for me were number one, what’s the projected return on investment over the life of the proposal? And specifically, how would this manifest? What timeframe and when will I see the value return? Number two, what if I choose not to make the investment or defer it? What does that downside risk look like? Number three, what capability do we have to actually deliver what we say we will? Number four, what options did you look at for changing the scope to find the sweet spot of value delivery? And number five, have we had an independent peer review of the high-level design?

Now, if you’re trying to secure funding, no matter how great or small, you need to sell the concept. However, every business case I’ve ever read is highly optimistic. Some are wildly optimistic and others even go as far as to be irrationally optimistic. Downside risks are generally minimised or trivialised. The range of options is limited to focus the approver on the desired option. The driving force of the author seems to be, “I want my project to get up.” Well, my heartfelt advice to you is – cool your jets! Nothing will give your business case more credibility than being able to dispassionately lay out the pros and cons in a constructive and sensible manner, and to recognise the ambiguity’s and vagaries of the path to benefit delivery. Make sure you test it with external scrutiny that avoids group-think and be able to speak in the language of value for the organisation.

Always remember the fundamental reason for writing a document like this, you want to give the decision makers the information they need to exercise their judgement and experience to get the best results for the organisation. And generally, you’ve got to remember they see a lot more than you do. You may be writing one business case, but they might be looking at 20 concurrently, so don’t take it personally. Make it easy for them to make a decision by giving good, well-written information that targets their needs as a decision maker, not just a list of reasons why your project should be approved.

All right, just a few words about technical writing. Now, I’m grouping a whole bunch of stuff in here together; processes, procedures, policies, contracts and so forth. There is a case for precision, thoroughness and detail in these types of documents, but there has to be a balance and most people who write these documents completely miss this. We have been conditioned to poor writing and we try to work things out without reference to the supporting documentation. Have you ever heard anyone say the male mantra of “If all else fails, read the instructions.” User manuals used to be voluminous. These days with everything from appliances to mobile phones and Swiss watches they come with a compulsory manual, of course, which no one ever reads. They know that, but a very brief, quick start guide, which people glimpse at to make sure they don’t get into too much trouble and it should be relatively intuitive.

Now, we need to think of tech writing like this. With so much information to consume your number one goal should be to be succinct. Most of you are leaders who don’t need to do this yourselves, but you may be leading people who do. So give them some good guidance. Think really carefully about the audience. So, for example, some occupations and locations have low literacy rates. Without being prejudicial or making rash generalisations, the stats are particularly telling for workers in remote locations and in unskilled roles. As a leader, make it really clear what’s expected. In the last few years. Some industries have done a great job of getting people to understand their obligations with plain English contracts. So consumer insurance, for example, has moved in this direction very clearly. If it’s complex, people won’t understand it and everyone is worse off for the experience. You want to make sure it’s easy for people to do the right thing.

But part of the skill for a leader is to know when the precision and complexity is absolutely required. So, for example, there are contracts that govern complex commercial arrangements and I’ve had more experience than I would care to tell you about with legal battles over contractual commercial disputes. One in particular that comes to mind, which was worth hundreds of millions of dollars in value to the two parties involved. Each party spent tens of millions of dollars on legal fees and supporting analysis and the judgement hinged on the interpretation of a few clauses and the intent of almost a dozen words. That was it, so that precision has to be there in that case.

the golden rule for writing

Let’s finish up with the golden rule for writing. In fact, it’s the golden rule for writing or negotiating or selling or giving feedback. It just requires one major shift in thinking that will completely change your ability to communicate effectively. It will at least give you the ability to start out with the right frame and then you can work on refining your actual writing techniques over time. But like driving, technique is not the most important thing. Well, of course, it helps. The most important things are awareness, anticipation and judgement .

Don’t focus on what you want to say. Focus on what your audience needs to hear. So how do you work that out? Well, what have you heard from them, the people you’re communicating with, and how can you serve their needs by giving them reliable information? If you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes and communicate the way they need to hear it, you will be much more successful.


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