Saturday, February 26, 2005

Style, Part 3: Let Conciseness Rule

Good writers adapt their styles based on their message and audience. They must adapt their style based not on their personal preference but on their reader’s concerns.

"Style, Part 2" urged readers to speak openly about style with their managers. Sometimes people think that their boss has an inconsistent style because one message is direct and the other is deferential. If you are unsure why this is the case, then you should ask your manager. He or she may not realize the inconsistency and make a necessary adjustment. A more likely reason is that the manager changed the style to suit a situation or to reflect a certain relationship with a reader. If this is the case, the manager may explain the tactic and give you a valuable insight into writing to the reader.

Regardless the style one is trying to achieve, remember that conciseness rules; no writer should add words unnecessarily. If the word does not add value, delete it. In the simple example below, note how the addition of the word significantly changes the meaning and, therefore, adds value in the sentence below. Also note how the words In the can be eliminated without changing the meaning:
In the last year, sales increased significantly.
The final installment on style will briefly discuss writing collaboratively.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Style, Part 2: Manage Your Manager's Style

The fact that someone is your manager—even if your manager is a good writer—does not automatically certify that his or her style is always suitable. If you believe some phrase to be inappropriately bureaucratic, vague, weak, defensive, arrogant, or the like, you owe it to your manager to point this out—without becoming arrogant yourself, of course. Be specific by pointing out the precise words or phrases that show the problematic style issue.

Below are slightly edited writing samples (to protect the guilty) submitted by my students, who showed me their boss's writing style and what they would have done—if given the chance—to improve it.

Lawyerly: Pursuant to amendments with respect to Contract 24601, our Firm hereby requests your concurrence to the said provisions.
Revision: Our Firm asks that you approve the amendments to Contract 24601.

Authoritarian: You must comply with the policies and procedures of our office.
Revision: Please follow the policies and procedures of our office.

Negative: We cannot help you because you failed to send the necessary documentation.
Revision: We will help you when you send the necessary documentation.

Sarcastic: We will do business with that vendor again after hell freezes over.
Revision: We will no longer do business with that vendor.

Since I often learn from my students about style, I hope that managers learn from their subordinates about it as well. Managers, listen up: your staff members measure your every word. You might as well have them manage your style from time to time.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Style, Part 1: Know Different Styles

It’s not enough to say someone’s style is assertive or wishy-washy, rude or courteous, rushed or focused, if we cannot point to the words in the document suggesting that style. In the examples below, the italicized words contribute to the indicated style.

Rushed: Attached.
Focused: The attached file outlines our project proposal for your East Coast initiative.

Verbose: The reason why I am writing to you is to inform you that we will meet tomorrow at 3:00 p.m. in Conference Room A.
Concise: We will meet tomorrow at 3:00 p.m. in Conference Room A.

Obsequious: I feel so deeply indebted to you that you have so graciously allotted some of your precious time to grant me the great opportunity to express my heartfelt opinion of the merger.
Gracious: Thank you for making the time to discuss the merger with me.

Egotistical: Thanks to my insight, the project succeeded.
Inclusive: Our collaborative efforts ensured a successful project.

Pompous: Indeed, we should repudiate any attempt at obfuscating comprehensible written communication.
Modest: We should correct unclear writing.

Next time someone asks your advice on the way he or she is coming across in a document, don't only speak your mind--point it out right on the page. This practice will help your partner much more.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Facing Today's Communication Challenges

The Value of Communication Skills
As an employee, you have surely felt the pressures and faced the challenges in today’s workplace. But how do all those pressures and challenges affect your ability to prepare and deliver a presentation before management? How do they influence the information you include in a report to guide co-workers through a major project? How do they drive the chief executive, who is considering the next step for an expensive, new launch of a product or service, as he or she reads your proposal? How do you determine what your readers already know and what they need to know? Aware that you will have your audience’s attention only once as you address a critical issue, how do you capture their interest?

Causes and Effects The seven causes of communication threats and their inevitable effects, listed below, only begin to explain the myriad obstacles confronting professional communicators.

1. Information Age With print and electronic information available on demand at unprecedented levels, the employee must have the wisdom, organizational skills, and efficiency to carefully choose and modify the data necessary for the desired results.

2. Global Economy The global economy, resulting in part from advances in communication, has created a need for multilingual employees well versed in the conventions of international business and adept at balancing social conformity with commercial efficiency.

3. Technological Dynamism New information technology systems are introduced to business before most employees fully explore the earlier versions they are replacing. The net effect: continual relearning of basic technical skills, which undermines the time spent on creative project development and problem solving.

4. Specialized Labor Force
The departmentalization and decentralization of business—now more than a generation old—continues to create a demand for employees who are experts in specific areas of the corporation. These subject-matter experts must articulate their knowledge in terms that non-technical audiences in their organization can understand.
5. Shifting Consumer Interests All of the cultural and technological changes force us to modify our lifestyle and, therefore, generate demands for new products to solve new problems. These realities instill in businesspeople a distrust of stability and insatiable quest for something newer, better, faster, and easier.

6. Intensified Competition
More corporate mergers and acquisitions across the globe mean more competitive threats in the marketplace. Thus, organizations obsessively focus on cutting costs while improving quality, and bringing products to market faster while ensuring their value. These harsh realities spawn an unprecedented need for staff with exceptional communication skills.

7. Continual Downsizing
Regardless how deep employee layoffs go, management still needs existing staff to carry the entire load of the business—meaning that remaining staff require not only experience, expertise, and creativity, but communication skills characterized by purposefulness, comprehensiveness, structure, and precision.

Communicating Well at Work
So what does it mean to be a good communicator? Let’s start with this proposition: A corporate communicator should generate, process, and exchange information effectively (quality) and efficiently (speed). Note that this definition does not limit itself to writing or speaking. We should be mindful of the fact that principles of good communication cross over to all language skills, including reading and listening. As you browse through this website to collect tips for improving your communication skills, consider times in your personal and professional career when you experienced breakdowns in clear communication.

What caused these breakdowns? Environmental distractions? Time pressures? Personal biases? Political pressures? Irrelevant personal agendas? Poorly trained staff? Linguistic misinterpretations?

And what was the impact of the communication breakdown? Lost time? Lowered productivity? Lost business? Managerial changes? Staff turnover?

Finally, what did the involved parties do to resolve the problem? Nothing? Create temporary stopgap measures that created other problems? Develop new systems? Fire off new communiqu├ęs? Hire new communicators?

People read work-related writing to know or do whatever they document tells them; therefore, we should express the business at hand and not necessarily our emotions—especially negative emotions such as anger. Employees at all levels of any size company need good listening skills to avoid confusing messages. They must listen carefully to receive instructions from supervisors, listen to their teammates while collaborating with them, and listen to customers to respond accurately and give feedback to management. Managers must also listen to upper management for policies and procedures to pass on to subordinates, and they should listen to subordinates who are reporting their activities and organization results.

In short, all employees must also write well because their documents stand in for them when they are absent. Their memos, letters, e-mails, reports, and proposals represent their thinking.