Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Communicating more effectively as a job and career skill set 6: putting it in writing 2

This is my sixth installment to a series on what is one of the most important, and also one of the most commonly problematical of all workplace skills: communicating with others, and as an effective two (or more) way process (see Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3, postings 342 and following for Parts 1-5.)

I began addressing the issues of written communications in Part 5 and concluded that posting with some notes about this one and how my goal here is to discuss how to more effectively convey a complex message. I will get to that, but as a starting point I want to build this installment from a growing trend in brief and even micro-messages and with instant messaging and Twitter.

I wrote in Part 5 about how difficult it can be to write effectively, and certainly when presenting a complex issue or arguing a case for a contrarian position. And I noted how many and even most of us prefer to present ourselves verbally than in writing, and certainly where that would call for drafting and presenting a more lengthy and detailed document. But I write this against an increasingly common backdrop in which we all seem to be writing to each other and even with all but real-time frequency for many of us – in snippets and micro-messages of up to 140 characters and with little if any editing or concern for grammar or even for clarity of meaning. Few tweets can stand on their own as self-contained and meaningful communications, only holding meaning and value from the context of back and forth brief notes that they are added to.

So we all, increasingly, write but I am not discussing this type of written message here. I am focusing here on when we need to convey something complex and where the details and the logic of what we have to say and how we say it are everything. This can mean our deciding to communicate in writing as a response to our own concerns or interests and without being requested to, or a need for this can arise when for example our boss or supervisor requires that we provide detailed written documentation or explanation for something that we are working on or responsible for. Or this may be a requirement for providing documentation as part of a project or task completion. As a simple example there, if you are a software developer and are producing or updating an in-house developed software tool or resource, it is likely that part of your completing this will include documenting what you have done and how this tool works or has been updated. I am addressing complex messages here, where clarity and completeness are important.

But many and even most people prefer brief and clear so they can finish reading what they are sent and continue on to their next task. There is a reason why Twitter and instant messaging are so popular, and that reason holds in the workplace as much as it does anywhere else. So along with a need to offer the details, you face a strong countervailing need for brevity and conciseness – if anyone else is to read and appreciate your work and the message that you are trying to convey.

• Unless explicitly told otherwise as instructions for what is required in a document, it is generally safer to err on the side of brevity and clarity with an offer to provide more details as needed. Then be ready to follow-through with those requested details and in a timely manner.
• If you need to offer a full and exhaustively detailed presentation as an initial document, distill out the key points of your conclusions, and enough of what you have to say to indicate that you can corroborate that, and write this as an executive summary version. This way the people who have to read what you have to say can get the basic ideas and delve into the details when and as they see need and opportunity to do so.
• Present this summary and the document it summarizes together and in conjunction with a verbal explanation or discussion where possible. Then, if needed, provide an update or an addendum document, if for example you find in a face to face meeting that your boss now requires a type or level of detail that you did not include for what to them is now a key point of consideration for this work. Goals and priorities can change, and a document’s completion requirements can too. So even if you have addressed everything that you knew going into writing a document, that you needed to address you might still have to cut back on some areas or expand on them – and rewrite.
• The primary goal here is to meet the needs of your audience, that they understand what you have to say and that you present that in a way that they can be receptive to.

Know your audience and write accordingly. And if your documents have to meet formal format or content requirements, as for example in complying with outside regulatory or other set requirements, know what you have to include at minimum and how, and follow the guidelines that you are required to meet.

For emailed attachments, your executive summary can be added as a cover page to that document file itself, but also include appropriately worded and selected summary content in the body of the email and always be careful with your email subject lines so that you capture the attention of your recipients and so they will open and read those emails out of the flood of competition for their attention that goes through their inboxes.

I am going to continue this overall discussion in a next series installment, where I will delve into the sometimes complexities of cultural diversity. I note here in anticipation of that, that cultural differences often express themselves as differences in communications styles – and for both what we say in face to face conversation and what we write and put on record, and for how receptive we are to what types and formats of messages from others. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3 and at the first directory page and second, continuation page to this Guide. You can also find this and related material at Social Networking and Business and its continuation page.

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