The Importance of Writing Well

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff.

For years I’ve used an introductory dialogue for classroom Communication topics. It involves a tee-up, “Based on research done by the US Navy years ago, different people have different preferences in the way they receive information.” And then I write on a flipchart the following, while saying most of these words:

  • 45% Readers
  • 45% Listeners
  • 5% Both
  • 5% Fool

The key is this: While I’d write Fool, I’d say Neither. Typical of American humor.

In a room of 20-25 people, around half would laugh, the others would wonder why they are laughing. It is because some were listening, and others were reading.

Improving Communication Effectiveness
But this little vignette brings up a very important point: Statistically, about half of all people prefer to listen to get their information, and about half prefer to read it. Which are you? While the cited statistics say that about 5% do both equally well, the majority of all participants usually think they are part of that 5%. And the majority think their husband/wife/manager/co-worker/customer (pick one) is the last on the list above.

Great communicators seem to intuitively understand the preferences of their audiences. Meanwhile, I resort to using simple models and observation to approximate a similar result. At least, I do when I focus on Conscious Communication, rather than just using my own preferences, and expect that everyone else understands perfectly. Is this Reader/Listener preference why many of us only communicate effectively with half our audiences? And then we wonder what’s wrong with them? Perhaps we can all benefit from a bit more Conscious Communication.

Some readers have already figured out that this might be a two-part article, about Writing and Speaking effectively. Perhaps, and as I recall, it was Epictetus, who said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” He understood the importance of listening well in the first Century AD. This series may have more than two parts, if we take the hint and also discuss the lost art of Listening.

The Importance of Writing
Is writing one of your greatest skills? It should be. Many others think that writing is diminishing in importance as we become more technologically connected. I think today’s technology increases the need for effective writing. People have less time than ever to wade through lengthy emails (yes, I am an offender), dense prose (ditto), and unedited papers. Well, at least Rose has cured me of most of that, except when she lets one slip through.

Project Documentation is a good example of important writing. This is the trail you leave (you do, don’t you?), that other people follow, so they can evaluate your results, figure out why you chose a particular solution, or adapt and tune your results for changing business needs. Documentation of your role as a competent and performing Project Manager is essential in any advanced PM certification. And you document your competence not in just one aspect of the project, but in 46-50 different Competence Elements. Clearly, documentation is important.

Why Do We Write?
We write to inform; to persuade; to evoke responses, so we can change from one voice to a team in dialogue. In a project, we write:

  • To get more funding, or obtain the right Talent.
  • To avoid or prevent a Risk, by successfully recommending a preventative action.
  • To transfer understood work efforts from self to others: Writing is key to effective delegation.
  • To clearly define the terms of a contract or other type of agreement.
  • To resolve an open issue, that must be acted upon within a window of opportunity.
  • To explain the consequences of a project delay or budget overage.
  • To inform organization stakeholders and leaders of a project’s status.
  • To give praise to key team members or stakeholders.

And, for many more reasons–and that is just in the project setting. But if only half of your audience “gets it” when you write, how will you accompany your writing, so the entire message is received? Verification and observation help, but effective project managers also follow up verbally.

Duty Writing Versus Inspired Writing
I know people who write very well. Several are leaders of IPMA-USA. For me, it can take weeks to get inspired about an article. Sometimes, just as with some of my favorite people, leaving something to the last minute inspires me a little bit, as the looming deadline juices my adrenalin. But the inspiration is essential. No one wants to read an article that was written just because it is a duty. This article, for example, was started in early November, as a duty. Needed it for a November newsletter. Now, here it is January 6, and I had an Epiphany: the tee-up that this article begins with.

Are your project reports Duty Writing or Inspired Writing? Fear is not quite the same as Inspiration, although there is a slight resemblance. In failing projects, a few hours of reading project communications easily shows the problems, the attempts to CYA (a clever approach to avoiding blame, spelled out, it means Cover Your Anatomy); the early signs of a looming disaster. This is panicked Duty Writing, and over my consulting career, I’ve seen too many examples.

For me, Inspired Writing usually begins with a middle-of-the-night insight. Then I’m off and writing. Inspired Writing is more enjoyable for the writer, and usually more enjoyable to read.

Writing Well
In earlier generations, we all went through the writing classes in grade school, maybe multiple times: Outlining; sentence structure (remember diagramming?); declensions, person, nominative and dative; all the science of writing. But there is a difference between a well-structured sentence, and a compelling one, isn’t there? And how do we learn to write compelling phrases? Look at that list under Why Do We Write; can you afford to be ineffective in any of those communications? This is a Darwinian-style theme: survival of the fittest writer.

You are successful, in part, because of your writing skills! Such learned techniques as placing the “Why” in the first five words of a report that needs Executive action; of Engineers and IT Talent using more adjectives and adverbs when writing for non-technical stakeholders; and many other techniques. Perhaps we should start a wiki of writing tips for project managers. Such sharing could help all of us in writing well.

Back to our introductory dialogue: Effective writers prepare for their audiences to be some combination of reader and listener. They ask for preferences: “Would you rather review my proposal first, or have me explain the key points, and answer your questions?” That is one of the ways effective writers also become effective communicators.

So yes, in some future posting we will also opine about The Importance of Speaking Well; and probably of Listening, too. Perhaps not immediately; there are a lot of interesting things to write about, early in 2012. May your 2012 be prosperous and successful!

Your Comments?