In this article I talk about how to get better at writing.
I wrote this as a response to a recent article written by Maurice Fitzgerald in which he wrote –
“The two most critical skills for managers”
“Quite simple really. We can have all the knowledge in the world. Unless we are able to communicate it effectively, we can’t get anything done.
The only ways we can get our teams and organizations to do what we want are:
There is nothing else. There is no other way we can communicate. There is no other way we can get things done. The better you are at these two skills, the easier it will be for you to get things done.”
I’d recommend the entire article which you can find here:
Via the comments section on his article, Maurice asked me if I had any suggestions on how folks can improve their writing skills – largely because I spend so much of my time teaching communication skills.
And in this short article I respond to his question.
Let’s start first with context
It’s unlikely the people reading this are planning on writing the great American (or Malaysian or Irish) novel.
I think for most people at work, it’s about upping the levels of clarity & effectiveness in written communication.
So to get better at writing, I’d suggest starting off by improving how you write emails.
Because nearly everyone has to write emails – and yet the calibre and clarity of the email writing that’s out there is all over the place.
What I’m seeing in email writing
I’ve taught email writing for 20 years.
But what I’m seeing in the last couple of years or so is how Clients are embracing new ways of thinking about how their people communicate with Customers and with each other.
In the past, the training request I’d receive would sound like this – “Dan, we have a big Customer Service Team. Please help them improve their email writing skills.”
And that was all fine and good and I’ve very much enjoyed this work (and still do).
But these days, I hear a new variation on this request. It sounds like this –
“Dan, of course we want to improve our email writing with Customers. So much of how we communicate with Customers today involves writing – email, chat, text, social media and so on. So yes – let’s help Customer Service improve.”
“But we also want to improve how the people in our company write to each other. Because it’s not enough for us that our Customer Service folks can write well.”
“To build our Customer-centric culture and our organizational effectiveness, we want everybody to write well – it’s that important to us.”
That’s the single biggest trend I’ve seen in email writing classes and I think it’s a terrific one.
If you truly want to build that desireable Customer-centric culture, then everyone should be able to write as if they were writing to a Customer.
A point I highlight, early on in email writing workshops, is this one –
Why would you write differently to a Colleague than you would to a Client or Customer?
Doesn’t your Colleague deserve clarity? Don’t they deserve ease or recognition of their emotion? And doesn’t everyone deserve more than an abrupt one word ‘noted’ in reply to their note?
Because everyone is a Customer.
And the way you write is a direct reflection of how you think and how you see the world.
When your Colleague opens your reply and reads it – how are they going to feel? What perception have you created? How are they going to remember you?
“Business writing” has ruined some of us
One of the hallmarks of a great email is that it sounds the way we speak (as our best selves obviously).
Yet so much of what we see when we evaluate email transcripts is the use of heavy words, lengthy expressions, jargon, buzzwords and even the dreaded ‘we regret to inform you’ or ‘we would greatly appreciate if you would…’.
Some Participants tell us they learned to write this way in school – often under the heading of ‘business writing’.
That to dress up the email with fancy words & phrases somehow made it more ‘professional’. Oh dear.
Where business writing refers to recognizing the tone and content of the Customer – I say yes – go for it. That’s an approach to ‘business writing’ I can get behind.
But where business writing refers to being murky in word choice and stilted in how we present our ideas and suggestions – I’d say that’s an approach to ‘business writing’ that’s not doing anyone any favours.
It’s a strange turn world we all live in when a Chatbot ends up having more personality and better word choice than a human being does.
We actually came across such a case in a Mystery Shopper program we undertook last year. And it still haunts me.
In an increasingly digital world – when one human being chooses to reach out to another human being – don’t we have an inherent responsibility to be human?
Some ‘lenses’ you can use to better see your emails
This short article isn’t a replacement for a formal workshop or learning program. There’s just too much ground to cover.
But there are a number of great lenses you can use to review your existing email writing and improve.
What I find is that people ‘look’ at their email, but don’t always ‘see’ their email.
What lenses do is provide new and powerful ways to relook (and rethink) how you write.
Here are three of my favourite lenses
Lens #1: The 9 Step Pattern
This is the essential pattern we teach in our email writing workshops and covering these steps:
1. Interpret Tone & Content
2. Choose the right Response Action (Clarify, Response Template, Free Form)
3. Write the Opening
4. Craft the Affirmation or Empathy Statement (this is where we spend a lot of time on empathy and what it sounds like).
5. Structure the Response
6. Invite Interaction
Having a chronological step by step framework makes email writing both better and more efficient.
And the 9 Step Process is effective as well – it helps ensure that the Tone & Content of the Customer have been considered and where appropriate ‘matched’.
It’s not meant to turn writers into robots.
Rather – like a great recipe – it ensures that all the key ingredients are gathered and blended together for a great outcome.
Lens #2: The Customer Experience Pyramid
The CX Pyramid is so simple and yet so powerful.
It’s part of our CX workshops and we often use the CX Pyramid in our Mystery Shopper and Contact Audit work for Clients as well.
The pyramid covers 3 levels – each level with it’s own question to answer.
1. Meets Needs – Did I help my Customer accomplish their goal?
2. Easy – Did I make it easy for and on the Customer to understand and use my email reply?
3. Enjoyable – What kind of emotional perception will be left in the mind of the Customer once they read my email reply? Is that the emotion I was going for?
Considering the answers to these three questions is pretty much guaranteed to make your email better.
Lens #3: The Customer Journey approach
This lens helps remind me that the Customer is on a journey to accomplish something. And that I’m just one point in that journey (something for Customer Service people to remember).
By stepping back and looking at the ‘bigger’ chronological picture – I can serve them better. And here are the questions I ask myself using this lens:
Sometimes people get very factory like when they’re handling email. Head down, fingers flying, responses sent.
But taking a few moments to consider the Customer journey starting with what motivated them to write, what their goal is (and how my reply addresses that) and where they are likely to go next (including what I can share with them about what comes next) leads to better outcomes.
Including reduced ‘back and forth’ email trains and improved Customer perception (I was listened to).
Are there more lenses that we can possible use?
In CX we talk about data architecture. How different layers of data can be combined to provide a full picture of Customer perception & outcomes.
I think that idea works for email writing too. Different lenses can be ‘layered’ and combined to provide a complete quality framework for an email.
Another lens we could use is the Cultural lens. How does a German national prefer to receive their message as compared to a Japanese national for example.
Or how about the Value lens – in what way does or should our organization’s core values make their appearance in our communications.
But I’d still start with the 9 Step Pattern as my primary lens first. And then layer on the additional lenses that I’ve chosen as the most relevant and meaningful for my work communication.
Thanks Maurice for what you wrote. I think that in today’s world, being able to speak well and write well matters more than ever.
So does Warren Buffet by the way – here’s an excerpt from a business article I came across –
Legendary investor and billionaire Warren Buffet has a tip for young people: Focus on learning how to write and speak clearly.
“The one easy way to become worth 50 percent more than you are now — at least — is to hone your communication skills — both written and verbal,” says Buffett.
I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for reading!