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No bull. Less fog in your writing…

written communicationHow much writing do you do in your job? Probably more than you think. But the problem is that hardly any of it gets read. Here Clive Lewis, MD of Illumine Training, outlines why we need to cut the bull and write far more persuasively.

Forget phone calls. Put aside face-to-face interactions. The truth is that 90% of all business transactions involve writing to our customers and in this area of communication we need to improve fast. Just take this example of gobbledegook ‘If there are any points on which you require explanation or further particulars we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required by telephone’. No surprise that customers get frustrated because what this actually means, after it has been decoded, is: ‘If you have any questions, please ring’.

If you are still not convinced that the way you write impacts on business then consider the fact that only 10-15% of what you and your team put in your proposals, reports, letters, emails and brochures ever gets read. Why? Well don’t blame the reader. Who, for example, would want to read this nonsense :

Deutsche Bank Global Markets London-based Product Innovation Group has implemented Prediction Dynamics’ Crucible as a platform for researching and deploying innovative quantitative trading strategies. The quantitative trading infrastructure software will enable the bank to very quickly implement sophisticated non-parametric financial trading strategies for its growing client base.”

It is baffling isn’t it. However, the real irony is that the people writing this sort of bull are trying very hard to communicate effectively with their clients. OK, they are failing miserably but the answer is not for them to stop trying. The solution is for them to learn key skills that can transform this rubbish into clear, persuasive and engaging writing.

There are three basic steps that will make writing easier for you and for your customers – and they are these:

1. Planning. It is no surprise to find that good planning is a must. However it may surprise you to hear that professional writers spend more than twice the amount of time in planning compared to non-professional writers. Now let me be clear about this. Planning is key both because it helps the writer to gather all their ideas and information and because it helps stimulate creative thinking.

In this context there are a number of powerful planning techniques which you can use. Mind Mapping is one and you can find out more about how to use this planning tool on www.mind-mapping.com. Another is the Cluster technique which, like Mind Mapping, allows you to put down on one page all the various associated thoughts that you have around your subject. Both these techniques also help you to consider your audience. How much do they know about the subject? How much detail do they need? What style of writing is appropriate? Start answering these questions and you will have a much better chance of composing a piece that is appropriate and engaging.

2. The quick draft. Of course once you have constructed a plan it is far easier to draft your document. You know where you are starting, you know where you are going and you have some key milestones for your journey. However, when drafting, a good piece of advice is this – do not revise as you go along and once you have started writing don’t stop – keep going. If you make an error then leave it. If you can’t think of a word or phrase then leave a space to fill in later. Remember that nothing comes out perfectly the first time, so instead of perfection, aim for a draft that contains everything you want to say.

Furthermore if you are one of those people who finds that they can’t get started then begin anywhere. It doesn’t matter where you start so long as it is all included at the end. And one final hint with rough drafting; keep a notepad to hand. Every writer gets good ideas when drafting; ideas that don’t belong to the sentence or paragraph under construction. Note them as they occur and keep them for later use.

3. Editing. Once you have drafted your piece you are ready for the most important step of all – editing.  And invariably this means cutting down on your text, not adding to it. You may think that you have 1000 wonderful things to say but the effectiveness of your communication is measured not by what you know but by what your reader takes in and understands. Editors know this and that is why they are so ruthless with their red pen! Here are three areas to which you should pay particular attention:

i. Are you managing your readers’ attention? If your sentences are too long or too complex then break them down. Shorter sentences will help you to be clear and concise and make it easier for readers to follow what you are saying. Additionally, add variety. If the first sentence in every paragraph you have written starts with the same word e.g. ‘I ‘or ‘The’ then your readers’ attention will start to waver. Vary the length of your paragraphs and vary the words you start with.

ii. Create movement with more active writing. Most passive sentences contain some form of the verb ‘to be’. So if you want to develop a more active style of writing then look out for these words am, is, was, were, be, being, been. Once you have spotted that you are using the passive voice then change it. Put the ‘doer’ before the verb and the ‘doee’ after the verb. So ‘The director wrote the report’ is active while ‘The report was written by the director’ is passive.

iii. Create more energy by finding the action. Replacing long nouns with verbs will enliven your writing still further. Here is an example. ‘We would appreciate your signature on the contract’. This is terribly slow compared to ‘Please sign the contract’.  Similarly ‘We’d like your clarification of the matter’ can be replaced by the faster ‘Please clarify the matter’. So your challenge is to spot problem nouns and be more direct.

As we saw at the beginning of this article (as well as in the panels below) people tend to get very long winded and use far too much jargon when they are writing to their customers. But how do you know if what you have written is clear enough?

One way to assess your writing is to try reading it aloud. If it flows and has a logical structure then you are probably safe. Alternatively you can check clarity by using the fog index. To calculate your fog index take a passage of about 100 words and divide it by the number of sentences. This will give you an average sentence length (A). Now total the number of words which have three or more syllables in this passage of writing (avoiding proper names, nouns or words with prefixes or suffixes). Call this total B. Add the totals A + B and multiply by a factor of 0.4 and this figure will be your fog index.

The figure you have for your fog index represents the minimum reading age required by your reader in order to make sense of your writing. And just to give you a feel for the fog index of the British press, The Sun has a fog index of 6-8, The Mail has an index of 10-12, The Times, The Guardian and The Telegraph have an index of 14-18 and The Independent an index of 20-24. So how should you be communicating with your customer base? What level of clarity do you need?

Now this article only introduces you to some of the key ideas. If you are serious about improving then you need training and coaching in the planning, drafting and editing skills outlined above. But the good news is that this is not a long process. In one or two days you can transform your writing technique. No bull. See some great examples of Bull from the Golden Bull award winners here…

The ‘Write’ Stuff for the International Cricket Board (ICC)

Whether it is reporting on playing conditions, drafting rules for international tournaments or stating codes of conduct for players and umpires, the International Cricket Council (ICC) depends on good written communication and recently the Board ran a course from Illumine Training to help managers in this regard. As well as teaching participants planning techniques, the course also covered how to draft text and handle ideas more effectively and how to edit text so that you create a clear, concise and persuasive final document.

John Moore, HR Manager at the ICC, explained why the course was needed. “Our job is to promote the game of cricket and we are responsible for the global expansion of the game. Naturally enough we are communicating all the time with our Members and Affiliate Members  as well as with international tournament organisers and the media. The reports and papers that we write have to be exceptionally clear and this course gave us an insight into how to improve the quality of our thinking and writing using some very practical techniques.

“For us the main issue is clarity and on this course we recognised some of the traps we had been falling into and some of the ways in which we could make our writing more concise and energetic. It certainly improved our skills levels and gained very positive feedback from our managers,” he said.

A Few Facts and Figures

  • The 2003 E-Mail Rules, Policies and Practices Survey from the American Management Association, Clearswift, and the ePolicy Institute found that the average employee in the US spends about one hour and forty-five minutes a day dealing with email.
  • The annual CBI-Pertemps Employment Trends Survey (Sept 2004) revealed that 33 per cent of firms found that they needed to give school-leavers basic training in literacy and numeracy.Find out more

Illumine Training offers a number of courses and workshops that can help you to improve your writing skills.

Click here to find out more about writing skills training

Today’s readers are overloaded; they have little time and will, at best, skim-read. Writing Dynamics™ shows you how to handle these challenges:

  • Get your reader’s attention
  • Ensure your key message is understood
  • Save you and your reader time

The Writing Dynamics™ three-stage writing system helps you PLAN using creative and structured thinking; DRAFT in record time and EDIT for impact. It’s available as a public workshop (London and Manchester) or as an in-house course.

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