An eNewsletter Dedicated to Helping Businesspeople Write Smarter and Faster in Plain Language
Does Everything You Write at Work Get Read? (Part 2 of 2)
The answer to that question is: “Probably not.” To ensure what you write does get read, the article that follows—“Your Colleagues Don’t Read Anything You Write. Here Are 8 Ways to Change That,” by Aaron Orendorff (edited for clarity and space)—offers some tips. Last month’s issue of Writing Tips covered the first four tips, here are the rest.
5. Don’t answer, ask.
Questions are so central, and Ms. Wiseman, author of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter,” suggests a way to use them with a twist.
“When we discover issues or problems, we tend to compose an email with a long explanation, our opinion on the matter, and what we want people to do,” she said. But “as our word count grows,” she continued, “co-workers’ ownership of the situation declines and our implied ownership of the situation increases.” She calls her solution the extreme question challenge where managers lead by writing only questions: “At most, use one or two sentences to describe the situation; then ask a single question and let the team chime in.”
6. Invert the order; lead with the need.
Because most of us tend to open with rambling niceties — meant to cover our insecurities — never try to write a final draft on the first go. Instead, allow yourself to throw up a few first drafts in whatever form fits the need. Then, flip it. Take the final sentence or paragraph and move it to the top. Rather than building to the request — and risk muddling the meaning — this inversion forces us to lead with the need. After that, you’ll often find much of the rest can be removed.
7. Write a people-proof TL;DR.
As a final step — especially for memos, agendas and group emails — add a TL;DR (too long; didn’t read), which meets two enemies head on. One, everybody’s job is nobody’s job. Two, deliverables without due dates don’t get done. Make your TL;DR follow this formula: Who does what by when and how are we going to track progress. (Write this person by person if needed.) If the TL;DR clearly summarizes everything, send only the TL;DR.
8. Don’t make it about you, or “them.”
Stopping to ask ourselves, “What’s in it for them?” can revolutionize how we write. Unfortunately, not only do we rarely take time to ponder their needs, but most of the ways we’ve been told to go about it are trite and toothless. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Get out of your head and into theirs. Ask yourself, what would interest them? It all sounds great in theory. But in the rush of work, the power to do so evaporates.
When I asked Dr. Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology at Arizona State University, how to practically make communication about them not you, he relayed a story that betrayed my own self-centeredness. Nearing the end of a report due the next day, Dr. Cialdini realized he didn’t have the data to make a confident conclusion. A colleague, however, did — a rather “irascible, sour” colleague. Dr. Cialdini sent the request and a few minutes later followed up: “‘I know why you’re calling,’ he said to me, ‘and the answer is no. Look, I can’t be responsible for your poor time management skills. I’m a busy man and I can’t go to my archives for you just because you have mistimed your report.’”
Like most of us, the initial temptation was to double down. Instead, he remembered research that suggested a better way. “It was to link us together into a shared identity,” Dr. Cialdini explained. “I said, ‘Tim’ — not his real name — ‘you know, we’ve been faculty members in the same psychology department now for 12 years. I really wish you could do this for me.’” The data arrived that afternoon. Why? Because he’d incorporated Tim in a shared identity. While similar phrasing could certainly be applied to our writing, the larger lesson can be distilled with a single juxtaposition.
When seeking assistance or buy-in, we typically ask colleagues for their “opinion.” Turns out, that’s a mistake. Asking for an opinion produces a critic. It separates “me” from “you” by leading the other person to introspect alone. In contrast, when we ask for “advice,” people see themselves as partners. And advice versus feedback significantly increases both the amount and quality of responses. Watch your pronouns — in more ways than one. You is selfish. So is them. But, we works together.
We can make it easy on our colleagues to read what we write, respond to it, and take action. Beyond getting them to pay attention, to write sparingly, to write briefly and to write as us is a gift. A life raft among the waves.
- The stars on the original American flag were in a circle so all the Colonies would appear equal.
- Approximately 150 million hot dogs and 700 million pounds of chicken are consumed on the Fourth.
- Only John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. All the others signed later.
- Every 4th of July the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is tapped (not rung) thirteen times in honor of the original thirteen colonies.
- The only two signers of the Declaration of Independence who later served as President of the United States were John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
- Which country outside the USA holds the largest Fourth of July celebration: Ireland, Japan, Denmark, Australia?
(Fun Facts Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
Word of the Month
stentorian | sten-TOR-ee-un | adjective
• extremely loud
“While the CEO was impressed with the content of Keith’s presentation, he was not thrilled with its stentorian delivery.”
Wacky & Wise Websites
Click here to discover 24 things you didn’t know about the musical, Hamilton.
Click here to read about 35 offbeat holidays you can celebrate in July.
American Express, Amgen, Cisco Systems, Department of the Navy, Fluor Corporation, General Electric, Motorola, The New York Public Library, Procter & Gamble, SEAL Team Six, State of Utah, Supreme Court of Virginia, United Way, U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, U.S. Food & Drug Administration
Writing Tips & More
Now that you’ve read the newsletter, go to the menu bar at the top of this page and check out the rest of our website. Click on Blog to see more information about writing.
Subscribe to Writing Tips now!
SATisfy Your Curiosity
SAT Exam practice question: Select the pair that best expresses a relationship similar to that expressed in the original pair.
MAELSTROM : WATER
- blizzard : wind
- rock slide : earth
- tornado : air
- tidal wave : ocean
- plateau : land
(SAT Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
A Catch-22 is a type of paradox where the condition necessary for success conflicts with that success. The term comes from the title of Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22 about bomber crews during World War II. In the novel, Catch-22 refers to the rule for grounding aircrews because of psychological instability:
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.
Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.
Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
‘That’s some catch, that Catch-22,’ he observed.
‘It’s the best there is,’ Doc Daneeka agreed.”
Answer: TORNADO : AIR. A maelstrom creates a violent, whirling vortex of water. A tornado creates a violent, whirling vortex of air.
Fun Facts Answer
Rebild National Park in Denmark is said to hold the largest July 4 celebrations outside of the United States.