Thursday, August 10, 2006

Winning the War of Words

Not only do I recall my first job, I recall my first memo, a recommendation on how to shorten a lengthy approval cycle. That was a long time ago, and I doubt that the cycle has changed a bit, but that's not what I recall about the memo. What I remember is how quickly my readers forgot it. To me it was a work of art, worthy of a prize and a frame. To them it was just one more unsuccessful attempt to communicate in a world of controlled chaos.

Mildly curious, I wandered from office to office, asking friends and co-workers if they too were having trouble making words work. Yes, they said, but what really irked them was the nature of the organization itself, and how it seemed to undermine all their efforts to write anything and everything.
On top of that, they were weary of the schoolmarm criticism continually handed out by management. In their words, it all added up to a loss of time, money, and patience. As I listened, I found myself trying to get the complaints on paper. Today, those notes are stiff and yellow, but the problems appear ageless:

Company politics...often distorting the objective judgment of both writers and readers.

Distortion by design...intentionally corrupting the language for personal gain

Panic deadlines (both real and false)...rushing writers in and out of the writing while readers struggle to make sense of flawed first drafts.

Indiscriminate changes...or change for the sake of change, often to satisfy a power figure's pet approach.

Committee journalism...or several voices are worse than one, especially when they disagree.

Difficulty of measuring success...or when there is no editorial standard, good is usually what the highest authority says it is.

Lack of information...leaving writers with the frustration of trying to tell a complete story with incomplete information.

Poor setting...or how are we supposed to concentrate with ringing telephones, portable radios, uninvited socializers, clacking machines, carpenters, and hallway chatter?

Policy strangleholds...the omnipresent force that says thou shalt write to satisfy polity first, readers second.

Indecision...those moments when you put your head in your hands because you know the decisions you need from other people will not be forthcoming.

Lack of formal training in business writing...making it doubly difficult and exasperating for people who must keep trying to do something they have not been trained to do.

The ostrich syndrome...or the unwillingness of organizations to openly acknowledge that business writing should be treated as a business skill and not as a "personal thing."

With booby traps like that planted all over the business landscape, my friends either succumbed to clinical writer's block or plunged headlong against overwhelming odds, emerging with a variety of undesirable side effects:

Fear of failure...brought on by high expectations, low confidence.

Frustration...igniting irrational behavior, the quickest way to make a bad situation worse.

Procrastination...the aged and mistaken belief that if we put off the undesirable long enough it will go away.

Expedience...grasping for any solution at all -- right or wrong, good or bad -- as long as it beats the clock and satisfies those on high.

Herd instinct...forsaking individual expression, or trying to sound like everybody else. up, giving in.

Remember...The Tortoise Won the Race
The product of it all was a lot of confused thinking, bad examples, and writing that just didn't work. And it was happening in all types of companies and organizations everywhere, big ones, small ones, government agencies, universities, service companies, manufacturing firms, companies for profit and those for not, anywhere people had to write to get the job done.

And yet, some people were able to overcome. Facing the same problems, the same frustrations, they still managed to write effective emails, letters, memos, reports, and proposals -- and often in less time and at less cost. How did they do it? Were they experienced writers masquerading as administrators, analysts, engineers, managers and administrative assistants?
No, but they did have one thing in common: they had finally acknowledged that writing skill is a business skill, vital to their success, and not something that would always be "taken care of" by somebody else. They had set long-range goals, then gone after them one step at a time.
Today, that kind of commitment is helping more and more people become better business writers. Unfortunately, they are a minority, barely one percent of the workforce. Others, if they begin at all, give up when they run into guidelines that are either too shallow, too complicated, or poorly presented.
The answer lies in the right teacher and the right program, one that will lure us into a new and palatable way of learning a skill that has too often been served up as a dense, impenetrable mystery.

For many of us, those sleep-inducing schoolmarm lectures are but a faint memory. We’re no longer diagramming sentences or conjugating verbs. Back then, when we were struggling students, language was a subject for close scrutiny, a specimen under glass. In the office, language is a major force, affecting everything we do — including our careers. If we do not respect its power, we are sure to become its victim.
For some, the thought of actually studying and practicing the craft of writing may seem masochistic, but if we find a constructive program and stick with it for a few years, the rewards will be many.



Anonymous Business Writing said...

Hallejuha! Couldn't have said it better myself. As a consultant and teacher of business writing, I, too, get exasperated by the whole notion that writing can be taught in a day, even in a semester.

But even more important is the point you make: each business-person must come to understand that business writing is an essential skill. Thanks for saying it elegantly.

11:13 AM  

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