Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Value of the Written Word

You may have noticed commentary on the corporate world creeping into my posts of late. This one will be no different but relates specifically to the craft of writing. I can’t give too many details other than to say this; a national manager was in the office for the week. It was not a laid back week. That last sentence is known as understatement.

Amongst the manic energy caused by a specific event there were two instances where my writing talent was called upon. I found the circumstances around this quite interesting. I have always taken for granted the fact that I can write. It’s what I do. I’m pretty good at it. Sometimes I forget it’s a skill that a lot of people do not have… even very smart people.

One was a mass email to our contract workforce. I thought what I wrote was functional but I was complimented by said national manager for how it was structured. To me it did what it had to do. I wasn’t sure how else I could have written it so I found this reaction a little strange. He later asked me to assist with an email he had to write to, let’s just say, a person of significance. It was a daunting task given who that person was and the context.

We had the opportunity to talk in general terms about what it is I do at the local pub after work that night. I said to him the key to writing, especially corporate writing, is to write to your audience. A lot of businesses are terrible at this – I’ve seen updates from executives to their staff so crammed full of jargon and detail I’d need a supercomputer, the staff at the NSA, and possibly John Nash to decipher it. It’s what’s known as bad writing.

I drop him off at his hotel and tell him to ring me when he has a draft and I’ll look over it. I get a call about 9.30pm. He sends me what he has written. I have no idea of the specific circumstances he has to respond to which is good because I have the benefit of pure objectivity. I also have the benefit of 20+ years’ corporate experience in this industry, the majority from a sales and customer service background. I know the person the email is for comes from a sales background. The company I work for is predominantly a technical one. They are different mindsets.

I ring him back, ask a few questions, then do a quick edit taking out extraneous detail, changing the emphasis and tying together his argument. All up, from the first call to when I send it off, maybe 30 minutes have elapsed. He’d been working on it for three hours. Not because he’s not smart but because he isn’t a natural writer.

Again, he is very happy with the result and remarks about how I’ve set everything out. I actually dropped a little Aristotle’s Poetics on him – beginning, middle and end. He was writing paragraphs that incorporated the first two but not the ‘third act’ if you like. Perhaps he has a future as a writer of Australian films…

Editor’s note: Ouch, low blow!
Me: I’m sorry, you are…?
Ed: The voice of your better angels?
Me: Is that you, Toby?
Ed: Bit obscure, don’t you think?
Me: How do you mean?
Ed: You were talking about writing to your audience…
Me: They all know I adore The West Wing.
Ed: You want to make your point?
Me: Fine.

My point is that while corporate writing is a specific beast all of its own, some basic principles still apply:

Know your audience.
Beginning, Middle and End.
Setup and Payoff.
Keep it simple.

And this: words when used correctly are powerful. They can move, persuade, entertain, enlighten and enhance.

Epilogue: I never thought I’d end up back in the corporate world. There are aspects of it though that I’m very good at. As a result of the week it was suggested I apply for the new operations manager role in Perth; or a secondment to the communications team in Melbourne. Neither of those things is going to happen as while the money would no doubt be attractive, the hours and stress would decidedly not be.