Opinion by Bart Perkins

Are we clear? Writing well can be key to your career

Writing is an important communication tool that none of us can ignore

Opinion by Bart Perkins

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As students, most of us probably wished we had fewer papers to write. Wasn’t there a more efficient way to demonstrate that we had learned the things we needed to learn?

What we probably didn’t realize is that by writing so often, we were learning how to write. And knowing how to write is a key skill in many occupations, including IT. But for IT staffers who didn’t absorb the lesson and still don’t write well, there’s still hope.

When project requirements, business cases, IT strategies, supplier contracts and other documents are not clearly written, they are likely to be misinterpreted. The result is often additional work, with cost overruns, systems that don’t meet user needs, legal disputes and other problems. Even a simple email requesting a 2:00 call can be misinterpreted if the time zone is not specified and callers are in different parts of the world. Moreover, business letters, memos, presentations, podcasts and videos are often read or watched months or years after they were created, without any additional explanation from the author. The time lag can complicate matters and misunderstandings even further.

Unfortunately, the clarity of business communications has gotten worse over time. CIOs regularly complain to me about letters, memos and presentations that leave them struggling to decipher the author’s point. Grammatical errors, punctuation problems, overuse of buzzwords or acronyms, and run-on sentences result in incomprehensible documents. When busy professionals get confused, lost or bored, they often stop reading and dismiss the author as poorly educated and not very intelligent.

Executives expect clear communications. While all departments struggle for clarity, it is of particular concern to IT organizations. Despite IT’s increased stature over the last decade, some executives still believe that IT is a cost center staffed with techies who don’t understand or appreciate business issues and subtleties. Communication deficiencies are highlighted when executives compare IT documents with those from public relations, marketing or other departments staffed with professional communicators.

IT leaders who are concerned that documents produced by IT are not engaging the intended audience should consider taking the following steps:

  • Utilize professionals. Engaging the services of a professional writer or someone from corporate communications to edit important documents reflects the recognition that business communications are an important part of IT’s job. CIO magazine reports that communications specialists are increasingly common in IT; hire your own professional, if the size of your IT organization warrants it. But don’t wait until you have a desperate need. Many IT leaders report that it takes a new writer several months to become familiar with IT terminology and to learn the culture of a new enterprise.
  • Make clear communications a priority. Take the time to make your own documents clear. Rather than relying entirely on words, use charts and tables to communicate data and clarify the point. Even if you enjoy writing, a communications specialist may be able to polish your prose, allowing you to model the behavior you want your staff to emulate.

It takes time to write clearly and succinctly. Be sure every IT department has adequate time to produce effective communications, including reports, accomplishments and concerns. Don’t make the common mistake of reducing costs by cutting time allocated to communication and documentation. It will create problems later. In particular, don’t believe vendors (or anyone else) who swear that their software is so intuitive that documentation is not needed! While new software is indeed becoming more intuitive, resulting business process changes still need to be clearly explained.

  • Create standard templates. Most business memos, letters and presentations are designed to inform, persuade, seek approval, or request or validate information. Typically, these communications consist of a standard set of sections, arranged in a particular order. Rather than beginning each writing assignment with a blank sheet of paper, create department templates for the most frequent communications. Purdue University and other sources have templates available for downloading.
  • Include written communications in job descriptions. Clear communication is crucial for IT management, project managers, business analysts, business relationship managers and others who regularly interact with the rest of the enterprise. Emphasize the importance of communication by including it in job descriptions, annual performance plans, and reviews. Reward clarity over style — IT does not need to have the next Hemingway.

Some people believe that highly specialized technical staff should be evaluated exclusively on their technical expertise. Although technical expertise is the most important requirement, clear communication greatly increases the value of technical staff. Most executives want short, direct answers with details supplied only in response to questions. By contrast, most technical staff prefer to provide sufficient context and details to allow others to reach logical conclusions. Supervisors of technical specialists will continue to be forced to translate technical documents into management communications until technical specialists learn to supply the appropriate level of detail for communicating outside IT.

  • Support communication education. Make writing classes available for people who want to advance their careers. Fortunately, such courses for technical staff are widely available online, many at low or no cost through Coursera and other websites. For a more interactive experience, most colleges also provide such classes. Offer employees tuition reimbursement.

In “Why Kim Kardashian Can’t Write Good,” John McWhorter, a Columbia University professor, argues that spoken language is becoming more important than written language. In the 19th century, many high school graduates wrote better than the average college graduate writes today. This is understandable, since speakers of that time could only be heard by those present, and a wider audience could only be reached through written documents. Today’s high-quality record/playback equipment remove space and time barriers; the resulting presentations can easily be viewed anywhere in the world. As a result, speaking and delivery style is emphasized, at the expense of writing expertise.

Business documents must communicate accurately, understandably and concisely. No organization would dream of requiring their management team to listen to a series of audio or video presentations (and take notes) in order to rank-order potential projects or to establish the service levels an outsourcer needs to provide. While the essay skills required long ago are no longer necessary, clarity in written business communications is still vitally important — across the enterprise and beyond — even if Kim Kardashian never learns to write well.

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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