Is Slack “writing?”

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A lead came into my site this week from the director of engineering for a major technology company. Could I help his group with a writing workshop? His group had hundreds of people, so this seemed like a hell of a lead.

Normally I’d say yes to that and we’d figure out how. But in the first minute of our conversation, it became clear that he was actually looking to train his staff on how to use Slack better.

So I had to ask myself: is Slack writing? It is, of course. But my many years of developing expertise in business writing had not equipped me with any transferrable skills regarding how to do Slack better.

Slack vs. writing

As I’ve written, the only purpose of business writing is to create a change in the mind of the reader. Certainly the person posting on Slack is hoping to create some sort of change in the mind of the reader. So why couldn’t I help?

I’ve helped people who write strategy memos, marketing emails, internal emails, newsletters, web site copy, customer service summaries, and press releases. I’ve presented to groups of coders, law firms, insurance company marketers, medical researchers, streaming media companies, social network companies, database companies, training groups, financial services organizations, and consultancies.

But all those people were writing something at least 100 words long. They were taking at least five minutes to craft it (and possibly much longer). And they were hoping that the piece they were creating would, in itself, communicate something of substance, rather than focusing mostly on creating a dialogue.

Slack is not like that.

I teach people how to write short. People who write in Slack already write pretty short.

I teach people how to create headings and subject lines that draw people into a broader text. Slack is basically nothing but headings.

I teach people how to plan for larger writing projects. Nobody spends much time planning a Slack post.

I explain how to infuse story into your documents to draw people through. Slack posts aren’t long enough for stories.

I show you how to find and fix passive voice, jargon, and weasel words. That’s probably good advice even for Slack posts. But it’s not at the top of the list of things that would be important.

That list might include topics like threading, hashtags, reaction, and channels. These are things I know nothing about.

Documents vs. dialogue

Here are things I cannot teach you: How to write fiction. How to do presentations. How to make videos or podcasts. How to lie.

These are all forms of communication, but they fall outside what I’m good at. And I’m not really interested in getting good at them, either. I’ll stay in my lane — and a very broad lane it is.

Slack is about dialogue (I think — again, not an expert). It’s about both asking and answering questions. It is open-ended. These are worthwhile qualities, but very different from documents, which are mostly about telling the story once and answering questions.

If Slack and similar systems have a weakness, it is that often the questions there lead to endless and possibly digressive dialogue. You have to ask yourself, “Would this be better as a document?” In the better-run organizations that I’ve interacted with, Slack and documents occupy interlocking and mutually supportive roles, and using Slack threads in situations where a document would be a better choice is considered wasteful and annoying. If you can summarize a significant collection of thoughts in a document, you should, rather than wasting people’s time by forcing them to attempt to get meaning out of a bunch of Slack posts.

Slack is great. Sometimes it’s the right tool for the job. Sometimes it isn’t.

When I can’t help, I refer

Someone once told me that a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you what time it is.

I really do not want to be like that.

While in theory I could have stretched my skills to help the Slack-centric client, I declined. I could have done a whole lot of work to learn Slack better, created a first-draft workshop, and done a terrible job. That didn’t sound like it was worth doing.

Instead, I referred the potential client to Phil Simon, the author of “Slack for Dummies” as well as other books on communication like “Reimagining Communication” and “Message Not Received.” Unlike me, he really does know about Slack — and about virtual communication in general.

How you say “no” says as much about you as how you say “yes.”

Where do you draw the line in your business? And what do you do when the job isn’t right for you? I’d love to hear.

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