As I work with companies on internal communication, I see amazing and pervasive levels of inefficiency and waste. These groups work hard, generate valuable content, and then despair when it has less impact than they had hoped. This is fixable. I’ll share six ways you can change what and how you write to properly value your colleagues’ time.
I’ll soon deliver my 30th clear writing workshop. Of those workshops, ten were for groups that were sharing valuable content internally, as opposed to marketing to customers or fulfilling subscription content.
Despite a wide diversity of groups and methods, they shared common problems.
I worked with groups creating strategy documents at financial, technology, and streaming media companies. My audiences included a training group at a university, a support organization updating management on key accounts, and a tech company collaborating about product features. Some worked together in offices; others worked remotely. Some shared primarily through email; others used no internal email at all, communicating exclusively through a Slack-type sharing environment.
But every one of these groups had the same issue: noise. They were doing great work that they needed to share with broad groups of colleagues as well as senior executives. Even so, those targets were complaining about the challenge of getting meaning from what they were receiving, or failing to pay sufficient attention to it all. The result of this ineffective communication was poor decisions and extra work. (As in “I just sent you that information. Didn’t you notice it and why did you make a decision without it?”).
Every solution to this problem stems from a fundamental principle:
That insight leads to six lessons:
1 Clarify your audience
I often do an exercise where I pick out a single writer in a workshop. The conversation goes like this.
Me: “Who is your audience?”
Writer: “Product managers.” [or some similar answer]
Me: “Do you know any of them?”
Me: “Name one.”
Writer (after a pause): “Umm, well, there’s Fred Jones.”
Me: “OK. Here’s what you do. Put Fred’s picture up next to your monitor. As you are writing, think, ‘Would Fred understand what I am writing? How would he relate to it?’ Then change your tone and style to match what Fred would need.”
Everyone knows their audience. But few keep that audience in mind as they write. The result is structure, terminology, and tone that are mismatched to what that audience needs. This exercise cures that problem.
2 Communicate less frequently and with more relevance
Does your group send a weekly update (or three), along with frequent communications about new documents or events?
If the relevance is low, you’ve trained your audience not to look. It’s your own fault when they don’t notice the “crucial” communication you sent.
The solution is not to write “URGENT” on each email or post. It’s to gather up as much as possible into a single must-read weekly email or post. Properly written, the audience is far more likely to read such an email, including links to other documents they need to see. Within the week, send updates about the most important new documents only, or send those updates only to the subgroups for whom they are most relevant.
Less is more.
3 Improve your titles
If there is one thing you can do to improve the effectiveness of internal communications, it is to write better titles.
Which of these would you read?
Q3 Research Update
New research reveals we use the wrong key terms in our marketing
This is not about clickbait. It’s about telling people what they will be seeing and why it is relevant.
One of my clients has a specific name for the subtitle on each post: TL;DR. That is, “Too long; didn’t read,” followed by the main point. That’s a great way to start your internal documents. Trust me, if they find the TL;DR interesting, they’ll read the rest.
Remember that your communication appears among dozens of others in the recipient’s inbox. You need to make a promise about what valuable insights you will be sharing. And then you need to deliver on that promise.
4 Structure your communication
Why is your writing a wall of paragraphs? People will start to read it, then give up.
Paragraphs suck — because they’re not easy to skim.
That’s not how people consume content. They decide to look. Then they start. Then they skim. Then they go back and read the whole thing, if it seems worth it.
You can fix this. It’s easy.
Write subheads. Yes, even in an email.
Create simple graphics.
Use bullets, lists, bolded first sentences, and other typographical additions to hold people’s interest and improve skimmability.
Link to more detailed information, or sources that prove your point.
The result will be chunky and interesting. People will skim it, they’ll read it, and they’ll retain more.
5 Writer shorter
I often ask writers, “How long is the document you are working on now?”
They don’t usually have an answer.
You should have a target. For example, 250 words for an email, 400 words for a post, 3,000 words for a strategy memo.
Keep an eye on that length, and cut extraneous material.
Writing short requires constant vigilance. (I’m coming up against the 1000-word boundary on this post, so that’s all I’m going to say.)
6 Bottom line up front
If I read the first paragraph of your communication, I should know the most important things I need to know.
That means you don’t start by sneaking up on the subject. You start with a summary. “Our research shows that of the two marketing methods we use, one doesn’t work.” Then tell me which one.
The nature of quick summaries is that they lack supporting points. That’s fine. Once you’ve told me what we need to do, I’m certainly going to stick around and listen to your reasoning why.
Academic writing stresses logical reasoning. That’s fine. But don’t start at the beginning. Start at the most important point. Then lay out the logic that justifies it.
Don’t waste my time
Your job is not useless. People actually do want to know what you found out.
You only get a few moments of their time. Don’t waste it. Structure your writing — and your titles — in a way that promises value, and then delivers it.
Writing this way takes discipline. It takes more time than just spewing things in a stream of consciousness as they occur to you. But it’s worth it.
Do this and your managers will perceive you as smart, helpful, and valuable. Don’t do it . . . and they may not notice you at all. And that’s not very good for the path of your career.