Are you allowing your team to be great business writers?

Man in business wear struggles to lift an enormous pencil above his head as a giant hand comes down to collect it.Once, in pre-Emphasis days, I found myself in a training room full of people whose body language told me that they really did not want to be there. They were the communications team for a nearby company. An old friend, and former colleague, had brought me in to run some writing training.

‘I have to rewrite everything they do,’ my friend had told me. ‘I need you to sort them out.’ And here they were, miserably waiting for me to sort them out. My friend was nowhere to be seen.

I asked them why they were unhappy. They told me that my friend micromanaged them – didn’t trust them to do their jobs. And they felt undermined and undervalued.

I think it’s fair to say that it wasn’t the best day for me or for them. When I met my friend afterwards for a debrief, I told her that they were unhappy and that she may even lose one or two of them. ‘Good,’ she said. ‘I can replace them with people who can write.’

The truth is that her team didn’t write that badly. Yes, I was able to show them some ways they could improve, but overall they were far from the hopeless cases my friend had painted. So what was really going on?


The middle management squeeze

Middle management can be a tricky place to work. It’s usually your first management role, so you lack experience. You get pressure from above and below. This can lead to middle managers feeling very sensitive about any written communications that go from their team to senior managers or to the public.

Bad feedback from senior managers could be on any number of things. A report that doesn’t meet their needs or a technical document that nobody can understand. Guidance that colleagues struggle to follow. Or, worst of all, writing that has led to customer complaints.

And the problem is that the feedback you get from senior managers is rarely detailed or constructive. The middle manager often has to try and work with enigmatic comments like, ‘I don’t like it,’ or ‘It’s too long.’ And then act on vague instructions like, ‘This mustn’t happen again,’ and ‘Sort your team out.’

And this is where my friend was. Faced with bad feedback from above, she lashed out at her team. To try and avoid any more criticism, she scrutinised everything they produced, working long hours rewriting everything they wrote. The problem was that these were the very worst things she could have done.


Sometimes people just need permission

I’ve worked with enough companies and organisations to know that it isn’t always the individual skills of members of staff that are the problem. Or they aren’t the main problem. We need to ask ourselves why organisations write the way that they do.

In training rooms, when I’ve shown attendees the advantages of writing clearly and simply, some have told me that they can’t possibly write like that. When I ask why, they tell me that you can’t write plainly. It’s not allowed.

It is rare that a delegate can give me actual evidence of this. One did tell me that they had been on a writing-skills course that had taught the opposite of everything that we advise in our training. But this has happened only once.

The problem here is organisational culture, and it can be a stubborn obstacle to overcome. The problem my friend had with her team was not so much a lack of ability or skill. It was the company culture.


The culture of poor writing at work

Do you remember the first time your boss asked you to write something at work? Did they give you a detailed brief? Guidance on how to structure it? Tell you what the appropriate tone was? If they did, lucky you.

My first experience of writing a report at work was typical of most. It began with a one-line brief: ‘I need a report on [topic x] by Friday.’ When I asked what a report looked like, I was given a report a colleague had written. ‘Like that,’ I was told.

This is where bad writing at work takes hold.

If we ask our new recruits to simply imitate what has gone before, then the standard of writing will decline. The lowest common denominator will always prevail. And then low standards become part of the culture.

If you are recruiting for a post where people are expected to write well, do you measure their writing abilities as part of the process? I’ve seen many job profiles that list ‘excellent communication skills’ as a requirement. But I have rarely seen a recruiter measure those skills. And it isn’t good enough to look at the application and judge ability from that. Plenty of people get others to write their applications for them.

Why not set a simple writing task? Or hand an interviewee a sample piece of writing during the interview and get them to talk about it?

Of course, you still need to know what good looks like first.


But I need to sound professional!

This is something I hear frequently in training. Some people do not feel comfortable writing clearly and plainly at work for fear that colleagues will not take them seriously. Some have said that their readers would feel ‘patronised’ if they had simple English to read.

This is tosh, of course. Great business communicators write clearly and simply.

But this feeling is common, and it isn’t helpful. You’re not going to win any admirers if you write, as a former colleague at a local authority once did, ‘The changes will be effected via the utilisation of a staggered green man crossing facility,’ instead of ‘We will install a pedestrian crossing.’


I find my team’s writing frustrating. What should I do?

Don’t lash out at them. Don’t let your frustration show. Don’t start rewriting their work. Talk to them respectfully about why they write the way they do. Ask them if they feel comfortable writing like this. Ask them if they would like to change. You might be surprised by the answers you get.

Ask your fellow managers if they feel the way you do. Ask your manager and other senior managers what they think. If they agree with you, work up a proposal to address the problem across the company.

And this is where training comes into its own. Targeted, bespoke training will help you kick-start the process of changing your company’s writing culture.

Any change programme needs to be led from the top. Get buy-in from the chief executive and their management team. And get them to take part in the training. One way we’ve helped with this is by running special taster sessions for senior management groups that explain the strategic importance of good writing.

And get your fellow middle managers to show leadership by attending the training with their teams. (If the senior team attend the actual courses too, all the better.) My friend made the mistake of not coming to the training she had organised. This only helped to build the bad feeling and undermine the training’s positive effects.

And think about it. If you instigate a successful cultural change programme, that will get you noticed by senior managers.

But don’t try to go it alone. You can’t change the culture of a whole company by yourself.

You can read more of David’s articles on the Knowledge Hub.

And if you’d like our help upskilling your team and embedding the training as part of your culture change programme, get in touch.


Image credit: Master1305 / Shutterstock

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