Transforming business writing in the Land of the Thunder Dragon

How far would we go to improve business writing?We’ll go wherever the training need is – whether that’s Norwich, New York or the Netherlands.

But even we were surprised to get a call from a tiny Buddhist country in the Eastern Himalayas.

That call was from nobody less than Chewang Rinzin, the Deputy Chamberlain to His Majesty the King of Bhutan.

It quickly became clear this would be a highly unusual case – and not just because of the exotic location. Here, our trainer Jack Elliott gives his account of a rather extraordinary training experience.

In the mountains of Bhutan

It was in the mountains, among the prayer flags, that I truly felt part of Bhutan. I was travelling to Phuentsholing in the south of the country and my journey from London had already taken the best part of three days. Tashi, my guide (and new best friend), suggested we stop for a break at the head of the valley. My every other word all morning had been ‘wow’, but here in the clouds I could only stand and wonder.

Somewhere further along the narrow, winding road to Phuentsholing, I could just make out the sound of a truck climbing the mountainside – no doubt in first gear, fully laden like a worker ant. The only other sound was the fluttering of the multicoloured flags. You find these at the top of even the highest mountain passes, each of the five colours representing essential elements – water, sky, fire, forest and earth.

Bhutan is a small country – just a sixth the size of the UK – with China to the north and India to the south. Most of it is mountainous and it’s 70 per cent forest. In the north, it has some of the highest mountains in the world (unclimbed because they’re sacred) and an arctic climate; in the south, the Himalayas end abruptly and there’s a narrow strip of subtropical plain. This is where we were headed.

We shared our route with local truckers, who negotiate these roads day after day, sometimes in torrential rain, inching past each other on the mountainsides beside drops of hundreds of metres. Like us, most of them would be heading to (or coming from) Phuentsholing, a financial centre on the border with India.

Phuentsholing is also the home of the Royal Institute of Governance and Strategic Studies (RIGSS). I was going to teach a two-day course there called Effective reading and writing. To prepare, I’d read widely about Bhutan and found some staggering data. Yes, Bhutan is small, and it has huge and very powerful neighbours. The World Bank puts China and India almost neck and neck in terms of economic growth measured by gross domestic product (GDP). But in its Global Economic Prospects assessing potential out to 2019, one country far outstrips them both: Bhutan. How on earth could this be?

In fact, we’d been driving past the reason. Not its mountains: these actually prevent development of the transport infrastructure needed to support large-scale manufacturing. And it would never be sanctioned anyway – the country protects its environment fiercely. In its deep valleys and fast-running rivers, though, Bhutan has enormous potential for hydro-electric power (HEP) – which it can export. Many of those worker-ant trucks would be carrying building supplies from across the border. India installs the generating plant and in turn imports the power.

A Buddhist kingdom

Above all, though, Bhutan moves at its own pace (TV and the internet, for example, weren’t introduced until 1999). And it’s learning from mistakes other countries have made in their headlong race to develop. It’s chosen wisely, thanks to an enlightened royal family and a centuries-old Buddhist tradition. Most countries use GDP to measure progress; in the 1970s, Bhutan’s former king famously pioneered GNH – Gross National Happiness. In practice, this means policies are carefully assessed for their social benefit. Development must be sustainable, and the preservation and promotion of Bhutan’s culture, traditions and natural environment are enshrined in law. In a word, it’s about harmony.

RIGSS is a royal institute, the personal initiative of His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the fifth and current King of Bhutan. The institute’s role is to develop the intellectual capacity of the country’s leaders in order to promote good governance and support the security, aspirations and prosperity of Bhutan’s people. And it places great store on bringing through the next generation of leaders.

This next generation would be my students, and my task was to help them shape the documents that would help shape Bhutan’s future. The country faces the challenge of retaining its unique identity while negotiating with neighbouring superpowers India and China, as well as international agencies like the World Bank. Key to this will be strong, convincing communications based, crucially, on clear thinking. Fortunately, these elements are also central to the Emphasis course.

I would be working with a group of 30 students, mainly in their mid-twenties and drawn from sectors including the government and civil service; business, tourism and teaching; and the army and police. They’d been on a month-long immersion course, including living for a week in a remote northern village to experience first-hand what is still a mainly agrarian economy. The whole course was a pilot and my two days would be the finale. No pressure then …

A royal visit

I might easily have felt even more intimidated, given who my opening act turned out to be.

The day after I arrived in Bhutan, I had a call from Mr Chewang Rinzin, Deputy Chamberlain to His Majesty the King and Director of RIGSS. Sincere apologies, but my course would have to be put back by a day. No problem – I spent the time with Tashi, visiting a monastery and learning about Buddhism. In the foothills outside the town, I suddenly realised why the schedule had changed. On the other side of the road, a jeep was approaching with a white ‘Pilot’ sign on the roof. Tashi immediately pulled over and whispered ‘It’s the King.’ An SUV with dark windows passed, followed by another jeep.

We learned later that, because the whole course was a pilot, His Majesty had wanted to meet the students himself – a monumental moment for the staff and students.

I’ve had courses rescheduled for many different reasons, but being usurped by royalty will forever take some beating.

Filling the room

And so the first day of training dawned.

I’ve been writing in businesses and other organisations for 30 years, and teaching for the past 10. I’m used to adapting my teaching to the audience and the venue. I’ve worked with chairmen and chief executives, through to workers on the shop floor. And I’ve dealt with many different cultures in countries around the world. But I had no idea what to expect at RIGSS.

When I arrived, the students were divided into six groups of five at round tables in a conference room the size of the top deck of your average ocean liner. There would be no hiding behind a teacher’s desk here – to fill the space, I’d have to go ‘big’. This fact brought another new friend into my life: Cheku, who looks after all things technical at RIGGS. He fitted me with a radio mic and we were off.

Critical reading and convincing writing

We cover the three key areas of business writing in our training: focusing on the reader; planning and structuring; and the writing itself – tips and techniques for clear, concise prose.

Developing an effective structure in any kind of writing is pivotal for engaging the reader, then persuading, informing and convincing them of your point. And it was during these modules that the group’s motivation really came out. I’ve never worked with students who’ve constructed sophisticated arguments with such passion and clarity. By day two, the groups were presenting eloquently on subjects of national interest, including:

  • The school curriculum should be taught exclusively in Bhutan’s national language, Dzongkha.
  • There must be more focus on the countryside to limit urban migration.
  • Everyone should have access to regular workplace health checks.
  • Vehicles that emit hydrocarbons must be phased out.

It was heartening to see even the quieter members of each group taking their turn with the microphone, and warm applause followed each presentation. The room seemed to be growing smaller by the hour.

And they did their homework. The Director had asked us to include effective reading in the course – how to identify what’s relevant in the mass of information we all have to wade through these days. We used a World Bank report on Bhutan’s HEP and I asked the students to go through it overnight and answer questions based on their critical reading. Again, each table presented their findings clearly and concisely.

Bhutan’s future is in safe hands.

The path onwards

I’ve said goodbye to Tashi but I hope it’s log jay gay (‘we will meet again’). Heading home, even the airport felt calm and unflustered, but passing the small duty-free shop I caught sight of some branding. I realised it was a week since I’d seen billboard advertising. In fact, no one had tried to sell me anything.

That may be because I hadn’t watched TV; it’s all over the cable channels in Bhutan. Consumerism is trickling in. (Checking in for the flight from Bangkok to Bhutan’s Paro airport, all the Bhutanese in the queue seemed to be traveling with a brand-new, flat-screen Samsung. Was it mandatory, I had wondered – passport, boarding pass, new TV?)

Who are we to judge? Bhutan must steer its own path between a rich traditional culture and the values foisted on it by modern media. That’s why the clear, critical thinking – and writing – of its next generation of leaders will be so important.

If you’d like us to come and train you or your team – wherever you are – just fill in the form below and we’ll get in touch.


Jack would like to extend special thanks for their support and warm welcome to:

Chewang Rinzin, Deputy Chamberlain to His Majesty the King and Director of RIGSS
Tshering Penjor, Registrar
Karma Wangmo, Director’s PA
Tashi and Cheku
And all the students on the course

Image credit: maodoltee / Shutterstock