Take steps to travel the write road to success

It's an all too familiar story. Dateline: Buffalo, NY -An assistant plant engineer approaches his boss about a recently announced promotion to project supervisor.

By Ray Dreyfack, Contributing Editor, Plant Engineering magazine July 1, 2000

It’s an all too familiar story. Dateline: Buffalo, NY -An assistant plant engineer approaches his boss about a recently announced promotion to project supervisor. “Bill, I can’t help wonder why you picked Jim for the job instead of Paul. Paul is more experienced, has longer seniority, and is at least as well qualified technically.”

“I can’t argue that,” Bill replied. “But between the two of us, communication isn’t Paul’s strong suit. Jim expresses himself more clearly, and gets his ideas across more effectively. He’s a much better communicator both orally and on paper. In my opinion, that makes him ideal for the job.”

Dateline: Hartford, CT -A meeting was held in an effort to deal with a costly corrosion problem in the compounding room. In attendance were the company’s president, general manager, controller, plant engineer, and other high level brass. At the podium was George Baker, a young engineer, who gave a brilliant presentation spelling out his suggested solution and course of action. As the meeting adjourned, the CEO took the plant engineer aside. “Keep your eye on that young man. He’s going places in this company.”

Dateline: Cleveland, OH -“Have Janet do it.” That had long been the sales manager’s mandate when a letter or phone call was needed to appease a customer complaining about a flawed shipment or placate a credit settlement perceived as unfair. Janet’s skill in persuading disgruntled customers to cool it had earned her an Rx-Plus image second to none in this auto parts manufacturing company. So much so that when a special communications department was formed, who do you think was selected to head it? That’s right. You guessed it.

Stories of this kind are by no means uncommon. Little wonder, says Leonard J. Smith, management consultant, educator, American Arbitration Association panel member, and “Human Side of Engineering” column expert for Plant Engineering magazine. He adds, “I can think of very few high-level executives who are not also effective communicators. As Willie Loman might say, ‘It seems to go with the territory.'”

Reviewing the evidence

Studies bear out this conclusion. Time and again, in polls and surveys conducted by consultants, think tanks, publications, colleges, and others in an effort to pinpoint leadership skills that contribute most to career success, the ability to communicate effectively invariably scores at, or very close to, the top.

Smith cites a client questionnaire covering 564 managers and supervisors that disclosed that 3 out of 4 respondents evaluated written corporate communications, memos, letters, and job procedures as “garbled, too lengthy, and confusing.” In fact, a case history in Smith’s files attributes a major U.S. corporation’s stock plummet to its failure to get its message across effectively to customers, stockholders, and employees.

Positive questionnaire response is equally instructive. A survey question asked 416 high and middle-level executives: “How important do you think your ability to communicate effectively was in achieving your personal career goals and success?” Some 380 respondents answered “extremely important;” 26 said “fairly important;” 12 said “not much of a factor,” and two had “no opinion.”

The scoring makes sense when you consider what management expects its key people to provide. First and foremost, they must be knowledgeable in their particular field. This point implies the generation of ideas in response to problem-solving and decision-making challenges. They are expected to produce ideas designed to cut costs and boost bottom line performance. But experience proves even the best ideas often fall by the wayside if they are not communicated persuasively. And you can’t escape the reality that before you make a presentation, submit a suggestion, dispatch a memo, deliver a speech, or send a letter, you must first compose it.

Too many middle managers and supervisory personnel go out of their way to avoid written communication. From a career standpoint, that approach doesn’t make sense. In my experience, buck passing, or otherwise avoiding a communicating task, is a career-building opportunity down the drain.

Conversely, every time you make an impressive presentation or proposal; write a persuasive letter or memo; prepare a clear, concise, and easy-to-follow procedure; or offer a well-framed suggestion to your boss, you put another notch in your image-building belt.

Why communication so often fails

The primary purpose of business communication in general and written communication in particular is to sell something to a person or group of people on the other end. It might be an idea you want to promote. Perhaps it is a report that would produce image-building points if you could make it sparkle and sing.

Or you may have developed a procedure or process you would like to see initiated or installed. It might be a project you want to lead or take part in. It could involve a tool or machine you want your company to purchase. Or you might be writing to convince your boss you deserve a raise or promotion.

This communication/salesmanship analogy is discussed in detail in my recently published book, Achieving Financial Independence as a Freelance Writer . But here in a nutshell are some of the main reasons communication fails and steps you can take to avoid the pitfalls.

An unnamed, mindless fear of writing. More often than not, the sheer length of the missive, letter, memo, article, or report is sufficient to trigger loss of confidence and anxiety. The prospect of composing numerous written pages, for example, can be formidable for the inexperienced writer. How do you get started? How do you organize what you have to write?

The answer can be surprisingly simple.

Outline in advance.

Break the piece into the points you want to make.

Instead of thinking in terms of a 2500-word report, set your mind to producing five 500-word segments.

This approach is a surefire way to convert a seemingly complex task into one that is comparatively easy.

Writing that is too long and verbose; sentences that run on and on. What better example of long and verbose is there than the will or trust prepared by your lawyer? Or your insurance policy? In these documents, it is not unusual for the reader to be brain-bashed by sentences that run hundreds of words.

An excellent exercise is to review one or two of these documents, and boil down the run-on sentences into short, easily digested prose. It’s easy once you get the knack of it. Then, do the same with your own writing and other communication that crosses your desk. Before long the message will hit home that the briefer and simpler the language, the easier it is to read and the more selling power it packs. Write to express, not to impress.

Selling points out of sequence. The first question to keep in mind when composing a letter, memo, article, or report is: “Why am I writing this piece?” Unless it is a simple message of a paragraph or two, the odds are good you will have several ideas to get across. In this case, your best bet usually is to arrange your points in the most logical order of priority. Start strong to catch your reader’s interest at the outset. Then, diminish if you must, but conclude with a clincher if you can.

Messages composed subjectively instead of tailored to the audience. What you are trying to sell is important. Who you are trying to sell can be equally important. All too often, manuals written by technical people for consumers fall short because technical writers fail to recognize that their knowledge and background isn’t shared by their audience. The most effective writers are those who view what they compose from the reader’s vantage point. Ask yourself: “Does the intended reader have your background, your education, and your experience with the subject at hand?” If not, adjust your text accordingly.

Poorly timed communication. I have seen this problem time and again. An employee with a bright idea can’t wait to sell his brainstorm. So he races into the boss’ office when the executive is so caught up with priority tasks that he cannot give the idea the attention it deserves. Or a supervisor, convinced of the benefits that will accrue from a piece of equipment, tries to sell his boss on its purchase at a time when the budget cannot even consider such a purchase. Even the best communication, if improperly timed, is doomed to fail.

Inadequate research. This no-no speaks for itself.

As with any other skill, the more you write, the more adeptly you will do it. No one ever said it is easy. Learning to write well takes time and effort, and you can’t do it alone. Fortunately a wealth of courses, seminars, books, magazine articles, and other published materials are at your disposal. From a career-building standpoint, I can think of no better investment.

Additional tips on successful writing are offered in Achieving Financial Independence as a Freelance Writer, Ray Dreyfack’s 28th book. He has written the “Human Side of Engineering” column for Plant Engineering magazine for more than 30 yr. He studied accounting for 3 yr before moving into journalism and following his dream of becoming a writer. He has authored innumerable pieces on interpersonal relations and business management.

Achieving Financial Independence as a Freelance Writer by Ray Dreyfack ($16.95, 230 pp) is published by Blue Heron Publishing Co. It is available at your local bookstore, from Amazon. com or BarnesandNoble.com, or directly from the publisher (503-221-6841; www.blueheronpublishing. com).