Written Communication: Make It Count
By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC
Every day we write something, whether it is a text, an email, a handwritten note (yes, they still exist), an article, speech, a report, or something else. It takes practice and patience to become proficient. It does not matter what profession or field of endeavor in which you work. To be clear and concise is to respect the reader’s time and position.
If you advise businesses, besides the advice you impart, your most valuable product can be a memo, letter or a report. Your report is the only tangible product the client will receive in return for paying your fee. It serves as a historical record of the effort you put forth. It can mask or reveal the quality of the fact-finding or analysis you conducted simply based on how clearly you communicated your information. In certain services, such as business valuation, if your report is not clear and you have to testify (where your verbal skills are lacking), then you are of no use to your client. Think about it: you provide your recommendation but it cannot be given full consideration because it is not consistent with what you wrote in your report.
Begin With the Right Mindset
Many people struggle with putting their thoughts down on paper; they find this the least enjoyable part of their job. If they wait until the last moment, the quality, or lack thereof, will become apparent. The excuse of “If I only had more time…” will not hold water.
The quick exchanges through email, and especially texting, has allowed people to fall into bad habits. Acronyms, abbreviations, emojis have taken the place of correct grammar, and its deficiencies often carry over into areas where proper grammar and punctuation is required. The transition from daily conversation into a formalized type of expression is challenging. We need to write NOT as we speak; we need to be careful of hackneyed expressions, split infinitives, dangling participles, double negatives and a whole host of other bad “habits.”
Writing is a necessity, while writing well is a real necessity. Getting close to what you want to say just isn’t good enough. You want to impress your client or boss with your knowledge and appearance, but you can easily break down the confidence level by presenting a low-quality product. Technical proficiency is assumed but does not reflect the whole package. The ability to produce good written communications begins with having the right mindset — you know what you want to say and you know how best to convey it. The struggle will be to meet expectations.
Write or Call? That is the Question
Who picks up a phone today in the first two or three rings? Who picks up a phone, period? Gen Xers and Gen Yers are much more comfortable using text or email. The European telecommunications company, O2 conducted a study that revealed that telephone app on the iPhone (what is used to actually use for incoming and outgoing calls) is the fifth-most-used application. A few years ago, Gallup conducted a study of the different uses of communication among the different generations. The phone has almost become a relic.
The traditional workplace no longer exists; it has become a “virtual” workplace. Walking down the hall and sticking your head in someone’s office to chat is a quaint thought. But when the other person is a time zone or two away, the face-to-face is no longer an option unless you use Skype or a similar tool. Even Skype, like the notion of a phone call, may take a person out of his or her rhythm and disrupt a work or thought flow. An email or text indicates to the recipient that a response can be given when it is convenient, or when more thought is required. With the younger professionals, the shift toward text, IM or email is almost complete. But a new conundrum arises: what if the written exchange is not clear and results in additional ping-ponging back of questions and comments? Can this be avoided? Yes, if you prefer to use the phone. If not, make sure you get your point across accurately and clearly the FIRST time.
The Importance of the Information
The most important aspect before you begin the craft a written communication is understanding who your audience is, what its expectations are, and what action(s) you want it to take. Keep in mind the nature of the information and whether it requires an overview first, followed by a more comprehensive explanation. Make sure the recipients know what you think and believe and how you expect them to respond.
If at some point, if it becomes clear both you and your reader are not connecting, make sure that your writing is not to blame. Good writing takes lots of practice. I don’t know what the future will hold in terms of how subsequent generations will communicate, but I suspect the process will not revert to pictures on cave walls.
Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at www.solutions2results.com.