As a young engineer fresh out of grad school, my first job included writing a specification for a product I designed. The product worked fine. The spec, on the other hand, was unreadable. After reviewing a draft, my boss threw it on my desk, called me illiterate and asked how the hell I graduated from college.
Good question. I somehow managed to get through the New York City school system and two college degrees without being able to write for beans. I had no idea how it happened. All I knew was, if I didn’t fix it, my dreams of wealth and world domination would be dead before my career even got off the ground.
That was more than 30 years ago. Somewhere along the line I picked up enough writing skills to become the chief marketing officer for some pretty big high-tech companies. That’s a long way from being practically illiterate.
The truth is you’ll never get anywhere in life unless you can write. It’s more important today than ever before, courtesy of personal computers, the internet, social media and email. And the good news is you don’t need a degree in English composition to master the art of the written word. Here’s how I did it:
Read … a lot. I was actually a chronic reader from an early age. What did I read? Fiction. Novels. Sci-Fi. Classic literature. I read everything from Isaac Asimov to Neal Stephenson, from Stephen King to Mark Helprin, from J.D. Salinger to Philip Roth. After that episode at work, I started paying attention to writing style. Guess it helped.
Learn from your bosses. This is one of the better arguments for getting a real job at a real company out of school instead of jumping into the perceived panacea of entrepreneurship. I read everything my bosses wrote and emulated methods I found effective. To this day, I’m always on the lookout for phrases and tricks I can use.
Organize your thoughts. I am actually not a very well organized thinker. On the contrary, my brain is constantly cycling and my thoughts are all over the map. It takes a lot of work for me to organize that random stream of consciousness into a coherent point of view with supporting messages. How do I do it? Practice and discipline.
Be genuine, direct, clear and concise. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Less is more. Keep it simple. Each sentence should communicate a thought and have a reason for being there. Don’t be redundant except to emphasize a key point. It’s hard to keep your writing short and hard-hitting. It takes a lot of work. It’s worth it. Long-winded, flowery writing is boring, exhausting, and has no place in business.
Connect with your audience. Before you give a speech or a presentation, you should figure out how you’re going to connect with your audience. Writing is no different. Everyone makes a big deal out of storytelling these days, but it’s just a means to an end – a way to relate to folks. When you genuinely connect with people, they remember what you said ... or wrote.
Remember the old axiom. It’s ancient but it applies as well in business writing as it does with presentations: “Tell them what you're going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.” Every piece should have a beginning, middle and end.
Grammar and composition still matter. There’s a growing trend toward informal writing, courtesy of email, social media and smartphones. That’s fine; my own style actually tends toward the conversational. But that doesn’t mean you can just ignore grammar and composition, especially if a potential customer or employer may see it.
Write for the medium. Back in the old days there were letters, papers, speeches and books. That was more or less it. Today we have everything from blogs and presentations to emails and tweets. Phrases and bullets are fine for some mediums but not acceptable for others. Do what’s appropriate for the medium.
Get the writer’s bible. Do yourself a favor and get a copy of "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White. Read it a few times and refer to it constantly. It’s the writer’s bible.
Maybe you won’t win a Pulitzer Prize, but if you set your mind to it, you can become an effective writer. And make no mistake: no matter what you do for a living these days, if you want your career to flourish, you need to learn how to write. Period.
Steve Tobak is management consultant, executive coach, columnist, and former senior executive of the high-tech industry. As managing partner of Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting, he's been a trusted strategic advisor to executives and business leaders for more than a decade. Contact Tobak.