Having excellent writing skills can make you an indispensable member of your team or company. And it’s one of the best ways to remain consistently employable – no matter your profession. Especially when you consider that workers can spend a third of their time reading and writing emails alone (according to a Carleton University study). Then, depending on your role, it’s likely that you’ll also write reports and memos and, perhaps, proposals, PowerPoint presentations and social media updates.
Granted, there is an array of software to make sure that your writing is accurate and polished. So that with the click of a button, you can have perfect grammar and spelling.
But these apps can only work with what’s already on the page. They don’t know what was said at last month’s management meeting. Or, that a client is close to canceling a contract. Or, that another needs reassurance that service delivery will be swift and hassle-free. They simply cannot read between the lines.
A recent report by management consultancy firm, McKinsey, called “Jobs lost, jobs gained: Workforce transitions in a time of automation” stated that there will be challenging transitions ahead at work. And that in about 60% of jobs, at least one-third of activities could be automated.
However, as Bernard Marr writes: there are key skills that robots simply cannot master. These include empathy, critical thinking, creativity, strategy, imagination and vision. To stay ahead of the curve, your writing needs to demonstrate these qualities. So, it’s essential to plan and strategize so that you effectively straddle the line between what is said and unsaid. This is where many people slip up. And according to a Conference Board survey of 431 human resources professionals, writing is one of the biggest employee skill gaps.
Unless they’re suffering a nasty case of writer’s block, most people are able to physically get their words onto the page. However, the writing skills needed to truly support their business, or professional goals are often missing. These take time to master and involve a lot of a shift in mindset. For instance, the best written communicators do lots of leg-work before sending emails or typing reports. And they’ll spend considerable time planning how and what to write. It takes time to learn effective writing tools, techniques, tips and tricks. But once learned, they can fast-track your success.
To get you started, here are three things you can do right now to improve your writing skills and help future-proof your career in the process.
- Focus on your readers
In between deadlines, meetings and a packed schedule – it’s easy to just fire off documents without really thinking through what’s needed. But in a world of canned messages and auto-responders, truly thoughtful writing makes you memorable.
So, spend a few minutes thinking about the needs of your readers. Ask yourself: Who exactly are they? How much do they know about the subject/issues you’re writing about? How important is what you’re writing to them? What will they look for first? What is the most important thing to include? What types of data or supporting evidence do they value? What do you want them to do, say, feel and think after they’ve read your document?
Don’t underestimate the power of these questions. For example, I once worked with a group of engineers who wrote regular reports for their clients but weren’t getting much response. So, they had no idea whether they were doing a good job, or whether their clients were happy. The problem was that they wrote reports for people “out-in-the-field”, some of whom didn’t speak English fluently, in difficult to understand, academic language. As they shifted their thinking to the needs of their readers, they realized the need for a very different writing style.
- Ask for feedback (and really listen to it)
What results or feedback (spoken or unspoken) are you experiencing with your documents? What are you doing that you could do differently? And what signs are there that your writing may need improving?
Start by considering some recent documents you have written. What kinds of frustrations might your readers have when they read these? How much of what you write do your readers instantly understand? Is there a call to action or a direct request? Have you let your readers know what you’d like them to do, feel, think or say?
In addition, don’t be afraid to directly ask people what they think about your written materials. The answers may surprise you.
- Forget the flounces and frills
At work, it’s essential to keep writing simple. So avoid using flowery sentences, and too much insider jargon. People tend to overestimate how much their readers know about topics that they’re very familiar with. And even if your readers DO understand you, there are no extra points for making them work hard to decipher your writing. In fact, a survey by Harvard professor D.H. Menzel found that the human brain struggles to properly process sentences longer than 34 words. Keep yours at around 20 and keep them simple.
Finally, remember that writing is a muscle, and that consistent training will improve it. However, if you always focus on your readers and have a service mentality – you’ll be leaps and bounds ahead of the crowd. Because the future belongs to those who can really connect and communicate.