Writing well in business: 4 tips for succeeding, borrowed from academia

When I was in the College of Chemistry at UC Berkeley, I had a professor who was appalled that science students bragged about getting through college without having to write a single paper. He attempted to correct that by making a paper required as part of his class.

I work with people coming out of finance or life sciences at the university level, and some days, I wish I could just surround myself with humanities majors – you know, people who know when to use who versus whom. Sometimes, people are not very practiced at writing well in the business environment, and it’s to the industry’s detriment. So much weight is placed on doing the actual research that the communication of research findings can be lacking. (This shortcoming is best illustrated when I see work plans that reserve 90% of time to doing the research, and only 10% of time to summarizing it all!)

I’ve been following Daniel Wallace’s collection of essays on teaching composition at the university level. Over the course of 15 years in consulting and managing junior and mid-level consultants, many of the challenges Daniel discusses and helps to solve actually resonate with my own experiences outside the university environment.

A few things I have learned, or discovered for myself, after reading his essays:

  1. We are never really done learning how to write well.
    • There are infinite audiences, objectives, and environments in which we write.
    • Sometimes, we need to “unlearn” one way of writing to learn another. Over time, an assessment of what type of writing is required becomes a part of the natural process, but at first, people can have a hard time letting go of the one way they’ve been successful writing thus far.
  2. There is always an opportunity – and in fact, a goal – to gain a skill through an exercise.
    • The point of an exercise should not only be the deliverable to the client, but to ask ourselves: are individuals on the team and the team as a whole going to do it better and more efficiently next time?
  3. Sometimes, you just have to be explicit about how it should be done.
    • There is a lot to be said for giving people space to figure it out on their own… unless they start to spin their wheels. A roadmap, especially the first time, goes a long way.
    • For example, one habit that I’ve tried to break new consultants of is the tendency to leave the punch line until the very end. Your writing process does not have to mirror your research process. This isn’t some dramatic conclusion you’re building up to! You’ve got C-suite level decision-makers who want to know the bottom line. Go ahead and put all the need-to-know information up front in an executive summary. It doesn’t minimize your research diligence and in fact, a fantastic executive summary does more to demonstrate your research chops than anything else in the deliverable.
  4. Every sentence is a question.
    • I’ve pulled this directly from Daniel Wallace’s sixth essay in his series. This is a fantastic strategy for making sure your staff are leaving no stone unturned in your analysis or presentation of findings. It’s a great way to review and provide feedback on drafts, as well.
    • Especially in niche professional services, industry jargon can be used as a crutch. The key to ensuring that your message is getting across to clients, and is organized well, is to ask a question after every statement or concept, to fully explain rationale and bring your client along your thought process. Don’t leave it to them to connect the dots on their own.

It is wonderful to be able to learn from other academic and professional avenues! So much of our success depends upon recognizing where someone is coming from, and adjusting our teaching or communication to optimize behavioral change.

 

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