The #1 Rule for How to Write Effectively

From time to time, I’m asked about how to write effectively in the workplace.

This large topic can’t be covered entirely in a single article, but I will start by explaining the #1 rule:

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE.

Whether you are communicating using the written word or giving a speech, the most important thing is to know with whom you’re communicating.

As a father with young children and as a strategic advisor to CEOs of Inc 500 companies, there are days when I bounce back and forth between explaining how avocados grow to my 4-year-old daughter, and a minute later discussing with a client how to handle a complex acquisition negotiation.

In every case, I am thinking about who my audience is.

Here are the specific questions I think about:

  • What is this person’s level of pre-existing knowledge on this topic?
  • What biases, if any, does this person have about this topic?
  • Is this person logically-oriented or intuitively-oriented?
  • What is this person’s attention span or interest in the topic? (By the way, 4-year-olds and CEOs have similar attention spans... I’m serious.)
  • What is this person’s emotional mood in general, and as it relates to this topic? Is it neutral? Do they feel angry about it? Are the excited? Engaged? Tormented?

Whether I’m talking to a bunch of my daughter's classmates at pre-school or giving a keynote speech because the Chief Marketing Officer at Dell couldn’t make it, I’m asking for or reviewing the answers to the questions above in preparing my talk or article.

Here’s why I ask each question.

If I spend too much time reviewing pre-existing knowledge, the audience will get bored, tune out mentally or simply walk out the door. If it is too advanced, they will get lost and do the same. The ideal is to start at the exact limit of the audience’s knowledge.

In addition, the key to explaining a complex concept is to build on a concept the audience already knows about. For example, when I was discussing the systemic risk of the U.S. Banking system in 2008 and why financial bailouts of the large commercial banks was wise (although extremely irritating), I used the analogy of dominos.

The U.S. Banking system is set up like a bunch of dominos. Every bank lends money to and borrows money from every other bank. If one bank fails, that means they can’t pay back the 100 other banks they borrowed money from. Those banks in turn were counting on being paid back their money in order to pay their bills. So when a big bank fails, it causes a domino effect (the whole system to fail).

Most adults know what dominos are so I can use that analogy. (By the way, I use analogies a lot--- it's one of my secrets to explaining complex topics in simple ways. The trick is to find an analogy that’s widely understood by the audience and conceptually parallel to the concept I’m trying to explain.)

If I were explaining the same thing to a bunch of kids, I would say that it's like playing a game of tricycle chase where you’re chasing your friend, right behind her rear wheel, and another friend is chasing you, and another friend is chasing her. Suddenly the first person in the line falls down, and so everyone else crashes too.

In this case, both of these analogies illustrate the principle of inter-connectedness and dependence inside a system.

It’s useful to know if an audience is biased for or against your point of view. My kids used to think an avocado was a vegetable, because it’s green. In their experience, green things that are healthy-tasting are usually vegetables. Knowing this, I would craft my argument based on the fact that the avocado has a seed, and have them name any other vegetable that has a seed in the middle of it.

I have clients who are extremely adverse to debt. They hate borrowing money. Knowing that, I can start by agreeing with them -- listing the numerous situations where borrowing more money to finance business operations is a bad idea. Then I explain the exceptions to these guidelines and why those exceptions exist.

When I know someone’s bias, I can start the discussion by initially agreeing with their bias, then leading them from that bias to another point of view. This is especially the case when communicating with a hostile or aggressive audience. (Ha... always a “fun” experience.)

If the person is logically-oriented, I will make a logical argument. If they are intuitively-oriented, I will make more of a conceptual argument (usually through a conceptual analogy), rather than a logical proof.

It's useful to know the other person's attention span. If someone has a 5-minute attention span, I won't give them the 60-minute version of my content. If they want the 60-minute version, then I set up and frame the communication to provide more nuanced detail.

Knowing the emotional state of your audience is vital to connecting with them. If the audience is emotionally charged (e.g., we just announced layoffs to all employees), then the entire focus of the communication should start and end at an emotional level. If the audience is in a more cerebral mood, then it’s a waste of time to discuss things at an emotional level.

The key thing to remember on this one is this:

You can never win an emotional disagreement with logic. And you can never win a logical disagreement with emotion.

(That’s worth writing down... courtesy of legendary defense attorney Gerry Spence.)

All of the above is what I do and what I recommend others do before even writing or speaking a single word.

The classic synthesis approach to closing a case interview is but one way to communicate effectively in consulting and in industry. It’s a great tool, but it is only one of many. This is especially the case in industry, where there are more communication options worth being fluent in using.

 

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