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July 19, 2010


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David, I commented on Rueben's blog, but will add here that I always check my wallet when someone pronounces that writing is not valuable to business. You can charge a lot more for "strategy" than for tactics, even though strategy never won a war.

Communications people not only need to be great writers, they need to be better writers than everyone they report to. There is nothing like the CEO finding a typo in your copy to knock your ego (and his opinion of you) down a few notches. I heartily disagree with the notion that communicators can skate by with marginal writing skills. It will definitely bite you in the butt someday.

A great post, David; I just tweeted it.

FitzPatrick sets up two extremes: Either you don't need to be a good writer at all or you need to be good enough to win a Pulitzer. Surely there's something in between. I wouldn't turn away a competent writer with other outstanding communication skills (unless the job called for a lot of writing). But I would never hire a communicator who "couldn't write to save his life."

FitzPatrick talks about planning messaging and gathering feedback for leaders. And how are these presented to leaders? Face-to-face in every instance? A leader getting an email or memo from a communicator in which subjects and verbs don't agree will hardly instill confidence in the communicator's abilities.

More importantly, though, good writing underscores the ability to think through a communication. If you can't express what you want to communicate with words -- the tools we use to communicate -- just how good can you really be at everything else?

I once asked Don Ranly why writers needed to know grammar. What difference does it make if you know what a gerund is, as long as you use it correctly. His answer: Imagine yourself in an operating room, the anesthesia just about to kick in. As you're going under, you hear the surgeon tell a nurse, "Hand me that sharp pointy thing. I don't know what it's called, but don't worry, I know how to use it correctly."

Words are at the heart of communication. If you can't use them well, find another line of work.

I'm sure executives who can't write well love to hear that it doesn't matter. I will admit that the effects of bad writing are more visible than those of good writing, so the first requirement is not to be a bad writer.

But it's also wise to remember that if you change someone else's words, then you have created a little bit of resentment. The resentment will go away as they learn to trust you and see that you are adding value, not criticizing. Well, usually it will.

When it's time to cut back on staff, no one is going to say. "We have to make sure we keep a good writer." Sad but true. It's the smiling, the schmoozing, the insincere laughter that will get you kept on ar advanced up the ladder. Or skills other than writing, skills that others are happy to cede to you because they've never thought they can do them.

The people who complain that writing skills should not be a primary requirement for the job are usually those who can't write well. It's the same with people who complain that strategy is just a way to jack up consulting fees. They usually don't know how to think strategically or how to write a communication plan.

For six years, I've worked on a team of consultants for a Fortune 500 company that views us primarily as writers. We do much more than that, of course, but it is our writing skills that are most highly valued by our client. Writing matters.

But it's not all that matters. I wrote about what I see as the essential skills of a communicator some time ago on my blog (http://robertjholland.wordpress.com/2009/08/11/fundamental-skills-for-the-profession/). Writing tops my list.

Thanks for your insights, all. I've sent this to Liam F. and hope he responds.

Robert, I especially like your skills list.

I do think there have been A FEW fine communicators in the world who didn't need writing skills to get ahead, but they have been: supremely well-connected to media people or to other movers and shakers ... insanely creative people who came up with ideas so brilliant others could articulate those ideas ... or supernaturally charismatic, wise people whose very presence paid for itself.

Unless yer one of those folks, if yer a communicator, you'd better learn how to write.

Or you'll spend a tragic amount of time and energy in your career working around your poor writing, the way a functional illiterate avoids getting caught not knowing how to read.

It took me a moment to figure out where Fitz was going with his definitions, but it would appear he's conflating "communication" with "influence," or maybe "persuasion."

There are many influential persuaders who can't write worth a lick. If your end goal is getting the rank-and-file to tow-the-rope, or whatever the Trope du Jour might be, then you don't have to write well if you can strong arm or sweet talk.

But that's not all there is to communications.

I don't know, Ike; seems to me you're working hard to make Liam's argument make sense. Let's hope he weighs in here himself.

Thanks for the ruck.

OK it seems that you've rumbled the fact that I can't write and I'm sloppy about checking typos.

And you've spotted that I was overstating my point for effect. So I won't spend ages debating the assorted assertions that are made in the comments about the personal failings of people who share my opinion

However, it's still a valid point. A great many people seem to make a fetish out of writing and confuse a specific skill set with the entire realm of communication.

A good communicator is not by definition a good writer. Someone who can write well is not automatically a great professional advisor on communication matters.

OK, there are times when the ability to turn a phrase in print is useful. But equally often a comms professional has to be able to help a senior executive on their personal delivery, explain how a message is landing or think through the human relations implications of a business strategy. Putting pen to paper is not the essential route to solving the range of business problems that a communications counsellor has to address.

Apologies if my writing skills are not fantastic - but that doesn't make me Robert Mugabe. Just someone you disagree with.


You had me at "ruck."

You're arguing that speed isn't everything when it comes to being a hurdler. Okay. The point you make is technically, shakily true, but we wonder why you bother making it.

No one is claiming, no one has ever claimed, that a company should make a communication SVP of the first good gerund rassler it comes across.

So who are you talking to? Are you still mad at that PR agency that didn't hire you?

On behalf of my readers, I do appreciate the chance to get our dander up. But I'm afraid that's all you've done.

So what was the strategic business purpose in that?

Check out my post at Not Rocket Science.

Good to see you climbing down - but it's no use pretending now that the banal simplicity of my point wasn't worthy of agreement. Or implying that my observation is so commonplace that it lacks validity.

Judging from the reaction to a simple statement that writing isn't the be all and end of of communications I think there are quite a few people out there who actually disagree and think the debate is worth having.

Even though I added in a weasel-shaped caveat people seemed more than ready to go into battle to defend the divine right of the writer to be the SVP of comms.

So, if you're wondering about the reason for making the point, the reaction it provoked confirms to me that there is still a sacred cow out there worth prodding. Surely it's worth challenging people to think about what makes a great communicator - and I still haven't heard anything that settles the argument...

My takeaway from this conversation: Writing isn't everything, but it's hard to be taken seriously as a communicator when you can't do it well.

I'm fascinated by this. I'd interpreted Liam's point as being fairly innocuous - and one that hardly needs to be made in the current climate. The reaction seems to me to indicate that it is, perhaps, still one that's important.
I don't disagree that being able to write clearly is helpful for a communicator, but surely being able to recognise clear writing and coax it out of someone else should suffice. In fact, for senior communications people, shouldn't this be what they are doing - they are paid more for being able to handle the strategic elements of communications than for their copywriting abilities.
Not, I hasten to add, for their ability to influence or persuade, but to understand the interplay between information and belief, the differences between the effect of the internet/intranet and the effect of Twitter or how to feed back unwelcome information from a hostile audience.
I'd also disagree on one of the comments above: "Words are at the heart of communication. If you can't use them well, find another line of work."
They can be at the heart of communication, but there are times when words are pointless, actions are more important as tools of communication. Or video. Or pictures.
And one of the great problems I have with much of what we as communicators do is the need to clean and sanitise words where sometimes the authenticity of un-refined words speaks volumes. What would be more effective in generating understanding - the word-smithed case study or the raw recorded experience of someone who was there?
Words are important, yes. Being able to write is a huge asset, yes. Would I employ in communications someone who couldn't write well? If writing was an important part of their direct job, no I wouldn't; but if I was employing them for their ability to think and respond in difficult situations, then I'd take them on and just make sure that there was someone else working with them who could write.

Great post. The world needs quality writers as communicators. If you are not a gifted writer, you are a project manager. And god knows we have enough project managers on this planet.

Be a strategic thinker, and then be a strategic writer. You can get so much farther in life that way.

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