Why writing matters in the workplace
Writing is a company’s lifeblood. Poor writing stagnates companies. Great writing grows companies. Why? It’s because writing is the most common medium for communication, information, and innovation. Pre-COVID, 75% of workplace communications were digital.1 COVID expedited the digital communications trend and has made writing more critical than ever.
Many of the fastest-growing, most innovative companies in the world are great at writing, such as Amazon, Tesla, and Procter & Gamble. These companies have specific writing methods and practices on which they train their employees. Stagnating companies are typically poor at writing. These companies don’t have standard ways of communicating and writing.
A framework for why writing matters
I’ve spent years thinking about why writing matters to companies and how companies can write better. In this essay, I’m going to focus on why writing matters. I wish I had an analysis that ties great writing to publicly available quantitative measures of company success (e.g., growth rate). But, it’s not possible given the many confounding factors such as market, age, and size. Instead, I use a three-point logic-based argument for why writing matters:
Great writing signals a company is competent.
Great writing increases speed.
Great writing improves idea quality.
I’m going to break down each in detail. My goal is to help you understand why you need to improve your writing and writing throughout your workplace.
1. Great writing signals a company is competent
Great writing signals competence. Poor writing signals incompetence. Think about the emails you receive from employees. Are they well written? Or, are you often left confused and unclear about what is happening or needs to happen? Think about the PowerPoints and memos you read. Are they well written? Or, are you often left confused and unclear about whether an idea is thought through or worth doing?
Now, think about your customers. Your colleagues are communicating with your customers in the same way they communicate with you – or worse since they probably spend more time on communications to their bosses. In other words, your employees’ writing signals the competence of your whole organization.
Taking this further, your customers’ perception of your company’s competence is equivalent to your customers’ perception of the lowest-level employee they interact with. A customer’s perception of your company’s competence is critical. Good perceptions lead to customer retention, revenue growth, and referrals. Poor perceptions lead to churn and negative reviews.
Writing (emails, instant messenger, texting) is increasingly important in customer interactions. Writing-related skills, such as accurately interpreting and clearly communicating information, are critical for direct interactions with customers and internal operations to serve customers.
2. Great writing increases speed
Good writers write with purpose, clarity, coherence, and style (see my essay What makes a great writer). The more good writers your company has, the fewer misunderstandings employees will have, and the faster things will get done. Employees will know what they’re supposed to be doing (and why) and have the information and context they need to complete tasks and form new ideas.
Now, think about yourself and your company. How quickly do you respond to an email or message? How quickly do people respond to you? Often, delayed responses are due to confusion – What exactly does the person need to do, and by when? How important is it? Poor, unclear writing can cause delays for hours, days, weeks, months, and years. Internal operations move slowly and rarely improve. Great ideas take a long time to be evaluated and implemented (if ever).
Great writing has a significant impact on the velocity at which a company supports customers, operates, and ships new products and product updates. Writing is a key reason why Amazon, likely the best large-scale writing company in the world, also ships the fastest.
3. Great writing improves idea quality
Well-structured logic clarifies thinking. The act of writing helps people structure their thinking. It helps people identify and attend to other perspectives and determine other paths of inquiry (e.g., analysis) that can further improve ideas.
Writing also provides something for others to react to. Readers can better understand an author’s idea and logic, more easily identify gaps, and provide feedback to further refine and improve an idea. Writing gives life, depth, and breadth to an idea. A well-written memo or PowerPoint convinces others and contains well-considered ideas that are more likely to succeed.
Now, think about yourself and your company. When was a good idea of yours dismissed? When did you dismiss someone else’s idea? Perhaps your boss felt your idea wasn’t thought through or worth doing. Perhaps your boss didn’t understand why your idea was important. Perhaps you aren’t giving enough consideration to or furthering feedback on your team’s ideas.
Amazon and Procter & Gamble have specific memo styles on which they train employees. At Amazon (and at Prompt), every great idea and new product starts its life as a memo. Jeff Bezos put his thoughts on Amazon’s Six-page Narrative Memos in his 2017 Annual Letter. I’m reprinting the entire memo section here as it’s well written, and Jeff’s perspectives are valuable for how I think about writing in the workplace.
We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.
In the handstand example, it’s pretty straightforward to recognize high standards. It wouldn’t be difficult to lay out in detail the requirements of a well-executed handstand, and then you’re either doing it or you’re not. The writing example is very different. The difference between a great memo and an average one is much squishier. It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo. Nevertheless, I find that much of the time, readers react to great memos very similarly. They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable.
Here’s what we’ve figured out. Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo probably should take a week or more.
Making writing matter in your workplace
Writing is a requirement for competence. Writing is a requirement for innovation. Companies rarely train people to write, and people rarely receive feedback on their writing. As such, people stagnate in their roles, and companies stagnate in their market, unable to innovate and effectively serve their customers.
Don’t leave writing to chance. Writing is a learnable skill. Improve your writing. Improve your customers’ perception of your company’s competence. Supercharge your company’s innovation engine by increasing speed and improving idea quality. Add writing evaluation to your hiring and promotion process. Develop standard writing practices for interactions both within and outside of your team or company. Train your team or employees on how they can become better writers.
Please reach out to me at email@example.com if you’d like to discuss how you or your company can become better writers. Future essays will dive deeper into specific strategies for writing in the workplace – emails, instant messages, memos, PowerPoints, and proposals.
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