Writing for Change

Are you afraid of writing?

I worked with a woman once who was deathly afraid of putting her thoughts on paper. When we met, she described her department’s new strategy so eloquently that I thought getting it on paper would be easy.

When I asked her to repeat what she had told me, she offered to type it into her computer. As she began speaking and typing, she also began self-editing. Eventually, she ended up with a single sentence consisting of three words. The communication that seemed so easy required far more coaching than I had originally anticipated.

Writing about change is an important skill for a change agent because persuading others that they have a stake in the change and that they will still be able to navigate the changed world is essential to speeding up the adoption rate and improving the accuracy of execution (aka, “compliance”). Some people learn best by reading. And, often, the people you’re communicating with are too numerous or dispersed to allow the opportunity to persuade them in person.

Here are some techniques I’ve used when training team members who are new to writing for change:

Don’t Worry about Your First Draft

If you aim too high on the first draft, you’ll end up like my colleague above who was too afraid to put words on paper. In fact, your first draft doesn’t even have to be a “draft.” Maybe you’ll find it easier to start with a mind-map or to write each of your points on a sticky note, so you can rearrange them easily.

Whatever your first draft looks like, just assume that it won’t be perfect – it will be too long, your thoughts will be incomplete, you’ll need to fill in or delete details. That’s ok – the important thing is to get your ideas down.

Then the technical work begins.

Communicate Strategically

You don’t need to squeeze everything you need to say into a single communication. For larger topics, I recommend that you plan a communications strategy that focuses on different aspects of the change over time. I encouraged my team to use a “Communications Arc” to move from big picture, to detail, to recognition as the amount of engagement and support that the readers needed.

Take another look at your draft. If you’ve tried to squeeze in too many topics or details, can you break it into several documents? Even if it’s too late to implement a full Communications Arc over time, you can attach the basic instructions to a cover memo that provides the big picture and the Why, and hold the additional details for later.

Consider the Reader

What do you know about the reader? You must know what’s important to them, what will motivate them to change. Your writing must reflect their world view, right down to the vocabulary.

A simple example: When some retailers talk about their stores, they call them “stores”. Others call their stores “doors.”  What’s correct?  Answer: Whatever the store employees that will be reading the communication use. If your employees use “stores”, you’ll lose your audience with the first “door” and vice versa.

Read your draft again, does it reflect the world-view of the people who will read it?

Use a Circular Structure

This was a technique I developed when writing executive blog posts. I wanted them to start off with a strong hook that would engage the reader, then connect the topic to the reader’s daily life, describe the desired behavior at a high level (since executive blogs were, by nature, high level), and wrap up by circling back to the opening hook and expressing confidence in the reader’s ability to carry out the mission.

This circular structure resulted in a tight, direct blog that kept the reader engaged. Sometimes when coaching a team member on this technique, we’d cut their draft into pieces and rearrange the pieces to give it more of a circular feel.

Write Simply

Everyone is busy and busy people read quickly. If you use long words, jargon, or complicated sentence structures, people say, “I’ll read this later when I have time.”  (Which never happens.)

Here’s a trick to help you finish off your draft: Use Microsoft Word’s Option menu for Proofing to adjust Grammar settings and Show Readability Statistics. Turning on these features causes the Spelling & Grammar check to recommend changes to simplify your writing and to pop up a window with the grade level readability of your document.

I encouraged my team to write for an 8th grade level because, although our audience was unusually literate, they were also very busy and needed to understand our communications on the first read.

Writing effectively can be daunting at first. The techniques above can help you get past your fear, get your thoughts on paper, stage and organize them for the most impact, and clean up language to reach your audience.

And that’s what it’s all about, after all, because if you want your audience to change, you need to write a communication that influences their decisions.  With a little strategy, a little attention to detail, and a little practice, your writing can encourage people to change.

What are your secret writing tips?

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