OK, so we know Jamie Oliver has a particularly effective communication style.
Global phenomenon, super-celebrity chef, highly successful entrepreneur, healthy eating and animal welfare campaigner, he’s got almost six million Twitter followers plus another five million on Instagram. That’s a lot of communicating.
But who would have thought that when it comes to knowing perhaps the single most important key to really effective writing he is up there at the best table in the house with George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, and Julius Caesar’s contemporary, the great Roman orator, statesman and prose stylist Cicero. And that’s without a ‘pukka’, a ‘whack it’ or a ‘lug’ of anything in sight.
One of the most important secrets to really effective writing, any writing, in any form, at any time, on any subject, on any platform, from a Thank You card to a Tweet to a significant company communication, is actually no secret at all.
But it is so obvious in its simplicity it is too often forgotten or ignored. It is this: before you touch your keyboard or put pen to paper, take enough time to think about what you are going to write. It might help to take a note of a few key points first. Then write as clearly and concisely as possible. Simple? It should be, of course, but it isn’t.
Internal communicators have a lot of pressure on their time, and their focus is more and more on important issues like strategic planning, measurement of employee engagement, proving value and extracting maximum benefit from the various communication channels at their disposal: email, video, and enterprise social networks such as Yammer and Slack.
In addition, when it comes to actually writing they have to do so while also concentrating on tags for SEO and social sharing. Is it any surprise that it’s easier to go with the quickest option of getting stuck into what they have to write straight away and not taking the time to think it through first?
Asking themselves what is the message they want to communicate, who or what is the audience, what’s the appropriate tone, the best structure? What’s the catchiest headline and intro to draw the reader in, and is there a good photograph to go with it? These are the tried and tested basic building blocks of writing, whether it’s for a company newsletter, a newspaper article or a personal blog.
But the less time you spend concentrating on this critical part of the writing process the more it weakens the likelihood of you achieving your desired outcome. We can’t all do a Leonard Cohen, of course, taking two years to write our equivalent of ‘Hallelujah’, but Jamie Oliver knows the value of taking time to think at the outset to ensure he gets the result he wants when he writes.
“I know now if I write something slightly wrong it doesn’t go viral, but if I spend a bit of time getting it right, it goes nuts,” he said recently. Put his words into a time capsule, send it back to pre- 43 BC, translate them for Cicero, and he would nod his head. If it hadn’t been chopped off by Mark Anthony by then, of course.
Cicero might not have been big on going viral in the Colosseum, but he is believed to have written a variant of the famous quote which has been ‘borrowed’ or reshaped over the centuries by Shaw, Twain, and long before them the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal: “If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter’.
Anybody who has ever tried to distill the essence of a large amount of information with clarity in a concise communication will know it takes more time than it would to put it across in a longer document. But the longer the communication the greater the risk of its clarity being diluted. Yet for internal communicators clarity is absolutely critical; a communication that isn’t clear is useless, or worse. It will at the very least cause confusion but could also result in any level of damage to a business.
So if the first piece of advice to give yourself the very best chance of getting your written communication right is to take time at the outset to think it through, the second, third and fourth are clarity, clarity and more clarity. Doing the first doesn’t necessarily lead to the second, but it certainly helps.
How do you write clearly? Focus on being as brief, though comprehensive, as possible. Aiming to be brief will force you to really clarify your thinking and will more readily translate to easy-to-digest and easy-to-remember information.
While the tyranny of SEO has fueled argument against shorter blogs, you should not allow this to dictate the length of your communications. It’s always worth keeping in mind that the value of brevity has been accepted and lauded down the centuries, so why should it be any different today, especially in an age of information overkill.
My own belief is that a piece of writing should always be as short it can be, and no longer than it has to be. (I don’t always abide by my own rule, as some will no doubt point out, but that’s another story).
For maximum clarity use short unpretentious words and if you don’t know the precise meaning of a particular word, don’t use it. Mostly write short to mid-length sentences (anything up to around 30 words), varying their length to avoid monotony. I once read that a sentence should only be as long as it really needs to be, and I think that’s sound advice.
Keep paragraphs short too (three sentences, max), and avoid jargon – especially like the current abomination of using the phrase ‘reach out’ instead of talk to, call or ask..
The only reasonable response to anybody asking you to reach out in this fashion, is to tell them that, without blinking an eye, you will reach out all right – to strangle anybody crass enough to mangle the English language so appallingly.
It won’t stop the ‘jargonistas’ but it might make you feel better!