You Have To Be Effective

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve done a great deal of business writing. I’ve also reviewed magnitudes more. I’ve seen multi-million dollar opportunities lost because of poorly executed writing, and I’ve seen concepts and strategies, which could have made huge impacts to business, misinterpreted because the author(s) didn’t clearly communicate their concepts.

That being said, I completely agree with the points the OWL article makes. Previously, in my career, I worked for a defense contractor, and we typically wrote very static documents for our Government customers. For every Government contract, from a fighter jet to a software upgrade on a laptop, there is a very similar list of required documents that goes with that. Even further, there is a Department of Defense standard that outlines how these documents must be written. So, my role was that of a Flight Test Director. I would have to write test plans to declare to the Government how I was going to test their aircraft, how this test would prove that the requirements were met, how I was going to manage pilot and crew safety etc. It’s kind of an important document, and I realize this is getting drawn out, but the documents would always start with the same sections: Overview, scope and purpose, audience, etc. It was easy to do this since the sections were given, the non-technical parts were effectively a “color-by-numbers” version of what the OWL article discussed.

The point of all that is to show that the Government has invested millions in determining the most effective document structure for everything they have. Its very similar to what the OWL puts out, so clearly the formula works.

Now, it gets a bit more challenging when the writing is more freeform, say something like a whitepaper. The biggest thing I’ve learned, and millennials will be great at this (you know, since we’re supposedly narcissistic and all…), is that you have to tell the reader why your paper is worth reading. Seems obvious, right? However, I’ve read so many technical whitepapers that go into so much depth about the workings of a particular system or model or strategy that leave me wondering one thing…why? Author Brian Clark writes for a blog on marketing strategy, and in an article on persuasive writing techniques, he writes, “Remember the power of the word because. Psychological studies have shown that people are more likely to comply with a request if you simply give them a reason why… even if that reason makes no sense.”

I try to put this in the very first few paragraphs of any whitepaper that I write. I generally make an abstract in the cover page of which the sole purpose is telling someone why they need the technology I’m describing and therefore why they should be interested in the whitepaper. Then, follow that theme throughout. For every great thing you mention, mention why its great. Don’t be afraid to brag about how great your idea is and why.

This is why I said we millennials would be good at this. We love talking about how great we are, so we’ll love talking about how great our idea is.

The other extremely important aspect is focus. To have a focused document, the critical k4410122thing to understand is your audience. I’ve recently talked to a colleague who is an incredibly sharp technical person. He wrote a proposal for a project, which was highly technical and brilliant. His manager told him to take the technical language out and only focus at a very high level. The proposal was rejected because the reviewer, who happened to also be extremely technical, did not believe that my friend’s idea was established enough.

So, know your audience. Know how basic you need to make the concepts. If you over simplify, you could sound like you don’t know what you’re doing, but if you make it too complex, a different reader may have no idea what you’re talking about. To do this, an article in Writing Commons, suggests making the writing about the audience, not the author. So many times we can be so involved in something that we can’t wait to write about it. I once spent 18 months researching something I was extremely passionate about, and couldn’t wait to write a 30-page whitepaper on the topic, but my reviewers comments suggested they missed a great deal of what I was trying to say. I was writing it because I was excited about it. I was writing it for me and not my audience. So, I wrote a few notes on what I wanted the document to do (things like funding more research, submitting patents, etc.). Then, I figured out who would have to read it to make that happen. Then, I rewrote it with those people in mind and I received excellent reviews from my reviewers.

All in all, these techniques are tricky to master but absolutely critical. My recommendation for starting out is to have a checklist, possibly derived from the OWL list. Write your document with that checklist sitting next to you. Review it with that in mind, and you’ll be just fine.


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Ben Posthuma

Just a guy who loves the Colorado life! Skiing, cycling, mountain biking, camping, climbing, triathalon, you name it and I'll be there. In addition, I'm a student at the University of Colorado - Boulder working on a degree in Business Management with a goal of a PhD in Telecommunications. Oh yeah, I have a job too. I'm a research director at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in South Boulder working to rebuild our nation's public safety communications networks.

7 thoughts on “You Have To Be Effective

  1. Hi Ben! I really liked how you tied your personal experiences at work into your writing. I especially liked the example of your coworker’s proposal being rejected due to his manager not understanding who the audience was. It gives you a lot more credibility, and allows you to support you’re reasoning very well. I agree with what you said about telling the reader why the document they are reading is important. By giving them a reason why the document matters they will be much more inclined to continue reading, and continue reading with interest. Overall I agree with what you suggest, and thought this was a great post!

  2. Hey Ben,
    I think all of the real-world experience you have had is a great chance for the rest of the class to learn a bit more about what you have actually seen to work or not work. I really like you making the point that you have actually seen multi-million dollars go by because of ineffective writing. Keep it up, I’d love to continue to hear about your real-world experience!

  3. Ben,
    I never knew the extent of which things are documented in the government. I knew that they are pretty meticulous, but that just seems painful to have to write up all those documents basically every time you want to do something. I really enjoy the fact that I get to read your real life stories, and they just prove how everything that we are reading about and writing about is important in the real world.

  4. Ben,
    As I mentioned in a previous post, your work experience with Millennials is a huge asset to yourself and us, and think the rest of us in this class appreciate your honesty in talking about your professional working experience. I really enjoy reading you posts, keep it up with the engaging and interesting material and comments!

    -Aaron Berns

  5. Ben,

    Your real world experiences and examples are monumental in conveying the importance of effective writing. I know for myself, and probably other classmates, this greatly reinforces the realization of how crucial it is to write clearly and with purpose. It motivates me even more to improve my writing skills. I cannot imagine having a multi-million dollar deal fall through all because of the writing style. Thank you for providing us with real world insight.


  6. Hi Ben,

    Thank you for the thoughtful post on user-centered design. I think that you nailed it right on the head when you talked about making sure that you are giving the reader a reason to make your paper worth reading. I know that I do this myself but I think sometimes we don’t find a point in writing so we ramble and make things up. I personally dislike word counts because I think that it takes away from the meaning of a writing. Writers are pushed and pushed to write more or less when they could have displayed their topics and reasons in a different manner. If you are able to give that “why” in a way that you choose, you have accomplished the task!

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