Five ways to help struggling communicators
“What’s worse than training your workers and losing them? Not training them and keeping them.”
— Zig Ziglar,
I was having lunch with the vice president of corporate communications at a California-based Fortune 500 company when the topic of bad writing came up.
He detailed the problems his company was having because so many communicators struggled with their writing skills. Among the problems he mentioned:
- The VP spent one-quarter of his time rewriting copy instead of focusing on communication strategy.
- Employees didn’t receive and act on key messages because they didn’t read employee newsletters and intranet stories. The result: Employees didn’t support — or sometimes even know about — corporate initiatives.
- Press coverage was mediocre because press releases were mediocre.
“What’s all this costing your company?” I asked.
“Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said, “in lost productivity, lost opportunities and wasted executive time.”
A good writer is hard to find
My California client isn’t alone. Communication executives bemoan the lack of good writers:
- Senior public relations practitioners believe writing is the area where young professionals need the most improvement, according to a survey by the Public Relations Society of American’s Counselor’s Academy.
- “Our client surveys have consistently shown that good writing is one of the five top performance measures in gauging client service,” Bob Druckenmiller, CEO of Porter Novelli, tells The Strategist. “At the same time, we’ve seen a growth in concern about the quality of writing by our clients and, of course, by us.”
- “Young people don’t enter the field as skilled in writing as they once did,” Ann Barkelew, senior vice president, partner and general manager of Fleishman-Hillard, tells PR Tactics. “The overall level of proficiency has declined.”
What’s a business communicator to do? Here are five ways to improve your team’s writing skills:
1. Place a value on writing.
If you want better writing, you need to value better writers.
But in most organizations these days, managers value strategic skills far more than technical ones. No wonder your most talented communicators are writing communication plans instead of newsletters and brochures.
Instead, give your top writers a path for success.
Back to the drawing board: Hallmark Cards, the social expression giant that boasts the world’s largest creative staff, offers creative folks two career paths. One is the traditional hierarchical path, where a successful artist becomes a manager, then a director, then a vice president.
But the second path is a creative one, where a successful artist becomes an illustrator II, III, senior illustrator, master illustrator and so forth. These top artists never plan a product line or manage a staff (though they do lead by example); they climb the career ladder while staying at their drawing tables.
Distinguished tacticians: AT&T uses another approach. It designates highly successful communicators “Distinguished Members of the Public Relations Department.” The program was designed to reward communicators who weren’t eligible for promotion for one reason or another, including that their expertise was too tactical, technical or specialized.
The organization’s top leaders nominate communicators who make ongoing, significant contributions to the department and discuss the nominations until they reach consensus. In addition to the nice title, the honor also comes with a pay increase (about U.S. $10,000) and an office space and furniture upgrade.
Rewarding writing: Of course strategy is important. But it’s not enough. (After all, the best strategy combined with the worst writing will fail just as will the worst strategy paired with the best writing.)
Find a way to reward great writing in your organization, and watch the writing get better and better.
2. Don’t try to fix bad writers.
Writers are like husbands. It’s a mistake to take on terribly flawed ones with the intention of fixing them later.
The solution: Hire better writers in the first place.
Nobody’s ever accused me of being overly modest, but as a trainer, even I know I can’t transform a shaky writer into a Shakespeare during a writing workshop or two. Instead, I follow the rule of 10 percent — figure you can help your writers improve by 10 percent through training. Add another 10 percent a year if you offer consistent, ongoing, follow-up training and coaching.
That means you can help a B writer become an A writer and an A writer become a master. But if your writers are failing, you can only hope to help them attain a low C — and that’s with your daily hard work and support.
I’ve been there, tried that and trashed the T-shirt. It’s a miserable way to live and work. Instead, consider only good and excellent writers for your writing posts.
That means you need to get better at evaluating potential writers and rewarding them.
Evaluate potential writers: Don’t even think about looking at published clips. There are a lot of great clips out there with writers’ names on them that are really the work of editors and managers. You know that. So what to do?
- Request first drafts as well as published clips.
- Talk in detail to the manager who edited the project — not just about the candidate in general, but about the piece itself. You want to learn what the candidate contributed to the piece. Be specific: Ask about particular phrases and anecdotes.
- Assign the candidate a writing project, if possible. I’m not talking about some ridiculous little writing test you give during the interview, but an actual piece for your newsletter or brochure. Plan to pay the going rate for freelance writing, and plan to use the piece. If the copy isn’t usable, the candidate probably won’t be, either.
- Develop an assessment tool for evaluating writing samples and projects. Mine includes a three-point scale (great, OK, not a clue) and covers 40 categories, from positioning the story in the readers’ best interest, to structure, to creative elements, to display copy.
Offer excellent salary and benefits: Enough said.
3. Attend your own writing workshops.
Here are three reasons to go to the writing workshops you schedule with outside trainers:
- You need to be on the same page. If you’re not there, you can’t lead folks in implementing the trainer’s ideas.
- You might learn something yourself. One of the highlights of the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism at Harvard University is the throng of Pulitzer Prize winners. Not just behind the microphone, but in the audience. These folks have earned the highest U.S. honor their profession bestows — but still seek ways to polish their skills. Shouldn’t you, too?
- Your writers will complain about you behind your back if you’re not there.
4. Offer ongoing coaching and training.
Writing training is an ongoing process, not a one-time event. Keep up the momentum after your workshop with lunch-and-learns, coaching and assigned readings. RevUpReadership.com is a good resource for continuous learning.
5. Celebrate success.
Now that you’re seeing better writing, spread the word. Share your team members’ great work with each other to model what you’re looking for (and, frankly, to generate friendly competition).
As famous writing trainer Ann Wylie likes to say, “The behavior we celebrate is the behavior they replicate.”
How to improve your team’s writing skills
So: Recruit a good writer. Give her a career track. Pay her, train her, coach her, and show off her great work.
That should be business as usual in business communications.