It often seems like today’s world is dominated by specialists. Tech companies hire engineers and computer scientists who have become experts in a particular type of software or process. Fortune 500 companies look for executives with a deep knowledge of HR, finance, or the law. And yet, the most successful engineers, computer scientists, HR leaders, finance experts, and legal advisors have one thing in common: a mastery of basic writing and communication skills.
Don’t believe it? None other than Jeff Bezos, founder and executive chair of Amazon, has said that he eschews tools like PowerPoint that don’t require strong communication skills. Instead, he finds ways to encourage Amazon employees to flex their writing (and reading) skills. Executive meetings open with everyone reading “a six-page . . . narratively structured memo. It has real sentences, and topic sentences, and verbs and nouns—it’s not just bullet points.” These memos set the tone for the meeting and the discussion that follows.
This approach might strike fear in the heart of an MBA candidate or a tech leader who was much more of a STEM leader than a Steinbeck in school. But according to Joel Whalen, the president of the Association for Business Communication and an associate professor of effective communication at DePaul University’s Kellstadt Center for Sales Leadership in Chicago, people with science and engineering backgrounds have a superpower when it comes to excellent writing.
“People in the sciences have a template that they write to,” Whalen explains. In other words, people with a STEM background understand the need to present data in a logical, linear fashion. They honor facts that build to a conclusion. They just need to add to that skill set by learning how to engage the reader, explain the material in a clear and accessible manner, and encourage others to act on their conclusions.
So how can executives develop those skills? Whalen provides these tips:
1. Use the Inverted Information Pyramid
This borrows from Journalism 101 classes: the “inverted information pyramid” dictates that your “heaviest,” most important point (the bottom of the pyramid) should be stated upfront, at the very beginning of the piece. Once you provide that key point, you can offer supporting information.
As Whalen says, “Your reader wants to know things fast. Your goal is less to educate people than to get them to act. Give them actionable information upfront.”
2. Master the Differences Between Denotative and Connotative Writing
Denotative writing is very factual—it’s clear, succinct, accurate, and not often subject to misinterpretation. This is where people from technical backgrounds shine: describing the reality of a situation using straightforward observation and reporting. “Our efficiency was at 80 percent. The graphic is blue. My team currently has five people.”
Connotative writing, on the other hand, is more abstract. It might reflect your feelings about, interpretation of, or opinions on a subject or situation.
“Eighty percent of business writing should be denotative,” Whalen notes, “but the 20 percent of writing that is connotative is often where decisions are made. It’s where leaders learn the meaning behind the numbers, and where business leaders learn to manage fears and risks. It helps them advocate a position.”
3. Put Yourself in the Mind of the Reader
In addition to understanding your audience’s education level, skills, and motivations, you should also consider their time. For most executives, that’s very limited.
Use bullets and lists, boldfacing, short paragraphs, and other techniques that allow your peers and colleagues to skim what you wrote and easily identify the key takeaways.
4. Employ Simple Language
Ditch long, complex sentences and big words. Instead, use simple subject-verb-object construction: “Madison drove to the store. She bought yogurt. The family enjoyed the yogurt-and-peaches dessert.”
Ernest Hemingway is celebrated for his economical and understated style of writing, which upended the more florid, complex style of earlier writers. Tip: Revisit his work (The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises, etc.) to get in the groove of Hemingway’s spare and powerful use of simple words and simple phrasing.
In Whalen’s experience, the best way to simplify one’s language is to “lose the prepositions.” Prepositions like “of,” “on,” “under,” and “over” are used to show direction, place, and location—but they’re not always necessary in business communications. For example, instead of saying, “I should wash all the windows of my house,” you could more simply say, “I need to wash the windows.”
Bonus Tip: Another great book to study is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. First published in 1918, it remains an elegant, compact primer on the efficient and proper use of language in the modern world. Says horror writer Stephen King, “There is little or no detectable bullshit in that book.”