A version of this article appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of strategy+business.
You’ve probably already drawn up your list of resolutions and goals for 2022. Allow me to make a pitch for adding one more: improving your writing skills. Yes, that may sound like one of those evergreen goals. But it’s particularly relevant for leadership right now. After all, most communications from leaders, whether they are company-wide emails, memos, or tweets, start out in written form. Getting them right helps build a strong culture—a bigger challenge now that some form of hybrid work is going to be with us for a long time.
So leaders have to communicate more, and better, to create a sense that everyone is part of a team. It reminds me of what Kip Tindell, cofounder and former CEO of The Container Store, a Texas-based retail chain, told me in an interview years ago: “One of our foundation principles is that leadership and communication are the same thing. Communication is leadership.”
And though there tends to be a lot of focus these days on the sort of presentation and spoken communication skills that are used in video calls, sometimes the more old-school form of communication, writing, gets overlooked. For everything from the “about us” page of your website to the emails you send to employees and your communications with customers and clients, writing plays a large part in setting the tone of your culture and your brand.
I have two overarching tips to share about how to be a better writer, but before I do, I should provide a couple of sentences about my qualifications to weigh in on this subject. Although I work in leadership consulting now, I was a reporter and then an editor for 30 years, with 18 of those years at the New York Times. I’ve seen time and again the traps that writers fall into. And those traps are hardly unique to journalism. Here are two of the biggest ones. If you can recognize and avoid them, you’ll be a better writer, communicator, and leader.
The WSL problem
WSL stands for writing as a second language. I use it as a shorthand to describe how people will often treat writing as if it were a completely different form of communication from the way they speak. They use sentence structures that feel less natural, and they start reaching for more formal or fancier words or phrases—like contrapuntal or eschew—that rarely come up in everyday conversation.
Maybe the goal is to sound smart or to impress. Or maybe some of it goes back to our college days, when professors wanted us to learn academic writing, which often strikes me as a concerted effort to find more abstruse ways to convey straightforward ideas. (And yes, I threw abstruse into that sentence intentionally, as another example of one of those words that people rarely use in conversation.)
Whatever the intention, WSL leads to an overall tone that adds distance between the writer and the reader. And that is precisely the opposite of what is needed now from leaders. If there are fewer opportunities to hear leaders speak in person because so many of us are working from home, then we need to “hear” them speak in their emails. A more conversational writing tone shortens the distance between author and audience. It feels more real, which is what everyone craves at a time when we are living more of our lives online.
To guard against WSL, just apply this simple test when reviewing what you’ve written: Does this sound like me? Would I talk like this if I were speaking face-to-face with a colleague? Reading aloud is a good way to check for the WSL problem (especially if, as a leader, someone else is writing the words for you).
The expert-itis problem
“Expert-itis” happens when people get too close to their subject. They assume everyone else knows as much as they do, so they focus on the nuances of a particular topic or insight without explaining the context.
Does all your writing, as a leader and in your organization, pass the ‘cows, chickens, and taters’ test?
It’s a completely predictable and understandable problem. I’ve worked with many reporters who have suffered at times from expert-itis. They may have just spent a month or more doing a deep dive on a subject, and they became so immersed in the topic that it was hard for them to pull themselves back and get in the heads of readers who might be hitting the material cold.
Expert-itis crops up everywhere. It’s why air travel can sometimes seem so stressful. Take the checklist culture of airlines’ safety rules. Operational complexity often bleeds into communications, confusing customers with byzantine explanations for simple procedures like how to put on a seatbelt. It’s one reason that JetBlue Airways chose a chatty tone for its branding, including check-in kiosks with screens that simply read “Hello.”
Or try making sense of the “about us” pages on some corporate websites, particularly those of tech firms. Here’s just one example: “Your database instances are deployed in a unique virtual private cloud (VPC) to ensure network isolation. Other security features include IP whitelisting or VPC peering, always-on authentication, encryption at rest and encryption in transit, sophisticated role-based access management, and more.” Translation: we keep your data safe in our cloud by having unique, sophisticated authentication and encryption procedures.
Combatting expert-itis requires empathy. You need to get into the head of someone who is brand new to the subject at hand and be sure you’re providing them with full context and rationales so that they don’t feel like they are being left behind.
To help guard against WSL and expert-itis, it’s useful to keep in mind this lesson that Susan Salka, the CEO of California-based AMN Healthcare, said she learned from her father: “If somebody was talking over his head, using big words, being too complex, or trying to act too sophisticated, he would say, ‘Would you break that down to cows, chickens, and taters?’”
Salka added: “I used to think it was silly—what do cows, chickens, and taters have to do with one another? But years later, I realized that the message is, keep it simple. Don’t overcomplicate things.”
Does all your writing, as a leader and in your organization, pass the “cows, chickens, and taters” test?