The three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic.
As the tenet of basic education, children spend years learning how to input, manipulate and output information. It forms the foundations that allow more complex subjects to be taught such as science and literature.
However, some can often regard writing as an old skill, or a lost discipline that isn’t as important with the prevalence of communication via technology. Yet, I would argue that being able to write with clarity, skill and artistry is one of the most impactful skills that you can wield as a leader. It can elevate your presence and increase your impact dramatically.
Yes, you should write
Popular tropes of leadership in mainstream media have been loud and brash. Consider how the “big boss” character is portrayed in fiction, and how Alan Sugar or Donald Trump bounce around and deliver offensive quips on The Apprentice. Yet, this leadership is shallow. One needs only to observe the current term of the 45th President of the United States to see that leadership by brazen personality can only get you so far.
A resurgence of the academic leader is here.
Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Warren Buffett. Leaders who can communicate succinctly, leaders who can write. Leaders who are embracing one of the oldest skills that humans have had at their disposal, but are doing so at a time where distribution of written information globally is as easy as the click of a button.
Let’s enunciate further on Bezos. His annual Amazon shareholder letters are extremely well written. The 2017 incarnation explores ways to implement high standards, and whether they are intrinsic or teachable, universal or domain specific. That is far beyond just a table of profit and loss numbers, which is equally impressive, regardless. In fact, Bezos is a true champion of the written form. Recent information has shown that his executive meetings take the form of reading written memos as a way of making sure that a context is created for constructive debate and discussion. I have tried this out myself in recent important meetings. It works very well.
Why writing is so impactful
I am a firm believer in the power of good writing at work. I am also acutely aware that the time available to write well feels like it is increasingly diminishing: there is generally an expectation for lightning fast responses over precise communication, especially with the increase in popularity of chat software and direct messages when compared to email. However, I still find the time to write properly in my communication, and I will continue to do so.
Writing is a normalizing medium. No matter what you look like, how old you are, how you speak, or how confident you are, you can sit on your own and formulate your thoughts, draft and re-edit, and when you’re done, they can be presented in the same standard form as Bezos, Hemingway or Dickens: words on the page; a pure transfer of ideas from one brain to another with no judgement or discrimination based on creed, color, age or gender. An impactful message is an impactful message.
In an increasingly distributed world, where a senior member of an organization will rarely have all of their staff in the same physical location, the written word provides everybody with equal access to their leader, no matter whether they are sitting ten meters away from them, or whether they are oceans apart. Regular, frequent and considered communication unites. It aligns minds globally. It is a leveling platform.
In addition to communicating widely and equally, writing effectively is a differentiator. A considered written piece will almost always be able to persuade better, and to deliver a message better than a spoken argument given without preparation. I have had many experiences where retracting my vocal argument and committing my thoughts to paper has worked in my favor. A written argument can be constructed over many hours, even if it is only a few paragraphs long, ensuring maximum clarity and impact. You can take the space to ensure you represent your best self.
One of the reasons that I opted to begin writing regularly – and believe it or not – I have published an article every week for over a year now, is that it is a fantastic way of crystallizing one’s own thoughts. These articles are only a portion of the writing that I do each day. I write to others at work. I write to myself, privately. Continued focus on writing has improved the way that I think about problems and construct arguments. It helps me clarify the algorithmic paths of concepts in my brain, because it forces me to walk those lines slowly and to articulate them as I go along.
Writing as a leader
There are a number of ways in which you can use writing to improve your leadership ability, whether or not you have explicit control over a team, department or organization. Quality written communication is engaging and ensures that others will listen to your viewpoint, regardless of your place in the org chart.
Here’s a few ways in which you can practice being more impactful at work through your writing:
- Consciously step back and think before sending messages. This shift in mindset is one of the easiest yet most effective things you can do. When you write a message to someone, resist the urge for it to be throwaway. Stop. Read it again. What would you think if you received this message from someone else? Could you make it better in order to portray exactly what you want? Does it represent the best communication that you can produce?
- Journal your day to yourself. Even if you have no designated output for your writing, you can write for an audience of one: yourself. Start by briefly summarizing what you’ve done each day in a journal or private document. Or perhaps you’d like to take time each morning to describe how you’d really like the present day to play out. Either way, you can use this opportunity to plan or reflect and to improve your writing ability whilst doing so.
- Think through problems by writing them out. Using whiteboards is an effective way of collaboratively thinking through problems, but the best way that I have found to help myself think through problems is to write them down, explain to myself how I feel about them, and to propose solutions to myself. The benefit of doing this is that once you’re happy with your written exploration, you can share the document with others for their feedback.
- Write your thoughts for the subject of meetings ahead of time. Not only does this crystallize your thinking and allows you to come prepared and better able to convince others of your viewpoint, you can also share it with the attendees beforehand to help center the discussion.
- Publish regular newsletters on your progress. Despite the belief that we all receive way too much email, from experience I have found that regular newsletters that people only have to read rather than issue a response to are well-received. People like updates! Get into the flow of writing regular written updates to your manager, team, stakeholders, or department.
And how do you get better at writing?
Many people who have read articles that I have written have asked me for my opinion on how to get better at writing. Let me take this opportunity to say that I still have a lot to improve before I would call myself a good writer. As such, I have no recommended course or educational materials to share, other than two extremely basic pieces of advice.
Firstly, the best way to get better at writing is just to write as much as you possibly can. I have found it similar to learning a sport, or an instrument, or a programming language: you simply need to practice, practice, practice. With time your speed will increase and you will find your voice. You will notice how you spend more time writing and less time editing. There will come a day that your stream of consciousness becomes almost exactly what you write, and what a liberating feeling that is! Try and capitalize on any opportunity to make your writing better. Every direct message, every email, every comment on a pull request. Take that bit of extra time to read and review. Use a thesaurus and learn a new word. Try to find opportunities to use semi-colons. Portray the feeling pictured in an emoji in your words, instead.
The only other piece of advice I can muster on how to improve your writing is to read. A lot. But don’t limit yourself to reading work-related materials. Read short stories on Medium. Raid the charity shop for that stack of Penguin classics and throw yourself into Orwell or Shelley. Work out how Zadie Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro pace their writing. How does that compare to Iain Banks? Consider the journalistic storytelling style of Steve Levy. Read a self-help book and study how the author makes their message so compelling, even if it may be tautological. Just read.
Writing is so powerful. Wield that power for your benefit.