Content, Structure, Structure, Delivery

In the age of 6 page memos and product press releases (thanks Amazon), writing has become a core skill at work. Great professional writing brings together insightful content, a logical structure, and good delivery.

Insightful content is what gets us through the door when we write. This is different from public speaking as you can get away without saying much and still give a good speech. Insert a few jokes, say things your audience want to hear, and you could give a good speech. But, writing well is much harder than speaking – your content shines through (or not).

Assuming you have insightful content, the element that most gets in the way of good writing is a logical structure. While many labor under the assumption that they’d be better if their grammar, vocabulary, and language was better, “delivery” generally helps move very good writing to great writing. Structure is what moves you from passable to very good.

The challenge with structuring documents is that our first draft is often our first attempt at thinking through the idea or question at hand. And, once we put our ideas down, the initial structure becomes art that mustn’t be tampered with – in our minds. That, then, gets to the challenge of good structure – we need to find ways to either separate the thinking process from the writing process by structuring our narratives upfront. Or, we must write our first draft and then do a complete rewrite by putting yourself in the shoes of your audience.

I expect to write more about structure as I spend more time learning how to do so. However, the first step is improvement is awareness. Today’s takeaway is simple – when you write next, obsess about structure.

Separating the writing from the thinking

“For the average business or professional writer, producing more literate memos and reports does not mean writing shorter sentences or choosing better words. Rather, it means formally separating the thinking process from the writing process, so that you can complete your thinking before you begin to write.” | Barbara Minto, The Pyramid Principle

I’ve decided to spend more time learning how to write better and thought “The Pyramid Principle” and “The Elements of Style” would be my go-to textbooks for the structure and style portions of this journey respectively. But, as Barbara Minto thoughtfully points out, we often confuse feedback in our ability to structure our writing as feedback to our style.

Structure is the first summit to conquer. To do so, I’ll need to do a better job separating the thinking process from the writing process.

Inspiration without structure

Many organizations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring in inspirational speakers to speak to their employees. When employees walk away from these talks feeling inspired, it all seems worth it.

structure, inspirationSource

But, when they go back to their desks and get to work, reality hits them. While the talk inspired them to think about innovative ideas, their organization never really encouraged innovative ideas. Sure, they said they wanted more of them. But, you always found yourself embroiled in organizational politics when you attempted to push change through.

Leaders and managers often wish for a more inspired work force. But, in situations like this one where there are no structures to support inspired employees, inspiration can often be counter productive. Employees in such organizations walk away from attempts at inspiration feeling frustrated and cynical.

There are two important takeaways for us as leaders –

1. If we seek to inspire our team, the most important thing to do isn’t to give an outstanding talk about why we do what we do. It is to provide the structure within which our team can go out and express themselves. This means providing them clarity on why we do what we do, establishing clear norms and expectations on how we do our work (our culture) and being open to helping them define goals that help the team move forward while also helping them to learn, grow and hone their abilities. Structuring work well requires openness to change and a great deal of thought as good structure needs to provide a certain amount of flexibility without it feeling like anarchy.

2. If we seek to be inspired ourselves, no amount of inspiration will help if we don’t have structures in our life that help support doing work that matters. This means a world class collection of habits that help us focus through the day, be present with our loved ones and take care of ourselves.

Inspiration without structure is like an artificial flower – it looks good from a distance but it doesn’t feel or smell like the real thing.