It’s become almost worthless to say that communication is important for managers. Of course it is. If you needed us to tell you that, you might be in the wrong job. The much greater challenge is what to do about it.
There are so many different ways to communicate in a modern organisation that it can be hard to know what is most effective when. So we wanted to speak about just one. A skill which is becoming increasingly important with the rise of remote work.
In terms of which one, well the 2020 Google trends report found that the world’s top question around communication last year was ‘how do lobsters communicate’.
Whilst a deep dive on that would be interesting (and a little gross - apparently they pee at each other), instead we’re going to look at the power of writing.
Specifically we want to look at long-form writing of memos, status updates, documentation etc.
Written communication has always been an important part of being a manager. But in the last twelve months it has become even more vital, possibly without you even noticing it.
As the world shut down its offices and relegated everyone to kitchen table desks, interruptions from kids and zoom office parties (potentially the worst of the three), the ability to share information also changed.
Meetings which people hated (yay a weekly sales update), but which were at least saved by the promise of spending time seeing people you liked, now just became dreary zoomathons for colleagues with limited attention spans. Not only that, they were exclusionary dreary zoomathons as various remote colleagues missed meetings due to personal commitments, like childcare, or living in Australia.
In an office context that would be annoying, but informal communication around the water cooler would often fill in enough gaps for the whole system to inefficiently totter along. Not anymore.
Cumulatively this has meant that as we have moved more remote, a lot of information which would usually circulate through teams, improve decision-making and make them more efficient, now doesn’t.
Fortunately writing’s here to help.
‘Speaking only helps who’s in the room, writing helps everyone.’ - Basecamp
To generalise, we bet that most teams would benefit from writing and documenting more. So this doesn’t just apply to managers. But frequently managers are those with pertinent information which needs to reach a wider audience. It is in these situations where writing can prove a phenomenal communication tool, particularly when it’s alternative is a meeting.
Those of you who are already familiar with this debate will know that we are discussing synchronous vs asynchronous forms of communication. Synchronous communication requires that both parties be engaged in real time to exchange information (e.g. conversations, meetings, and some Slack/Teams/email). Asynchronous, or async, means information can be received and interpreted at any time (e.g. documentation, notes in project management tools, meeting notes, video recordings, some Slack/Teams/email).
Now, for some things, synchronous communication is still useful. For example anything which requires active discussion and participation, is sensitive, or is time-urgent. But in many other cases, async, of which the long-form writing we’re discussing is part, can have some distinct advantages:
Potentially the greatest endorsement of the power of putting more in writing is that many fully-remote companies have built their own software tools just to facilitate better documentation and writing. Buffer built Threads, Doist built Twist, Automattic built P2, and Gitlab, well they just use Gitlab but you get the idea.
Increasingly, if you have something to say, write it down.
“Words and software share a wonderful attribute: Write them once and they can benefit an infinite audience at no additional expense.” CEO of Upstart
So with all that laid out, we wanted to provide managers with some ideas for using written communication better in their teams.
We’d ask you to think about two things:
If so, we’re here to help.
In particular, if there’s one meeting we’d like to kill as a result of this article it’s anything that involves bringing people ‘up to speed’. From now on when you see or feel like uttering that phrase, run for the hills - or at least to a word processor. If it’s not a matter that’s time sensitive or requires immediate participant discussion, you’re just communicating information and it can probably be written instead.
If you think this will be culturally difficult for you in your workplace for an existing meeting, then you can always suggest it to meeting participants beforehand, or run a trial. They’ll probably thank you for it. ‘I’d really rather not, because I try and maximise my number of meetings a week’. Said no-one ever.
A recent survey of 9000 employees commissioned by Slack, found that those remote employees who received status updates via email reported a higher sense of belonging (+6) compared to those who attended status meetings (-3).
Remember that the CEO of Shopify, a multi-billion dollar e-commerce giant with thousands of employees, once cancelled every recurring meeting in the company to see if the world would cave in (narrator: it didn’t). So you’ll be fine.
That’s not to pretend that it will be easy. Writing well is a craft, which takes practice to improve. In the short term, it can also feel counter-productive. Gitlab again:
"Taking the time to document a solution isn't very satisfying in the moment, and is easy to deprioritize when other seemingly urgent tasks seek your attention"
So we wanted to put together a quick manager’s guide to writing to help you improve your existing communication, and maybe start replacing some of those meetings. Here goes.
(Actually, pause briefly. We’ve very aware that in writing a guide about writing we are inviting all sorts of criticisms about our own writing. But if we provide some value to readers and start a discussion, that’s all we’re trying to do. However we do appreciate feedback, so please send any along).
Much of what leads to bad writing occurs before you’ve even picked up your metaphorical pen. If you don’t briefly plan what you want to say, to who, and how, then you’re shooting yourself in the foot before you’ve even got started.
This may seem like a lot, but once you’re familiar with it, it can become a two minute planning exercise which ensures you write with purpose, to the right audience, in a way they’ll be receptive to, and with the context they need to understand your work.
That’s more than half the battle.
As for when you’re typing away, we’ll focus on structure and style. We cannot overstate the importance of both. Poor structure and style can blur even the clearest arguments.
You should assume that your reader is very busy and you’re competing for their attention. With that in mind:
If you’re writing with purpose, for the right audience, in the right format, in a good structure, you’ll probably be most of the way there to the right style. So this section is more about avoiding things which could compromise that.
For more detail on these style points, check out these writing tips from the CEO of Upstart - we generally agree with all of them. There are also numerous style guides out there from major publications which you can use for inspiration.
Congratulations. By this point you’ve hopefully written an update/email/memo/document which will have exactly the desired impact with your audience. Except maybe you haven’t.
Now you’re ready to publish.
As Phil Libin, co-founder and former CEO of Evernote, said:
“Many people can pretend to be something they’re not in person, but very few people can do so in writing.”
Your writing reflects your personality. Rather than being worried about what others might think, try and see it as an opportunity.
Good writing is a chance to impress and influence people and organisations on an incredible scale. As a manager, take that chance wherever you can.