Wylie Communications Inc.
was having lunch with the vice president of
corporate communications at a California-based Fortune 500 company when
the topic of bad writing came up.
He detailed the problems his company was
having because so many communicators struggled with their writing
Among the problems he mentioned:
- The VP spent one-quarter of his time
rewriting copy instead of focusing on communication strategy.
- Employees didn't receive and act on key
messages because they didn't read employee newsletters and intranet
stories. The result: Employees didn't support or sometimes even
know about corporate initiatives.
- Press coverage was mediocre because
press releases were mediocre.
all this costing your company?" I asked.
and hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said, "in lost
productivity, lost opportunities and wasted executive time."
good writer is hard to find
My California client isn't alone.
Communication executives bemoan the lack of good writers:
- Senior public relations practitioners
believe writing is the area where young
professionals need the most improvement, according to a survey by the
Public Relations Society of American's Counselor's Academy.
- "Our client surveys have
consistently shown that good writing is one of the five top
performance measures in gauging client service," Bob
Druckenmiller, CEO of Porter Novelli, tells The Strategist.
"At the same time, we've seen a growth in concern about the
quality of writing by our clients and, of course, by us."
- "Young people don't enter the field
as skilled in writing as they once did," Ann Barkelew, senior
vice president, partner and general manager of Fleishman-Hillard,
tells PR Tactics. "The overall level of proficiency has
What's a business communicator to do? Here
are five ways to improve your team's writing skills:
1. Place a value on writing
If you want better writing, you need to
value better writers.
But in most organizations these days,
managers value strategic skills far more than technical ones. No wonder
your most talented communicators are writing communication plans instead
of newsletters and brochures.
Instead, give your top writers a path for
Back to the drawing board: Hallmark
Cards, the social expression giant that boasts the world's largest
creative staff, offers creative folks two career paths. One is the
traditional hierarchical path, where a successful artist becomes a
manager, then a director, then a vice president.
But the second path is a creative one,
where a successful artist becomes an illustrator II, III, senior
illustrator, master illustrator and so forth. These top
artists never plan a product line or manage a staff (though they do lead
by example); they climb the career ladder while staying at their drawing
Distinguished tacticians: AT&T
uses another approach. It designates highly successful communicators
"Distinguished Members of the Public Relations Department."
The program was designed to reward communicators who weren't eligible
for promotion for one reason or another, including that their expertise
was too tactical, technical or specialized.
The organization's top leaders nominate
communicators who make ongoing, significant contributions to the
department and discuss the nominations until they reach consensus. In
addition to the nice title, the honor also comes with a pay increase
(about U.S. $10,000) and an office space and furniture upgrade.
Rewarding writing: Of
course strategy is important. But it's not enough. (After all, the
best strategy combined with the worst writing will fail just as will the
worst strategy paired with the best writing.)
Find a way to reward great writing in
your organization, and watch the writing get better and better.
2. Don't try to fix bad writers
Writers are like husbands. It's a mistake
to take on terribly flawed ones with the intention of fixing them later.
The solution: Hire better writers in the
Nobody's ever accused me of being overly
modest, but as a trainer, even I know I can't transform a shaky writer
into a Shakespeare during a writing workshop or two. Instead, I follow
the rule of 10 percent figure you can help your writers improve by
10 percent through training. Add another 10 percent a year if you offer
consistent, ongoing, follow-up training and coaching.
That means you can help a B writer become
an A writer and an A writer become a master. But if your writers
are failing, you can only hope to help them attain a low C and
that's with your daily hard work and support.
I've been there, tried that and trashed
the T-shirt. It's a miserable way to live and work. Instead, consider
only good and excellent writers for your writing posts.
That means you need to get better at
evaluating potential writers and rewarding them.
Evaluate potential writers:
Don't even think about looking at published clips. There are a lot of
great clips out there with writers' names on them that are really the
work of editors and managers. You know that. So what to do?
- Request first drafts
as well as published clips.
- Talk in detail to the manager
who edited the project
not just about the candidate in general, but about the piece
itself. You want to learn what the candidate contributed to the
piece. Be specific: Ask about particular phrases and anecdotes.
- Assign the candidate a writing
project, if possible.
I'm not talking about some ridiculous little writing test you give
during the interview, but an actual piece for your newsletter or
brochure. Plan to pay the going rate for freelance writing, and plan
to use the piece. If the copy isn't usable, the candidate probably
won't be, either.
- Develop an assessment tool
for evaluating writing samples and projects. Mine includes a
three-point scale (great, OK, not a clue) and covers 40 categories,
from positioning the story in the readers' best interest, to
structure, to creative elements, to display copy.
(For a free copy of my assessment, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Put "WCI Writing assessment" in the subject line. Youll
want to create your own assessment, but this one should get you
excellent salary and benefits:
3. Attend your own writing workshops
Here are three reasons to go to the writing
workshops you schedule with outside trainers:
- You need to be on the same page.
If you're not there, you can't lead folks in implementing the
- You might learn something
yourself. One of the
highlights of the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism at Harvard
University is the throng of Pulitzer Prize winners. Not just behind
the microphone, but in the audience. These folks have earned the
highest U.S. honor their profession bestows but still seek ways to
polish their skills. Shouldn't you, too?
- Your writers will complain about
you behind your back if
you're not there.
Offer ongoing coaching and training
Writing training is an ongoing process,
not a one-time event. Keep up the momentum after your workshop with
lunch-and-learns, coaching and assigned readings. RevUpReadership.com is
a good resource for continuous learning. (Find out whether you qualify
for group discounts: http://tinyurl.com/e7l8l.)
5. Celebrate success
Now that you're seeing better writing,
spread the word. Share your team members' great work with each other to
model what you're looking for (and, frankly, to generate friendly
How to improve your team's writing skills
So: Recruit a good writer. Give her a
career track. Pay her, train her, coach her, and show off her great work.
That should be business as usual in
works with communicators who want to reach more readers
and with organizations that want to get the word out. To learn
about her training, consulting or writing and editing services,
contact her at ann@WylieComm.com
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Get more writing tips at RevUpReadership.com
© 2007 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.
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