Kathryn Reeves | May 1, 2019
The authenticity and energy that comes naturally to us when we talk about our passions is something that, if harnessed, will make our documents more compelling.
When you’re passionate about something you have some expertise in, it’s easy to talk about. It might be gardening, rugby, Game of Thrones, cross-stitch, novels, or countless other things. When you get together with like-minded people and the topic turns to a passion, conversation is fluent. Communication becomes second nature — as easy as breathing.
At work, your passions and expertise probably lie somewhere more serious. If you’re a programmer, you might get fired up by a beautiful piece of code, or a new tool that makes your job easier. If you’re a policy analyst, you might spark at a new piece of research that could inform a current project. If you work in HR, an innovative initiative to manage staff issues, or building great relationships with new staff might be what inspires you.
If someone asks you over coffee about the topic that fires you up, you’re able to channel an authenticity and energy that carries the topic convincingly. This makes it easy to engage your audience.
Regardless of your passion and expertise on a topic, something strange often happens when your hands hit the keyboard. You might be writing a presentation, proposing a project to management, reporting on progress, publishing research, or setting a meeting agenda. Whatever you’re writing, the fluency you experience in conversation can disappear. You realise that what you write lacks the insight, clarity, and spark that your conversation had in spades.
To solve this frustration, we could look at the reasons why this happens. For example, you might be sensing your teacher or boss looking over your shoulder, or feeling constrained by an inherited and bureaucratic style of writing from a previous workplace.
But to speed things up, it’s probably more helpful to look at the features of a fluent conversation that we could replicate in our writing.
So let’s place you in a coffee shop, with someone you know well, who’s interested in what you’re working on, and has some questions about it. You talk for an hour, know what to say and how to say it. You leave feeling you’ve communicated the most important aspects of your topic, to someone who really ‘gets it’. The act of communication is done, and you know you’ve succeeded.
Let’s look at just a few aspects of what makes an interaction like this so fluent.
The language you need is easily at hand. You have a thought and can express it quickly because you’re using your natural ‘voice’.
The conversation happens ‘in the moment’ so you don’t have time to overthink your answers to a question. Instead, you’re able to trust your instinct.
Nobody has formal expectations about what you’re going to say and how you say it. You don’t have anything to ‘achieve’ apart from connecting with the person in front of you, and helping them understand your topic.
You know your audience deeply, and so have an intuitive understanding of how to pitch what you say. You also know how much your audience knows, and what aspects of your topic they’re most interested in. This makes leaving out irrelevant and uninteresting information quite easy.
You’re sitting next to your audience and so can match your expressions to the tone and pace of the conversation. Linked to this physical setting, you get instant feedback, so you know if you’ve been clear enough or if a thought needs expanding.
Here are some suggestions for how you can carry that fluency through to your everyday business writing.
Capture the language that you naturally use in conversation for the document itself. You could do this by recording yourself talking on a topic for 5 or 10 minutes, and transcribing what you’ve said. This could be a good way to get started, and you might find that you follow that style in the rest of your document. You can also apply plain language principles to your sentences in the editing process. These principles are designed to bring business writing closer to how we speak.
Before writing, spend some time brainstorming your key messages, and try to settle on those before you start writing. A good way to confuse your writing and end up with incoherence is to constantly second-guess what you’re trying to say. Deciding on your key messages before writing can help you write more fluently.
Get super clear on exactly what’s expected of you for a piece of writing. In a conversation, people don’t feel pressure to perform or achieve something specific, and this leaves them free to connect. You can get that similar feeling of freedom when you know exactly what’s expected of you, and don’t have to guess along the way whether you’re achieving it or not.
Know your audience more than you do now, particularly how they feel about the topic or what they know about it. If you know your audience well, you can write in the same intuitive way that you communicate in a conversation. That way you can almost ‘guess’ what it is that they’ll be most interested in.
We can’t always get instant feedback from our readers about the relevance of what we’re writing or how clear it is, but we can seek out people to give us fast feedback on drafts. We can also imagine how a reader might react to our documents by looking at it with fresh eyes after writing a draft.
Following the principles of plain language in your writing can help you write more as you sound, and achieve an authentic voice that connects rather than disconnects. Sign up for Plain Language Foundations, our short online course, to find out how to express yourself clearly to any audience.