27 July 2017 13:01:35 IST

The CEO and co-founder of TalentEase, Fernandez is a thought leader in education and a consultant and coach to school heads, teachers and parents. He has 18 years of outsourcing leadership experience in the Asia Pacific, consulting with and servicing global and regional clients. He was previously partner/managing director with Accenture, Singapore. He was the COO with Hewitt Outsourcing APAC, and President India Life Hewitt. He has overseen teams in sales, operations, client and account management, technology, finance and HR, and has extensive experience working with multinational clients across a wide industry and geographic spectrum. He is a sought-after speaker at education and industry conferences and is a columnist with Business Line on Campus .

Doing the write thing

When you can, talk. But when you do have to write, do it right.

A recent quiz in The Hindu newspaper made an interesting comparison between the Indian constitution — which, with 448 Articles, 12 Schedules, 5 appendices and 101 Amendments, is the longest in the world at over 100,000 words — and the US constitution, which is all of 4,400 words.

This could prompt an interesting debate — which is more effective? Which is being lived in letter and spirit? Some in India like to say: the government of India specialises in writing lengthy laws and as Indians, we specialise in finding gaping loopholes to go around or through them.

Creating impact

That paradox should nudge us, as leaders, to reflect on how we write. Our communication is often verbal but the work-world involves written communication — emails, formal or informal messaging apps, presentations, documents, contracts and other formats.

Effective communication can increase the impact of our leadership, just as ineffective written communication can decrease it. A poorly drafted email to the team can cause discouragement, whereas a well-drafted one can be uplifting and inspiring. Poor copy in an advertisement can damn a product; a well written copy can make it a winner. A hastily typed WhatsApp message to a colleague can create the wrong impression, while a well thought out one can strengthen relationships. Let’s look at some ways we can get writing right.

Crisp vs convoluted

Winston Churchill is supposed to have written in a letter: “I am writing you a long letter, because I have no time to write you a short one”. This statement is very insightful. Long emails and lengthy documents are often a symptom of a lazy attitude. It takes hard work to keep a subject crisp and to the point.

The longer your emails, contracts, or set of written instructions, the lesser the chance of it being read in full, and having the desired impact. Unlike Erle Stanley Gardner, who used to get paid by the word, and notoriously had his characters die from the fifth or sixth gunshot instead of the first, our routine work is rarely driven by the length of our communication.

So, we need to keep it crisp and concise. We should ask ourselves: ‘Can I eliminate an unnecessary word?’ ‘Can I remove a sentence that duplicates the same message?’ ‘Can I use shorter and more impactful sentences rather than long-winding and confusing ones?’

Guy Kawasaki in his straight-to-the-gut book, The Art of the Start , writes about how vision and mission statements are the victims of needless length and complexity. He proposes writing a mantra instead — which are short, clear and have a high impact.

He gives several examples. Sample a few: Wendy’s mission statement is — “Our guiding mission is to deliver superior quality products and services for our customers and communities through leadership, innovation and partnerships.” He proposes the mantra “Healthy fast food”. Or the Red Cross’: “To help people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies.”. His alternative: “Stop Suffering.” Which do you find more powerful, more inspiring, more specific?

Clear and simple versus complex or cryptic

The flipside of being concise is the tendency to be so cryptic that it confuses rather than clarifies. A colleague shared his boss’ response to his email. “Should we get the client to pay for this work or not?” “Yes,” the boss responded. My colleague had to call his boss to clarify what he meant, thereby wasting both time and money because of an unclear written message.

There is one place where this malady is glaringly evident — PowerPoint slides. ‘Death by PowerPoint’ is really not an exaggeration. Most folks tend to clutter their slides with complex, long sentences and often in such microscopic print that the audience usually needs a telescope to read it. Instead, short, punchy and clear points should be the way to go. Sometimes, even just one word will suffice.

In a world of shortening attention spans, words should be at a premium. And the adage ‘less is more’ should be rigorously applied. Presenters, in their quest to impress their audiences, come up with increasingly complex graphs, charts and technical jargon. The result? Their audiences are often confused and bemused, rather than influenced and impacted.

Conscious vs unconscious

These days, devices seem to have taken over our lives. Executives define their work by the time they spend on a device. It’s easy, then, to be unconscious in our written communication. We can become so preoccupied running a meeting, but at the same time respond to a WhatsApp message. I remember being the hapless victim of the notorious auto-complete feature, when I once typed ‘cud’ (as a short form for ‘could’) in a message to a client — and it ended up being sent as ‘cuddled’!

Unconscious messaging can also lead to an email being sent to the wrong person. Listen to horror stories, where an internal mail complaining about a client was copied to the client as well! Or when a WhatsApp message was posted in the wrong group.

This has become enough of an issue for Gmail to create the Undo Send feature. So, think carefully before hitting send — Why am I sending this message? Whom is it intended for? Does it read the same way I want it to? What will be the consequences of this communication? Does it serve the outcome I need?

Lack of proper punctuation too can deliver misleading messages — sometimes, conveying the very opposite of what we meant. Take this sentence for instance: ‘A woman without her man is nothing’. Watch how a comma at different points in that sentence can alter the meanings.

Avoid writing

When we are upset or angry, we need to be particularly conscious in our writing. It could be an email or a message from a classmate, boss, colleague or a client, that reads unjust, unfair and plain wrong. And how do we respond? Our fingers fly over the keyboard, drafting a suitably offensive reply.

But this is where we should stop. The principle should be: never write when one is emotionally agitated. Impose a 24-hour cooling off period before replying. Then it’s much more likely to be a mature response rather than an emotional and often damaging reaction.

One final point on writing. Learn when not to write.

I’ve often had to admonish team members who would text each other over the messaging apps or emails each other about a query, despite sitting twenty feet away from each other. At such times, walk and talk, don’t write. It’s better for your health and communication. So, when you can, talk don’t write. But when you do have to write, do it right.