What’s Your Role? Part II

In my last post, I pointed out that some writing problems have underlying business issues. Here’s an example. (I’ve altered some of the details.)

I was working with a client who wanted to update the writing practices in his office. He was right: the memos and letters I looked at were wordy and old-fashioned.

But I thought there was a deeper problem. One example was a memo from an employee whose department had a problem with a piece of equipment. The service technician said it was time for a replacement.

He recommended a different machine that he thought made a lot of sense for the business. She’d known him for years, trusted him, and agreed.

The memo was…whew. It explained what the machine did and why the company needed it. It rambled through the whole history of the service and repairs on the malfunctioning machine.

The employee attached an estimate of the repair costs and a brochure about the new machine. At the bottom she wrote, “For your attention and use.”

* * * * *

Cleaning up clumsy sentences and pompous wording is always useful. But this company needs to address some personnel problems. I suspect there’s a lack of trust between the boss and the woman who wrote the memo.

As you move up the organizational ladder of a business, your responsibilities tend to spread out. Instead of knowing one area extremely well, you have a little bit of knowledge about many areas.

You have to trust your employees. They usually know their area better than you do.

The woman – let’s call her Diane – dealing with that malfunctioning machine knew what she was talking about. She wouldn’t be there otherwise. Writing a long history of the machine and what it does shouldn’t be necessary. (If Diane isn’t competent, that needs to be addressed before you start tackling her writing issues.)

Most of the time you should put your main point first. (The exception is when you’re giving bad news. In that case, soften it a bit.)

Readers are confused by a memo that starts with a series of details: “Last week the [name of machine] started shutting down in the middle of a cycle. Since then it’s been displaying a 271 ERROR message.” Where is this going? It’s confusing and wastes time.

Here’s how the memo should begin: “Our [name of machine] is no longer functioning properly. Frank Donaldson from Acme Equipment says that it’s not worth repairing. He recommends replacing it with [name of machine].”

Diane can go on to say that Frank is trustworthy – his recommendations have saved your company a great deal of money over the years. She can attach his estimate for the repairs and a brochure about the new machine.

A friend who read a draft of this post suggested that trust may not be the issue – perhaps Diane just needs to be taught how to write more efficiently. That’s true!

But often it amounts to the same thing – only this time it might be Diane who doesn’t trust her boss. She’s afraid he’ll get angry if she doesn’t provide every tiny fact about the issue at hand – “We purchased the [name of machine] on July 17, 2011.”

Maybe that’s a relevant fact – maybe it’s not. My point is that in a well-run business, you don’t dump everything you know into a memo or letter. You do some critical thinking before you start typing. Efficiency should always be one of your top goals.

Roles and responsibilities

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