effective writing styles and cross-cultural considerations
This paper focuses on effective strategies for written business communication, with an emphasis on adapting communications to more efficiently and effectively communicate with project stakeholders. Goals of the paper include increasing knowledge, skills, and sensitivity to the following issues: audience awareness, readers' perspectives, persuasion and confession techniques, and multiculturalism and bias.
The essence of good writing is awareness of the audience, while the essence of ineffective writing is self-absorption. Effective project managers are aware of their audience's reactions to their documents. Project managers with audience awareness naturally develop strategies to communicate efficiently and positively.
Writer-centered writing tends to focus on how the message affects the project manager: “I need you to...”; “That's a problem for me...”; “I think you should...” etc. Focusing on us all the time can alienate an audience, and will miss opportunities to point out to readers how their interests are affected by a request. Project managers who write with audience awareness develop strategies for controlling reader responses to difficult situations.
Persuasion and Confession
As project managers attempt to control reader responses, they need to identify strategies for motivating stakeholders to do something to which they will initially object. Project managers need to be able to communicate “bad news” in a way that minimizes the audience's negative response to that news.
Multiculturalism and Bias
While this paper will discuss general style and syntax rules for writing, we will also ask how these general rules and guidelines can change in multi-cultural environments. We will address the resolution of cross-cultural and bias issues by focusing on audience awareness and writing from a reader-centric perspective.
Effective Writing: A Project Manager's Job Description
Effective communication skills, particularly written communication skills could be described as the first and last attribute of a project manager's job description. Communication skills influence nearly every aspect of project management. If we look at PMBOK®'s general management key general management skills, while they list communicating among them, the others listed (leading, negotiating, problem solving, and influencing); all require strong communication skills (PMBOK® 200, 21-26).
Project managers often work in organizations that have sales departments and sales people. It is easy to create a false dichotomy between project management and sales: project managers manage projects and sales people sell. This dichotomy is fundamentally wrong because project managers need to sell messages just like sales people sell products.
Sales people understand that selling can be a difficult process where they receive many “no” responses to a single “yes” response to a sales pitch. Selling messages as a project manager may or may not be as difficult as product sales depending on the project manager's particular project or corporate organization. But project managers need to be aware that readers can be a tough sell. For a message to succeed, readers must decode the message, accept the message, believe the message, see the message as a positive, and act on the message as the project manager wishes. Any interference dooms the message.
As we consider potential interference with our readers, project managers need to make three primary assumptions.
Readers are busy; they won't spend much time decoding our message. Readers have many different interests, both financial and temporal. Readers will resist many messages; effective writing attempts to minimize resistance. Project managers that are effective communicators will adapt to these factors as they sell their message.
Audience Awareness and Reader Perspectives
Writers tend to have certain natural instincts as they approach their writing; project managers are no exception. Writers' first instincts tend to express their own point of view, “I want to say...” We naturally focus on, “How will this matter affect me?”
The opposite strategy to writer-focused texts is to write with a “you-attitude.” This is “a style of writing that looks at things from the reader's point of view” (Locker 2003, 34). Project managers who write from a reader's point of view ask reader-focused questions before they write. What information do my readers need? How will this affect my readers? What do my readers want to do? What will look good to my readers? What will make sense to my readers?
Let us suppose you sit down and start writing “instinctively.” Whose point of view will you focus on? What information will you discuss? What information will you miss? How organized are your random thoughts? When we write without planning, how well organized will the document be? Often the result is messages from project managers like: “I really need you to complete this task today! I'm preparing for an end of the month project review and I'm behind schedule on my project!”
If we write instinctively we will tend to write from a writer-focused perspective: I need, I'm preparing, I'm behind schedule. Reader-focused writing does not tend to come naturally; focusing on a reader's perspective requires conscious discipline.
Writing styles are a substantial subject and there are volumes of books written on the subject. Some companies even provide a company-preferred book on style to all new employees. Many project managers have acquired at least one style handbook during their educational and professional careers; some, like me, have accumulated many of them.
Project managers have many books on style that they can consult, current best sellers include “The Business Style Handbook” (Cunningham & Green, 2002) and “Writing that Works” (Roman & Raphaelson, 2000). It is not the purpose of this paper to communicate everything that could be said about style. Instead, the following discussion on style focuses on some common mistakes made in business writing. We will discuss word choice, surplus prose, jargon, and passive-voice.
The words we use when writing reflect on our education and professionalism. Poor word choice by a project manager can cause project stakeholders to question the general competence and abilities of the project manager. Once common mistake is to confuse singular and plural forms of words. If we write that, “The most important criteria for success is hard work” we mistakenly use the plural “criteria” instead of the singular “criterion.”
Writers will also confuse words that sound or look-alike but have different meanings. For example, if we say, “Workers are ingenuous in avoiding parameters set for their work,” we probably meant to use “ingenious” (brilliant, sophisticated) rather than “ingenuous” (unsophisticated). By using the wrong word we have constructed a sentence that says the exact opposite of what we meant to say (see additional examples of commonly confused words in Exhibit 1).
Exhibit 1 Commonly Confused Words
When we choose words we should follow the simple maxim, “Use words that are accurate, appropriate, and familiar” (Locker 2003, 91). Thesaurus-words are not necessarily superior to ordinary words. Early in my career I used the word “verity” in the first-draft of a report and a vice-president at the company asked me, “What does verity mean?” I replied that it meant “accurate or correct.” The vice-president responded, “Use one of those words instead.” The message: stick to the familiar.
“Surplus prose” is simply defined as layers of verbiage not needed to communicate ideas. Use enough words to communicate your ideas and nothing more.
Project managers need to consider whether surplus prose will earn them a good reputation. In some cases surplus prose is received positively; some readers are impressed by formal language and large words. Some workplaces value flowery, hyper-formal language, viewing it as “professional.” Depending on the culture of the organization in which you work, that organization might value surplus prose more highly than other organizations.
But in most cases surplus prose will not earn a good reputation. Ask yourself, do you enjoy reading “heavy” prose? Does heavy prose make you want to read more from the writer? Even when readers associate surplus prose with “professionalism” and “intelligence,” few readers actually enjoys surplus prose. Readers tend to dread messages from writers with “heavy” reputations. If an important goal for project managers is to effectively communicate information, what happens to your chances for being read and understood if you develop that reputation?
So how can project managers move away from surplus prose to more reader-friendly styles of writing? Make sure that all the words that you use say communicate something essential. We can do so by eliminating redundant words and unnecessary intensifiers as shown in Exhibit 2. The key to writing with clarity lies in simplicity; keep your expression simple. The goal of a project manager should be to impress readers with what you have to say, not the verbiage you hide it in.
Exhibit 2 Eliminating Redundant Words
Jargon is a specialized vocabulary used and understood by a particular group of people. As project managers we need to carefully consider when we can appropriately use jargon and when that jargon interferes with our message to readers.
Technical jargon can be used sparingly for precision. In professional fields like software development, accounting, medicine, manufacturing, and others, we may want to use jargon to accurately communicate in that field. The same can be true when communicating within a company whose business represents an industry that uses a specialized vocabulary.
But as we consider whether to use jargon we need to focus on our readers. Will they understand the jargon? Will they expect the jargon? If you use jargon, will that require you to explain the terms to your readers? Are you using jargon to show off rather than communicate?
Cultural jargon is present in every organization as they develop a vocabulary that is unique to that organization. Within a company, different divisions, operating groups, or teams within the company may each have their own cultural jargon. As we consider whether to use cultural jargon we need to focus on our readers. Are we communicating to an audience that is internal or external to the organization? Within the organization are we communicating to a department or group of people that understand that jargon?
Verbs carry energy in sentences and writing is vigorous when we use verbs to express the action. Weak verbs make dull, sleepy, dense prose that is difficult to read. Passive voice is one of the most common uses of weak verbs. Learning how to identify and correct your use of passive voice can help you instantly improve the clarity of your writing.
With active voice the subject of your sentence does the action contained in the verb. The following example uses active voice, “The Manufacturing Department has increased its production efficiency on the shop floor.” In this sentence the subject (manufacturing department) does the action of “increasing.”
We could write the same sentence in passive voice, “Increased efficiency has been achieved on the production floor.” When we use passive voice, rather than having the subject of the sentence do the action, the subject of the sentence is acted on. As shown in this example, passive voice often omits the subject of the sentence.
Passive voice does two things that reduce the readability of sentences. It emphasizes the object of action and it obscures the doer or agent of the action. The result is reduced clarity, which is why good writers avoid passive voice when possible.
But there are valid uses of passive voice. We can use passive voice effectively when we do not want to look like we are blaming someone. For example, if we use active voice we might say, “You failed to submit the report on time.” Passive voice can be less confrontational and we may prefer to say, “The report was not submitted on time.” In doing so, we protect our reader's ego and reputation.
Unlike this example, most writers that make significant use of passive voice do not use it for conscious reasons. Passive voice is usually used by habit because the writer has not learned to write with active voice. The prescription is to use strong, vigorous action verbs whenever possible to improve the clarity readability of your writing.
Writing to Persuade
Most business documents ask readers to act. This means that project managers often find themselves in a position where they are writing to persuade readers to act. We have already discussed the reality that sales people are trained in persuasive techniques, but often other business writers do a poor job of persuading.
Requests may breed resistance and cost time and money. Requests may represent change that people resist. To overcome objections and resistance, project managers can improve their persuasive writing by making precise requests, using positive emphasis, front-loading requests, and anticipating and addressing objections.
Too often we make imprecise requests of our readers because we are afraid to make a straight-forward request. For example, “I was wondering if there is any way you would consider helping us out by using your influence with Grant Corporation to persuade them to help us in this situation.”
When we are not precise, our reader wonders, “What are you asking me to do?” The result is that readers can imagine the worst with vague requests. Let us use the same example and make our request precisely, “Would you consider calling Maria Otal of Grant? She asked for a credit reference, and a word from you would mean a lot.”
When you make requests make sure that you specify what you're asking your reader to do. Limit the burden of your request; make it seem easy. Specify time lines, amounts, and procedures. The key to making a precise request is to ask, “Have I answered all my reader's questions?”
When writing to persuade we need to make strong use of positive emphasis. Positive emphasis makes requests seem easy and minimally time-consuming. For example, “Your staff can avoid time-consuming reworks with a 5-minute daily routine.”
The word “please” has been termed “the magic word” because being polite generally yields better results than rudeness. Using “please” and other polite terms when making request helps create a positive emphasis with readers that helps overcome resistance.
If we are attempting to persuade our readers we should frontload requests as much as possible. We do not want to bury a request where the reader will not see it. We should particularly use front-loaded requests when we know that readers will appreciate the brisk communication.
There are situations where front-loading requests are less appropriate. A project manager might delay a request if an abrupt request will offend. We might delay a request if we want to utilize a buffer for positive emphasis (e.g., provide good news or reader benefits before making the request).
Anticipate and address objections
When writing to persuade we may consider arguing our case and address the readers' point of view. In doing so we want to make sure that we answer anticipated objections. The consideration here is that we want to avoid overkill and attempt to argue briefly. Adequately address objections, and then move on.
Writing for Confession: Delivering “Bad News”
In the course of managing projects, project managers are often called on to deliver “bad news.” How we deliver “bad news” to our readers can significantly impact how readers respond to that news. As we communicate “bad news” we want to make sure that we control the reader's response, make use of positive emphasis, and tell the truth.
Control reader's response
As we craft our message to communicate bad news we expect our readers to respond negatively to the message. When we attempt to control negative reactions we do not want to make the news seem worse than it is. Make sure that you are not exaggerating or overstating the problem. While readers will expect explanations, over-explaining the bad news can amplify a reader's negative reaction. Using excuses and blaming others can enhance negative reactions and lower moral.
Another way that we can help control negative responses is by pointing to a positive future. Present bad news as an opportunity for improvement. Whenever I have been in a position of needing to communicate that a problem exists, I have tried to proactively prepare a solution to that problem.
Project managers can effectively communicate problems in the context of solutions. For example, “Extending incentives to reward attendance will help correct the recent 50% decrease in turn-out.” We can also increase the positive emphasis of our message by avoiding words with negative connotations, stating information positively, and omitting unimportant negatives.
Tell the truth
The potential danger in emphasizing the positive is that we may tempt ourselves to ignore that truth. When we delivery bad news we need to conscientiously make sure that we emphasize honesty. If we bury or hide information that our readers need to know, we create situations in which we may be later asked, “Why didn't you tell me that we are two weeks late.” As we tell the truth we will want to state the message plainly, neutrally, and professionally in a way that it cannot be missed.
Cross Cultural Issues and Bias
Up to this point in the paper some readers have probably wondered when we would address some of the “cross-cultural considerations” that the title of the paper communicates. The types of writing rules and advice that we have discussed so far have strong ties to American business culture and American preferences in communication. These rules and advice need to be evaluated in light of the only communication rule that we can safely apply all the time and in any culture: be aware of your audience.
Project managers ought to be extremely skeptical of people who promote generic writing strategies with inflexible rules for writing. Inflexible rules can result in large communication mistakes if we do not consider the culture. Generic strategies assume “average” tastes and instincts, and these assumptions are not safe.
Suppose you encounter conflict because some abstract, generic principle of “good writing” says that you should write in a certain way. Conversely, your readers prefer another writing style due to: national culture, corporate culture, or personal taste. Focusing on our reader's preference is more important than generic principles. Your actual readers, not some generic writing strategy, should determine your style of writing.
International cross-cultural issues
The general rule that I have presented in this paper is that we should try to communicate firmly, clearly, and efficiently. In many ways this reflects an American value of direct communication. Americans tend to become impatient with suggestion and innuendo. We want people to tell us plainly what they want. This generalization may not represent the culture of your intended audience.
Does the culture you are communicating to value the individual and understand self-promotion, or does it focus on hierarchy and group harmony? We have discussed means of persuading readers by focusing on an American tendency to show profit and gain for the reader. Some cultures prefer to show success and harmony for a group rather than the individual. Americans tend to emphasize a request for action when we communicate, and I have reflected that preference in this paper. Other cultures may avoid requests for action and offer thanks and apologize, or offer personal greetings.
If we are writing for translation to another language we should carefully avoid figurative language and humor because they do not translate well between languages. Figurative language and humor may not even translate well across different cultures that speak the same language.
The principle lesson here is to be sensitive and alert to cultural issues when we are writing. Watch for indications that expressions or gestures mean something else in another culture. Even if we are sensitive and alert to cultural issues, when communicating in other cultures we will tend to make mistakes because of our limited knowledge of those cultures. Watch for responses to your writing, learn from them and modify your writing based on those responses. Before writing, use documents written by people in the target culture as models.
Organizational culture issues
Cultural concerns extend beyond international considerations between different countries. Culture can matter closer to home as we work with different organizations, because organizational cultures are distinct. Smart writers adapt to different cultures across organizations and different cultures within the same organization.
Before communicating in an organization make sure that you ask questions about the organization's culture. How formal is the culture? How do people express themselves? Is humor okay? Do people use slang and casual expressions? How do people respond to suggestions, new ideas, or criticism? Does the organization value ideas or data? Are social skills and friendships promoted, or toughness and individual goal achievement?
Project managers who want to communicate effectively will want to avoid biased language. We can do this by questioning the assumptions we make and the exclusions we imply with our language. For example, if we ask, “Should I check with the girl at the front desk?” we stereotype receptionists as representing women. If we say, “Always correspond with a firm's CEO. He will be offended if he is left out,” we stereotype executives as male. Asking members of your project to, “Bring your spouse to our picnic next week” assumes that everyone is married or heterosexual.
As you write, watch for subtle exclusions. When you use hypothetical names, do those names always represent the same ethnic group? If you use clip art and photos in presentations do you show males in dominant positions or exclude members of other ethnic groups?
Cost of bias
Some people have responded negatively to the concept of using inclusive language and avoiding biased assumptions and exclusions. There is a concern that by working so hard to not offend any potential readers, we give up some humor and frankness in writing.
But as project managers who want to communicate effectively we need to ask ourselves, “What is the price of bias?” As writers, what do we care about? Ultimately we want to sell our message to readers, and biased, exclusive language introduces obstacles to selling that message. Why make obstacles for yourself when you can show respect for every one of your readers? Awareness and sensitivity to bias costs little and saves much grief.
This paper is based on and influenced by a course in business communication that I teach at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. The body of that course was developed by Dr. Mark Thorson who has served as both an advisor and influencer of my views of business communication strategies.
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Graham, J. H. and Graham Jr., D. O. (1994). The Writing System Workbook. Fairfax, VA: Preview Press.
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Project Management Institute. (2000). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
Roman, K. & Raphaelson, J. (2000). Writing that Works (3rd Edition). New York, NY: HarperCollins.
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