Should good writing be a core skill for professional communicators?

Posted on July 23, 2010 1:29 pm by | Writing and Editing

Update, July 27: I’ve added a statement I just received from Anne Wiley at the bottom of the post.

Early this month, Liam FitzPatrick, who manages Change and Internal Communication for Bell Pottinger, argued in a post titled “Who Cares About Writing Skills?” that good writing should not be a requirement for professional communicators. Specifically, he wrote:

To be honest I don???t think being a good writer matters ???- I???ve met plenty of great comms people who couldn???t write to save their lives and I know a few fantastic writers who I???d never trust to give communications advice.

I wasn’t alone in finding myself aghast at FitzPatrick’s claim. While being a good writer doesn’t by itself qualify someone to lead a strategic communication effort, I would never hire someone to manage communication who can’t write, nor would I hire anyone into a front-line communication job who couldn’t tell a story in words.

FitzPatrick wrote, “I???m not sure I???d appoint a director of comms on the basis of their ability to win a Pulitzer prize.” But there’s a lot of room between not being able to write to save your life and writing a Pulitzer-winning article.

imageDavid Murray and Reuben Bronee have already shared their thoughts on FitzPatrick’s post. I was about to join them when it occurred to me that it might be even more interesting to collect responses from some of the best strategic communications professionals I know:

Julie Freeman, ABC, APR
President, International Association of Business Communicators

Well chosen words—whether they are written or spoken—have the power to inform, to persuade, to evoke emotion. But there is extra pressure on the written word.  Even in the YouTube era, writing is still more permanent. And often it has limits.  Think of the Proctor and Gamble directive that no memo could be longer than two pages.  Or word limits for articles in the employee newsletter.

Because of these pressures, the basis for good writing is not a great vocabulary or the ability to craft elegant sentences.  Instead, the basis for good writing is sound thinking. James Joyce might have been celebrated for stream of consciousness, but those writing in the business world need to think through their ideas, how to organize them and how to link them. They need to know what their audience knows or thinks about their topic and how to address those perceptions. I don’t see how writing skills could ever be considered anything but essential. Aren’t sound thinking and understanding of stakeholders skills that every manager, executive and strategist needs?

Don Ranly, IABC Fellow
Professor Emeritus
Missouri School of Journalism

Several of (those contributing observations to this post) reflected what (H.L.) Mencken said, “The reason politicians can’t think clearly is that they can’t write clearly.”

You don’t have a clear thought until you can write it down clearly.  You know you have done that when others have understood you clearly.

Writing demands that words follow words, sentences follow sentences, sentences follow paragraphs.  In other words, writing demands sequence, structure, the stuff of logic.  Being logical is essential, but being human also means expressing emotion.  Writing is one of emotion’s great instruments.

Oral transmission can get lost and convoluted.  The written word is permanent, there for all to comprehend—perhaps forever.

Artists (painters, musicians and such) can use other media to communicate, and managers should know and appreciate what they do, but these other media cannot substitute for the skill of clear writing.

To say that solid writing skills should not be a required skill for a job in communications is to say that communications skills are not required.


Roger D’Aprix
Vice President at ROI Communication
Formerly VP at Towers Perrin
Author, “The Credible Corporation” and “Communicating for Change”

The ‘outstanding communicators who can’t write a decent sentence’ are like carpenters without hammers and nails. They both build rickety end products.

I attribute this sad state of affairs to the equally sad state of public and university education and to the patronizing notion that all any audience requires is flashy images and fragments of thought. That’s why we have attempts to address serious institutional communication problems with videos, half-baked ‘executive’ blogs and internal PR campaigns (complete with posters and themes) directed at distressed adults who live the circumstances trivialized by the ‘solutions.’ Sadly, the ‘excellent communicators who can’t write a decent sentence’ are often the villains of this piece because they have so little regard for the intelligence and sophistication of their audience.

Tamara L. Gillis, Ed.D., ABC
Professor and Chairman, Department of Communications
Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania

Last year I did a research project that included the analysis of about 500 job ads and position descriptions (international in representation). I was looking for patterns in competencies and expectations of communicators at various career levels. Overwhelmingly the top skill employers expect across the board from entry-level to senior-level communicators is quality writing. Many descriptions went as far as to expect proficiency in AP style. (If you’d like a copy of the executive summary, drop me a line.)

Let me put on another hat ??? my educator hat. Writing is one of the greatest weaknesses of the first year students. We spend a lot of time working with them on the basics (spelling, grammar, punctuation) before they take entry-level journalism courses. I have a number of theories about why writing skills have decreased in quality over the last 10 years, but that???s a conversation for another day.

We’re living in this digital age where literacy is a requirement to participate in local and global discussions. Today it’s impossible to expect to be in a communication role and not be expected to write messages on behalf of the your client or employer. Getting it right the first time and being able to reinforce business strategy and commitments is key to success in that social contract. And when times are lean and employers cut staffing, these basic tasks fall back to those remaining in the office; in many cases that’s the middle and senior communication staff. So we can’t let those skills get rusty just because our work has progressed more toward strategy and less on the tactical elements.

Christy Leonhardt
Global Planning, Employee Communications
Intel Corp.

I, too, have observed a diminution of writing skills among communicators at all levels, which saddens me. I worry that writing skills will soon cease to be a requirement for a job in communications, for two reasons:  a) the hiring manager didn’t learn standard grammar and composition in school, so won’t recognize poor writing when he or she sees it, and b) our writing muscles are atrophying in this new age where brevity trumps thoughtful insight.

Here is my bias: Good writing should continue to be the differentiator when hiring, period. The ability to compose a tight, well-structured and correctly punctuated paragraph under a deadline is a pretty darned good indicator that the candidate under consideration is literate, well-educated, can think and execute under pressure, and can convey a message with impact. All desirable attributes for anybody’s workforce - especially a communications professional.

D. Mark Schumann, ABC
Past Chair, International Association of Business Communicators (IABC)
Former Principal at Towers Perrin

I love to write because, at one moment, it’s the most logical thing I can be doing; at another, the most free and creative. At every moment, it’s the opportunity to think and explore and reason and conclude. Every time we write we take a journey; sometimes the destinations actually make sense and a contribution.

In business, for any leader, manager, contributor, writing is essential because writing illustrates the progression of thought. Without narrative, how can business reason its past and forecast its future? Without clarity, how can organizations engage? Without facts, how can institutions govern?

Before new media challenged the standards of clear writing, we entered the PowerPoint era; all of sudden we found ourselves presenting ideas that didn’t necessarily make sense, but looked great; didn’t certainly make a contribution, but neatly fit into boxes and circles and arrows; and didn’t clearly tell a story, but could make us look very smart. And now, with new media, the narrative risks extinction as shortcuts and abbreviations and symbols become the rule.

Writing is at the core of excellence in business, well beyond the contributors of a communicator. Clarity in business leadership requires clarity in business thinking. And unless we write it down, how can we ever think with clarity?

Lester R. Potter, MBA, ABC, IABC Fellow
Senior Lecturer
Department of Mass Communication & Communication Studies
Towson University

Writing skills are the fundamental and critically important core competency for communication management. One of the most important functions communicators provide for organizations is to take complex topics and boil them down into clear, easily-understood information for the organization’s audiences. Writing skills are fundamental to accomplishing this. Clear writing indicates clear thinking.

Brad Whitworth, ABC, IABC Fellow
Communications Manager, Strategic Alliances
Cisco Systems

I see the de-emphasis of writing skills as fallout from the huge “rush” that rules our world today. “Short” and “fast” trump “thoughtful” and “clear.” “Now” beats “later.” We expect instant access to our friends, to entertainment, to news from anywhere at anytime on any device. Text messages interrupt our dinners, tweets prove to everyone that we’re on top of our game.

Sadly, our collective priorities have changed. When speed is the ultimate prize and a 140-character limit is your biggest obstacle, the writing basics of clear, concise, correct, complete, consistent, creative and coherent (thank you, Don Ranly) are shoved into the back seat.

Anne Wylie
Wylie Communications Inc.

Good writing can cause audience members to pay attention to,  understand, remember and act on our messages. As long as those outcomes are not among your objectives, then no, writing skills are not essential.

Also, with a nod to Don Ranley’s comment, I love Flannery O’Connor’s quote, “I write because I don’t know that I think until I read what I say.” The best compliment I ever received at a writing workshop came from a Finnish engineer who arrived just KNOWING that marketing writing was all fluff. At the end of the program, he said, “This isn’t writing. It’s thinking.”

As we say in Missouri, “Yup!”


A few of the people I queried haven’t replied yet. If they do, I’ll append the post with their observations.

What do you think? Should writing skills be a requirement for a communications job?

 

Comments

  • 1.Absolutely mandatory.
    Communication isn't just limited to one medium. If you speak well, but don't write well? It's simply a sign that you haven't put the time in to hone that skill.

    Lucretia M Pruitt | July 2010 | Colorado

  • 2.I absolutely believe that effective writing is an essential ingredient to business success in the communications field. In fact, the final hurdle for EVERY candidate who interviews at my company is a writing test designed to show whether that candidate is able to synthesize a body of new information and communicate its essence in a compelling way, within a specified time frame.

    Over the years, we have interviewed hundreds of nice, smart people with a great deal of relevant work experience and wonderful verbal communication skills. That's all well and good, but how can you really call yourself a communications professional if you are unable to communicate effectively in writing?

    Sorry, that seems oxymoronic to me. We should hold ourselves to higher standards than that.

    Marianne O'Connor | July 2010 | Silicon Valley

  • 3.Shel, I agree with you and your esteemed group of experts.

    In this age of information overload, good writing is even more critical. Good writers can cut through the clutter, put themselves in others' shoes, synthesize the key issues, and share a clear, compelling story, often with a concise call to action.

    Research is also showing clear communication is more profitable. For instance, Laura Rittenhouse, President, Rittenhouse Rankings, says her research "consistently shows that CEOs who author letters low in F-O-G (Factless, Obfuscating Generalities) are more likely to create shareholder wealth." Warren Buffett's writings scores well on her index; Tony Hayward's writings ranks poorly.

    Liz Guthridge | July 2010 | San Francisco Bay Area

  • 4.Liam can speak for himself, but it seems to me that you've turned his post into a strawman. (Although maybe he deserves it for being intentionally provocative in his headline/pyramid.)

    So let's advance beyond the "motherhood and apple pie" that written communication is important. Let's try a couple of more specific questions instead:

    1) How many communicators who pride themselves on their "great writing" actually back that up with the "sound thinking" Julie Freeman refers to, or actually craft narratives as Mark Schumann posits?

    2) How do you and other contributors justify the appallingly low levels of visual literacy and visual understanding prevalent amongst high-level/association accredited communicators?

    3) How often do the items that the profession considers "great, clear, concise (etc.) writing" actually engender that same response from the audience(s)?

    Indeed, when we consider the struggles that communicators have in convincing the rest of the business of their worth, might it be connected to the love affair with a certain mode of expression that does not always light the fires of those on the receiving end?

    Indy | July 2010

  • 5.Dear Shel

    Thanks for weighing in and for not reducing the debate to an unhelpful level. I would hate anyone to assume that I have a very poor opinion of professional writers or that I am motivated by a desire to offend my many friends who make a living as wordsmiths. My stance is explained at http://www.itsnotrocketscienceblog.com and I am sure my friends would testify to the admiration that I hold for people who can put pen to paper so much better than me.

    My underlying thought - which I explored back in 2007 when I published the findings of some quantitative research among senior comms professionals-is 'what do we want from senior communicators?' Is it the ability to deploy simple craft skills or is it the competency to offer strategic counsel?

    I fear that many people want to reduce our profession to writing and I find that alarming. We need a wider range of competencies in our communications leaders than just the ability to craft fine copy. I have gone further and suggested that writing is in fact actually a subsidiary rather than a leading competency. This suggestion has generated a very robust response in some quarters.

    Specifically we need people who can take the pulse of their organisations, can develop the communications skills of leaders, can coach colleagues, can understand the business in which they operate and can be creative in their overall approach. Writers do not have a monopoly on these skills although they have a valuable perspective.

    Crucially if we make a fetish out of writing we lose sight of why organisations need communicators. Our role is to help the organisation tell its story to its employees and to encourage workers to check their understanding and find ways to participate in the development of their business. Seeing the written word as route one is a mistake.

    I notice that most of your commentators come from a North American tradition. Elsewhere internal communications often draws on an HR perspective where interpersonal discussion, feedback and engagement are significant drivers of how people think about communication.

    I could well be wrong here, but I sense from looking at American websites and eavesdropping on blog postings, that the profession has a different focus from other parts of the world. In the US the production of high quality content seems to be a major concern. In Europe communicators tend to fret more about driving business performance and collaboration. I am not suggestion any superiority or negative comparisons here - just highlighting that there seems to be a difference in outlook between practitioners on different sides of the Pond.

    From my perspective I am very clear. A communication leader certainly needs to know what good writing looks like but need not be a great writer themselves. Equally they need to understand intelligence-led planning, the use of new media and how to give counsel to senior executives among other things. I shoul not claim that any skill set had supremacy over another.

    Importantly I would counsel against general prescriptions. Every organisation is different and needs different things from its communicators. You can't take someone else's medicine.

    Therefore claiming that there is a universal skill set or syllabus for internal communicators is dangerous territory. Far safer to steer away from statements that one skill or another is the fundamental of great communications I feel. It is probably better to look at the needs of the organisation in question and build a model that addresses the problems in hand rather from starting from a standpoint that says 'we need social media' or 'it's about a great business TV solution'. Such thinking could lead to a writer even though other qualities might be more important.

    But if we allow ourselves to be defined by a single skill set then our ability to comment and advise across the range of issues facing our clients or employers is severely hampered. If we demand to be pigeon-holed as 'the guys who take care of getting the words right' we miss out on some amazing opportunities to make a real difference to the organisations we serve.

    I am conscious that this approach throws up a real problem for the people concerned with driving professional standards. How do we improve the standing and utility of a craft if we can not be clear about who is competent to practice and who is not? But the challenge we face is that the explosion of communication technology and the rapid development of management thinking on the point means that many of the models that practitioners, academics and professional bodies have developed are looking rather frail and possibly unfit for purpose.

    Liam FitzPatrick

    Liam FitzPatrick | July 2010 | UK

  • 6.Liam: I confess I feel a tad responsible for all the flack you're taking since I seem to have started much of this debate with my original post. But I'm glad Shel and David and other much smarter communicators than me are responding because it is an important point.

    I do think, however, that our original exchange of comments on my post touched on a really important part of this: what do we mean by "writing." While I know you're not suggesting writing is just someone pounding at the keyboard, I think your description of it as a "craft skill" is really the crux. For me, and I suspect a lot of those rushing to defend writing in these posts, writing is much broader. It is how we use language, regardless of whether or not that appears on the page/screen. In that sense, good writing both requires and supports many of the other skills you highlight. It's not just a technical proficiency. That doesn't mean communication is only writing (absolutely not). But it really is a fundamental expression of our ability to communicate.

    And if you look at it from that perspective maybe, as you have noted, we're not so far apart after all.

    Rueben | July 2010

  • 7.Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

    Ed Han | July 2010

  • 8.Yes, good writing is essential. Sure, you don't need to be Pulitzer-worthy, but a communicator should be able to write clearly and persuasively.

    Donna Papacosta | July 2010 | Toronto

  • 9.You would be surprised how poorly writing is taught in some schools, however. Even in my core Comm classes in college it was expected that our writing technique be learned in a specific writing class, an elective chosen beyond the degree path. Shouldn't writing be a core if one is going into PR? Apparently not. The best thing to do is ask potential employees to provide writing samples, since the "education" isn't always an accurate demonstration.

    Amanda | July 2010

  • 10.I am alarmed at the idea that a belief in good writing might be just a North American concern.
    As a PR professional who has travelled and lectured widely in Asia-Pacific, let me assure any doubters that good writing is a basic tool of communicators everywhere . . as it should be.

    Tony Jaques | July 2010 | Melbourne, Australia

  • 11.This debate proceeds from a false-choice question: should communicators be good writers or good counselors? The best communicators master writing, counseling, and more: visual literacy, financial literacy, event literacy and even a knack for building relationships.

    Good writing reveals good thinking. That's why every hire in our shop must pass a writing test to get in the door. A writing test provides a lot of insight into what a candidate can ultimately deliver.

    George Stenitzer | July 2010 | Naperville IL

  • 12.The quickest way to lose my respect is to strut your communication strategist title but delegate all the writing to me -- including the kernel of the message. If your only goal is to move up the ladder, fine, forget about writing. Not a whole lot of people at the top can distinguish good from bad, anyway. If you seek to build a solid relationship with your team, show us you can do what you're asking us to do.

    Marie Sardalla-Davis | July 2010 | California

  • 13.Shel, thanks for adding your not inconsiderable influence and talents to this discussion. Dear Liam advised me to "calm down" (http://pointsofrue.posterous.com/just-stop-it-of-course-communicators-need-to) when I asked if he were serious.

    Craft skill or no, writing is as central to PR (communications) as arithmetic is to accounting. It's inseparable from our value. There are many of us who make our living on the strength of counsel rather than Pulitzer-quality writing, but all of us are expected to have a better than average command of the written word. It's not enough to be brilliant at strategy -- look how many McKinseys and Bains need strong writing skills providers to enact their strategic plans.

    Without our ability to apply this craft skill, we are not distinctive, and one might say offer no advantage compared to any other business function.

    Cheers
    Sean

    Sean Williams (@commammo) | July 2010 | Cleveland

  • 14.I think the Flannery O'Connor quotation should read "...I don't know what I think..." rather than "...I don't know that I think..."

    Me too write gooder one day.

    Gordon Hard | July 2010

  • 15.CommScrum is debating a similar (is slightly less specific) topic at the moment.

    When I taught "Intro to Mass Communications" at University of Denver, the first thing I told my students was: you MUST become a great writer. It is the core skill of the communicator. When I work on client projects I always have great copywriters. I'm an OK writer, but I add a lot more value doing other things as a "communicator".

    So ...

    I will come down in defence of Liam here (with whom I disagree about a competence-centred view of the profession, but that's another story). Yes, he was being deliberately provocative, I am certain - but by the same token there is the very real issue of beautifully crafted words that serve no strategic or commercial purpose. My friend Dan Gray told me of a recent experience where the Head of Internal Communications for a major bank spent hours arguing over some words in a newsletter and this knocked the communication strategy off the agenda and they didn't have time to discuss it (or something similar, I may have my facts wrong).

    The emerging leaders of our profession should be able to write well - of course! And they should be able to think well, but I agree with Liam that the old-skool "ex-journalist and frustrated writer" brigade OVER-emphasises writing as a competency.

    With words we might shape our world, indeed, but great words only hold value of the right context has been created for them in which to thrive.

    Now, let me strap on my bulletproff vest ...

    Kevin Keohane | July 2010 | London, UK

  • 16.As an addendum, I'm aghast that so many people I really respect have come down so solidly on the issue. I'm not sure which saddens me more - the devaluation and eroding of writing skills, or the Canutism of some of my peers.

    Kevin Keohane | July 2010 | London, UK

  • 17.This is great stuff! I agree with much and have a couple of other thoughts to offer.
    Writing or communicating via words (whether written or spoken) is critical to our profession, as is the ability to provide strategic advice. It's certainly not an either/or proposition. The question may be what level of writing is necessary for different areas of focus. For instance, I know an event planner who is brilliant, but does not claim very strong writing skills. Good writing is a building block in this profession -- where you go after that determines the level of writing skills you need.
    Truly strategic writing is the holy grail of writing in our profession, IMHO. That is writing that gets the point across in audience-appropriate and engaging language, organization, format (media) and design. To achieve this, you need to have a grasp of the whole picture, the strategy as well as the right information, and the audience.

    Katherine Roberts, ABC | July 2010 | Canada

  • 18.Kevin's comment made me laugh, so I want to add:

    Perhaps what set us all off was the dramatic nature of Liam's pronouncement. Too much emphasis on writing? If anything, writing's been knocked off the agenda in favor of stunt PR, event planning, and strategery discussions that don't lead to effective action planning. We have information that we need people to hear, and understand, and take action upon. We surely will need to be able to execute on this great thinking!

    I wrote a piece a few years ago for Ragan's Journal of Employee Communication Management titled, "Plan, then Execute," that said, essentially, "we need to be great strategists and great at making those strategies real." I wrote that we have to be terrific writers as well as thinkers.

    I think that's still the case, and I don't think it's a zero-sum game.

    It also occurs to me that the semantics of "Pulitzer winner" versus "Writing is overemphasized" places us on the horns of the dilemma: all of us might not make the bulk of our living writing, just as all of us might not make it as counsel. We need a balance of both skills, and we'll live or die by that balance.

    Sean Williams (@commammo) | July 2010 | Cleveland

  • 19.I believe that effective writing is an essential skill for professional communicators. Hell, it's a core skill for any business professional.

    Notice that I said "effective," not "good."

    If you've ever written something that grabbed attention, made something think, act, or simply smile...you wrote creatively. Perhaps you wrote passionately, as if you had spoken the words from your heart rather than put them on paper.

    Your written words had the intended effect. It doesn't mean necessarily that you used "proper" language to get your point across.

    Now that I've expressed that opinion, I must say that every time I read business communication that is written poorly, I want to ralph up my lunch. :-)

    There's a time and place for creative license. There are even more instances where you need write properly.

    It is rarely about us; it is about the recipients of our written communication.

    And if recipients perceive that your writing sucks, well, then...

    Robin McCasland | August 2010 | Dallas, TX

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