If you don't know who Ann Wylie is, it's time you did. She's a veteran communicator who consults, teaches corporate writing and editing, and publishes a great e-zine, Wylie's Writing Tips. In past lives Ann has served as a PR pro in an agency, as a corporate communicator for Hallmark Cards Inc., as editor of a nationally acclaimed executive magazine. She's currently in charge of her own consulting firm, Wylie Communications Inc. These days, Ann handles special writing and editing projects for Saint Luke's, Reader's Digest, The Mayo Clinic and dozens of other major clients. She helps such organizations as FedEx, Sprint and Northern Trust launch or improve their publications.
I'm delighted to showcase Ann's five answers to another edition of Five Questions for . . .
Question #1: You've been an editor and writing coach for many years. Do you think the quality of writing in employee communications has changed for the worse with the emergence of online communications?
Ann: Actually, I think the reverse is true: The better you write for the Web, the better you write for everything else, too. That's because with really good online writing, you're more focused on making copy scannable, getting to the point more quickly, writing in a conversational voice and all the other things that make online writing more effective.
If the quality of writing in employee communications has changed for the worse, it probably has more to do with the fact that communicators now are charged to get more done than ever before. I think business communications would improve if business communicators said "no" more often.
Also, I think the industry's focus on strategy OVER tactics has squished a lot of writing creativity and energy right out of the business.
That said, I do see some amazing business writing. The folks over at Walgreen's still manage to cover yawners like casual dress with creative approaches that rival Men's Health or New York magazine. The PR pro's at Tellabs somehow make articles about ethernets and telecomm services both interesting and accessible. Writers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory turn out stories about photosynthesizing bacteria and fluorescent electron transfer that are so gorgeous, they make you want to weep.
Question #2: What's the biggest single obstacle to great writing in employee communications, and how can it be overcome?
Ann: Probably not valuing writing enough. If strategy is the only way up in your organization, you won't wind up with many senior writers.
Instead, recruit better writers, give them a solid career track, pay them well, train them, coach them and show off their best work. The more we value great writing, the more great writing we get.
I covered this topic in more depth in a rant called "Five ways to improve your team's writing skills."
Question #3: Are today's corporate journalists equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to serve their organizations and audiences? If not, what's the biggest gap and the best way to fill it?
Ann: Some of them are. Some of them aren't.
Probably the single biggest gap is not putting themselves in the reader's head. When you don't do that, you don't position your message in the readers' best interest; you don't ask yourself whether this is the language of the reader or the language of the organization; you don't think of ways to illustrate your points so the readers can literally see them.
So that single lack of perspective causes a lot of other bad-writing symptoms.
There are lots of little tricks you can use to put yourself in your readers' head. Warren Buffett famously writes his letter to shareholders to his sisters, who are smart and interested, but not necessarily educated about insurance floats and loss reserves. He begins each letter, "Dear Doris and Bertie ..."
Question #4: What is your pet peeve when it comes to corporate writing? What's the worst thing you've seen?
Ann: My biggest beef is people who use the same techniques they learned when they were 19 and in Journalism 101 and don't feel any curiosity about how to get better, what's changed, how to keep improving. I really get energized by people who like to learn and grow, and, conversely, I find myself getting bored and irritated by those who don't. There's so much information about how to write better out there, you almost have to go out of your way not to slam into it.
Question #5: From your point of view, what's the future of employee communications, and where do writers fit in to that future?
Ann: Alas, predicting the future of employee communications is not one of my superpowers. (Ask me who'll win Dancing With the Stars this season, and we can talk.)
However it looks, though, strong writers will play an important role. Good writing reveals good thinking, after all, and there will always be a place for people who are stellar at both.