At Clipboard Health, we talk about writing a lot. One of the first things we give people to read when they start working here is a link to this excellent article by Steven Sinofsky. We are a “remote first” company which has never had an office and has from day one done our hiring globally, and that coupled with our allergy to wasting time in meetings means that we trend heavily toward asynchronous forms of communication; >90% of our communications are in some way written, be that through Slack of Confluence or any of several other tools that require a firm grasp of the written word.
I’m considered to be a pretty good writer, but a lot of how I write trends towards the styles you’d need to write marketing copy or articles like these. The more time I’ve spent around effective written business communications, the more I’ve been struck by how different of a writing style it is - the kind of prose that works for an informational article sometimes will often bog down a project plan or a report where information-above-style is the name of the game.
We’ve learned a lot over the history of a company about what works and doesn’t for making online, asynchronous communications work. A lot of that comes down to a very particular kind of writing style, but there’s more to it than that; we will discuss this section-by-section, breaking down the guidelines that produce the kind of writing you need to save time and supercharge your remote communications.
Use tight language
One problem I personally have run into repeatedly is referenced above - my writing style tends towards the long-form, article style you are reading now. This is good for relaying information in a certain way, especially when giving summaries of big subjects in a readable format.
But the more specific a subject gets and the less superficial the messaging needs to be, the worse it works. Attractive prose is nice when it helps someone keep reading something they might have not otherwise made it to the end of, but there’s a huge risk that the same flowery words cover up need-to-know information.
Sometimes this is intentional. One thing I’ve caught myself doing since arriving at Clipboard Health is “talking around” a problem instead of “talking through it”, using more words where I should be using more or better data. This is common and sometimes done on accident (and thus easier to fix through training) but in any case, it’s something to be watched for; pretty words are fine, but not where they obscure messaging.
Speed is important. For a smaller company, speed is the biggest advantage they can hold in the David vs. Goliath business of disruption; maintaining that speed is their best chance of success. For a larger company, letting standards on speed diminish is one of their biggest risks - it’s what makes you bulky enough to lose your competitive edge and fall prey to new competitors.
When we talk about speed in relation to writing, Clipboard health thinks of it in two ways. The first is the actual velocity at which the author of a particular report or proposal can put it down on paper. More speed here means less time spent writing total sometimes, but it often also means the space to go through and edit, refine and reiterate before pushing the piece out to the team, which means better work overall.
The second way to think about it is the speed at which people reading the piece can get what they need out of it. To maintain this speed, you need to produce work where the information is not only clear (see our definition of Tight Language above) but also allows for it to be read as quickly and accurately as possible. Similar to writing speed, this not only saves time but often encourages re-reads and more detailed reading in general, both of which are benefits.
Both of these goals are a lot easier to reach if your company sticks to established formats, where possible. For example, Clipboard Health relies heavily on working backwards documents when we propose new product features. Not only do we like the way they make us think and write, but working to a standard also lets people within the company eventually write better and more quickly when using that standard. We’ve also found that people learn to read them more quickly as well since they know where relevant information is and the purpose of each individual section.
We also love frameworks and guidelines that fit within those formats and enhance them. Where we use working backwards documents for planning purposes, we also expect those documents to follow SMART planning guidelines, for example. There’s an expectation that we know who is primarily responsible for what and by what clear deadlines various tasks will be completed and milestones will be reached. Where formats offer clarity through organization, clear standards synergize with them to make sure the message being understood is quality, as well.
Write a readable history
There’s another consideration besides using the correct type of language, and that’s with an understanding the workforce you have today isn’t going to be the same one you have a year from now; companies grow, people leave and overall you are working with an ever-evolving group of people. Even if you did manage to keep all the same individuals (nobody does, don’t worry) each person is also changing on an individual level - learning, working and remembering some things while forgetting others.
All this means that your writing shouldn’t come entirely from a mindset of who is reading it today. That’s the primary audience and shouldn’t be neglected, of course, but someone looking back on the history of a project two years later can’t and won’t have all the non-written context at their fingertips that everyone did at the beginning of the process. This means that anything you write should be complete in the sense that they can gain that context by reading it, no matter when that happens. This has the added bonus of spurring team members to include extra context they might not have otherwise included, which in turn helps make sure your current team is on the same page.
How you save or store these documents is equally important; a document is no good to you if a less than explicit company data policy has allowed it to be deleted, and equally useless if nobody can find it. Index pages for documents organized to individual projects or departments are useful here, allowing people to find the project and every document related to it at once. Again, this has advantages in the present day; things that are easier and quicker to find in the future gain just as much (perhaps more) from being easily found now. Pro-tip: if it’s common for people in the company to Slack or email each other trying to find documents now, your system is either not set up to allow for people finding it in the future or else likely isn’t being utilized correctly.
Keep it to the correct channels
Earlier we mentioned that Clipboard is fully remote; this has not only helped us develop our writing chops but in fact has required that we do so. In the process, we’ve developed our skills communicating through a lot of channels, including Zoom/Google Meet, Slack Confluence and Jira. Each is useful, but each also has a type of communication it’s best suited for - when they get out of that range they are each potentially problematic.
Slack is a good example of this. It’s easy to use for quick communication, and the ability to invite everyone involved in a particular project at a given time to a private channel makes it a convenient way to communicate. But convenient doesn’t necessarily mean good in this case - anyone who doesn’t have access to the channel is immediately out of the loop, and anything discussed in an instant message that doesn’t get immediately moved to a more persistent platform is subject to getting lost or wiped. Being proactive and enforcing the correct use of the correct tools is vital; you can write all the right things, but if nobody sees them it’s wasted effort.
We’ve talked before about how remote is the future and how to handle it best, but Clipboard Health thinks no single aspect of making a remote environment work is more important than a robust commitment to writing well, writing in detail and writing often; we’ve saved enough time on meetings alone to make every bit of effort we’ve put into writing worth it. Like anything else, doing it right takes a lot of work, thinking and planning but like anything worth doing it pays off.