Today it's almost obvious to state that good written communication creates a business advantage.
I've probably read more articles on written communication in the workplace in the last two months than over the last 10 years.
Most of these essays gave tips on how to become better writers.
I couldn't help but notice that many (if not all) of them questioned the same thing: the prose.
Everyone advises to keep sentences short and to the point, use active voice and not passive voice, use fewer commas and more periods, avoid acronyms, etc.
Let's be clear: none of these are mistaken or wrong by any means. But this made me realize how huge the misconceptions are on what good business writing actually means.
In fact, what separates most people from good writing has very little to do with style, grammar, local sentences structure, word selection, or even content per se.
Most people can't write well because they don't know how to control the logical sequence in which they present their ideas.
And that is the single most important act necessary to clear writing.
In this essay we're going to dig into how you can effectively share written ideas in a way that values time and effort for others.
Writing an idea is always the result of two macro-steps. First, decide the point that we want want to make, and then put into words.
To understand how we can effectively share written ideas, we need to understand first how we formulate them in the first place.
Deciding the point you want to make is the result of a 5-step process.
- Unbundling a concept
- Noticing something
- Articulating/Developing an idea
Every idea begins with an unbundling process. Unbundling is an act of exploration that leads to the decoupling of all the individual items of a certain subject.
Unbundling something doesn't imply a deep understanding of it. It's more a perception of full awareness.
In fact, you might not even know how every individual piece works, but you know they all exist in separate forms. No hidden parts.
Unbundling enhances our ability to observe, and this can lead us to notice something. This can be a pattern, an insight, a novelty, or even a minor detail.
If unbundling is the flint, noticing is the spark that really makes the fire.
Only when we notice something can we start developing an idea. That's where the creative part begins. That's where you try to develop your initial cue into a fully formed idea.
For instance, if you noticed that something was unnecessary or too complicated, you might run a simplification process. If you noticed something was missing, you go through an addition or reinforcement process.
Once you finish including your idea, you go through re-bundling. This is a reconstruction process. This is where you try to recompose a world that now contemplates your newly inserted idea.
Bundling is a fundamental part because it's where you can verify if the new world still holds up. If not, that's a signal you need to put more work in the articulation phase or what you noticed didn't lead to anything meaningful at all.
If at the end of the re-bundling process your world does hold up, you go through a reframing process.
On paper, this seems to be a very logical and clear process, but in reality it's much more complicated as you constantly repeat these steps of unbundling, editing your idea, and re-bundling until you find a viable path.
Now that you have an idea, you need to decide how to put it into words that you can share with others.
From a broader point, the single goal of writing is to get some information into someone's head.
Think about it. It's almost a simulation act.
You need to reproduce your reader's thinking process using your brain. And know how to build up your information in a way that feels logical and makes sense to them.
This process has very little to do with what you went through when you came up with the idea in the first place. In fact, forcing the reader through the exact same original path you took will have the opposite effect and create more confusion.
Here's how it often goes:
- You have an idea x
- You write down a set of words m that lead you to x
- Because of the pre-existing narrative that led you to the idea, you associate m -> x
- When you proofread it, you mentally get it. Not because m -> x but because of all the pre-existing associations.
This is how most people write. And it's exactly why most people's writing sucks.
Not because they use too many passive forms or weak verbs (that doesn't help either), but because they aren't able to write from the reader's perspective. Most writings lack the basic logical order and structure.
Good business writing is a combination of two things:
- Information Context
- Information Resolution
Context is the "you're here" red arrow that you can see on almost any map. Good information context helps the reader set the frame to understand what they're about to read next.
Shared context helps the participants make judgments calls using the same pair of lenses.
A lack of a shared understanding on the basic principles can easily result in a partial understanding or conflict on what follows.
What's the best way to build information context?
Barbara Minto, a McKinsey consultant in the 70s, solved this problem with what she called the SCQA framework.
She named this framework the Situation — Complication — Question — Answer framework. You can unpack more on this topic in her book “The Pyramid Principle”.
According to Minto, context is the result of these four sub-ingredients:
- A Complication,
- A Question,
- ... and an Answer.
The Situation is a non-controversial statement on a subject that you know the reader will agree because it's something he already knows. By summarizing what he already knows, the situation establishes the relevance of the questions that your document is going to answer.
The Complication describes an alteration of a stable situation. Keep in mind, this alteration is purely fact-based. The Situation-Complication combination should lead the reader to an immediate question.
The Question represents an intuitive response to the complication. The best Situation-Complication scenario makes the question sound totally superfluous to state. The best questions aren't posed, they emerge.
The Answer is the summary of your main idea. Beware, it's the solution, not the explanation of it. Good answers are typically represented by 3/4 bullet points. No more.
If you squint at it, you realize that the SCQA framework turned out initial schema upside down.
Ideas come up in a bottom-up fashion, but they need to be told top-down.
This is not how we think. But it's how we should write.
Another interesting benefit of building information context using the SCQA framework is that once you've gotten the initial part out of the way, you can focus all your energy on making and supporting the case for why it's true.
Ensuring you and your reader are in the same place before you lead him through your thinking is a necessary but non-sufficient condition.
Once he's aware of the gist of your main idea (Answer), you need to argue and support it. That's when you need to focus on information resolution.
Think of information resolution as the density level of details that you're able to provide to the reader. The bolder the answer, the higher resolution levels it requires.
If you gloss over key important passages, people will not follow your thinking and might have a partial understanding of the message.
How do you increase information resolution?
You support your initial Answer using the form of Why/How dialogues. Making an initial statement that the reader doesn't know will automatically raise a logical question in his mind. How is that possible? Why do you say that? In your following answers, you're likely to tell him other details he doesn't know and this will raise further questions that you're going to answer. And so on.
The author will continue to write, raising and answering questions, until he reaches a point at which he judges the reader will have no more logical questions.
The vertical relationship of a why/how dialogue helps capture the reader's attention. It permits you, as an author, to establish an inner dialog that will pull him with great interest through your reasoning. The reader will be forced to respond logically to your ideas.
As you can see we've not made a full circle. We're now in the (previously discussed) unbundling part.
Armed with our SCQA framework and the Why/How vertical development, let's look at the skeleton of some real examples.
It's one of the most common examples. common examples. A salesperson, after speaking with a customer, irrupts in the #product or #engineering Slack channels requesting the implementation of a given feature.
If you've been in this position, here's how you can Minto-ize an internal feature request for your product:
Situation: We have never allowed customers to customize XYZ in order to keep complexity low.
Complication: However, competitor X has now shipped such a customization feature, and we’ve been losing deals because of that.
Questions: We now need to decide whether we want to allow some kind of customization as well.
Directives are the most common internal memo. Executives write them to request something of someone.
Situation: As you know we're repositioning product x for mid-sized enterprise. We need to teach you how to see x for organizations between 100 and 200 employees.
Complication: We've never sold to this type of customer before. Hence, we need to construct a new customer profile from scratch
Questions: (How can we do the profile?)
Answer: We're going to host:
- A department-wide workshop in the next quarter
- Periodic one-on-on with your own manager to touch base
- Open office hours to review use cases and learn what's working and why
Here's what looks like the skeleton of a well-written proposal for an internal idea.
Situation: Our churn rates have increased in the last two months. We're measuring +21% churn for Yearly Plan compared to the same (adjusted) level last year.
Complication: We've made lots of product changes in this particular time window. This makes it hard to make sense of the data from a quantitive stand point.
Questions: (What can we do?)
- Gather more qualitative data with five one-on-one calls with leaving customers
- Implementing an automated survey email after they canceled their subscription
- Request explicit reasons for why they're canceling from our service before we let them cancel
Situation: I was going through our sign-up flow and I realized that we ask for people’s email address and birthday.
Complication: But we don't give them context about why we’re asking for this information, and the user can feel he has been throw off.
Questions: What can we do about it?
Answer: Add a line of text above the entry fields to let people know why we collect this information
Frequently, you have to inform everyone of new processes or new guidelines.
Situation: I've noticed that some of you use "git push -f" to resolve a merge conflict.
Complication: However, git push -f can create a lot of problems if you accidentally do it to master and change commits that are already in remote.
Questions: How can we can solve it?
Answer: We should try to avoid using git push -f as much as possible. Here's what we can do instead:
- Update master
- Switch back and create a merge commit on your feature branch
- Push to remote
The end result is the same as if you had done a git pull --rebase origin/master and git push -f, but without the downsides of a force push (you retroactively change history).
Meetings can be a blessing and a curse. Regardless of your company's approach to meetings, people will feel more productive if you share with them the reason why this meeting needs to take place.
Here's an example using the SCQA framework:
Situation: The Marketing and Design Teams are working on the new Mission Control project. The Marketing Team has finalized a new version of the copy for the marketing pages.
Complication: However, not every member of the Design Team seems to be aligned.
Questions: How do we get on the same page?
Answer: The two teams (Marketing and Design) can have a review meeting mid-to-late next week to review together the changes on the copy and embed the new version in the new design.
Now that we have a much clearer way of how to use this framework for writing, let's look at some basic logistics:
As I recently wrote, there are three speeds for communication and collaboration:
This basic framework for writing applies to all three of them.
Whenever possible, you should try to apply Minto's SCQA. That's the most effective way to communicate and share ideas with others.
That being said, there are often better mediums that fit this type of writing.
- Pulse and Async
Pulse is a platform designed for long-form asynchronous conversations. Nearly everything you write in Pulse should follow the above schemas.
For instance, the Pulse Stream Feature-Request is a common Stream to share ideas about new feature requests.
It should enforce, through the platform, a standard way to request new features that are molded on the SCQA pyramidal framework.
One of the nice upsides of using a platform like Pulse (to share long-form async communication) is that everything you write is persistent. Your current team can reference your internal update or memo even years after you posted. People who will join your company or team can quickly ramp up and immerse themselves into the company tone and communication style from day one.
If you're relying on email for internal or external asynchronous communication, you should practice the framework above on every single issue you write.
- Slack and Chat
By virtue of being a chat, Slack is more for a casual and quick conversation. This doesn't make it the ideal medium for the type of communication where we can use the above Minto framework. That being said, you can still practice a lite version of it.
Most people conflate writing and typing.
Typing is a rigid exercise. Essentially, you translate an abstract idea into real words as they occur to your mind.
But like most people, when you sit down you only have a hazy notion of your idea. No one really knows precisely what he thinks until he's forced to symbolize it. That's why we write.
Writing is a fluid exercise. It's a way to symbolize your thinking into words, shapes or anything that helps you better refine your ideas before you put them into written words.
Think first, write second, type third.
Editing your prose should be the last step before publishing.
Solve problems related to logical sequence, ordering, and high-level structure before you start editing your prose sentence by sentence.
The minute you express your unripe idea in words it tends to take the most extraordinary beauty, making you reluctant to revise even if necessary. Never begin by typing, and even less by editing. You'll love it once you see it typed, no matter how disjointed it really is.
Practice the Minto framework whenever possible. As you just saw, it doesn't only apply to formal internal memos. You can apply to any form of written communication. From your last meeting notes doc, your latest status update email, or even your Slack messages.
A great book to help you practice your SCQA is the Chairman Memorandum. Read all of Alan Greenberg's memos and try to rewrite them (even only mentally) using the above framework.
SCQA is in full force at Stripe. I've hosted 150+ of us for a clear writing workshop. Quotes:— Jeff Weinstein (@jeff_weinstein) June 28, 2019
- "Once you've seen SCQA, you can't unsee it #restructuresallemails"
- "I'm seeing (and not seeing) it everywhere now"
- "I am convinced this is the cure for all issues in human kind" pic.twitter.com/gDwNU01UCy
It's great to start seeing this communication principle being adapted in modern organizations. As Jeff Weinstein, pointed out "once you see how powerful this framework is to express clarity, you can't unsee it."