Your time is more valuable than mine, so I’ll get right to the point: I recommend that you read Writing Without Bullshit, by Josh Bernoff.
Because so much of your business communication consists of words on screen or paper, you have to be able to write lean if you want to be a complete lean communicator. That’s because even though lean thinking applies equally to spoken or written communication, writing poses its own challenges that require specialized approaches.
How is writing different?
The principal difference between writing and speaking is that written communication is asynchronous, which is a fancy way of saying that production and delivery of the message don’t happen at the same time. That can help or hurt your communication.
It can help because usually the first time you say something, you don’t say it as well as you could. Writing is like a ballistic missile: you can choose your target and take pains to aim properly. You can take time to think carefully about what you want to say and choose your words, and you can edit and polish as much as you want. On the receiving end, the reader can absorb your message at their own pace, re-reading if they have trouble understanding or skimming over parts that they already know.
It can hurt because if you’re off target, you don’t have the feedback loop of real-time dialogue which allows you to adjust, clarify and take in the listener’s viewpoint to improve your original message. Plus, if you write the way you were taught in school, you’re almost guaranteed to produce crappy writing. That’s because the sole purpose of writing in school is to make yourself look smart, not to help the reader improve their outcomes.
That presents a great opportunity for a good writer. Since most business writing is bland, boring or baffling, you can easily stand out and make a reputation for yourself by just being a little better than everyone else. Unfortunately most people throw away the advantages of writing by not taking the time to carefully craft and edit their message, so the bulk of business writing is full of waste, or to use the more colorful term: bullshit.
Fortunately, Writing Without Bullshit supplies the antidote. If I were to write a book on Lean Communication as applied to writing (and if I were a better writer), this is the book I would have tried to write.
So much of what Bernoff writes aligns closely with LC principles. That’s no coincidence, because a lot of my LC ideas have come from studying and trying to apply ideas from books on writing. Lean keys such as outside-in thinking, Bottom Line Up Front, and Transparent Structure all apply as well to writing as they do to speaking. But this book brings a writer’s perspective to the principles.
Let’s just focus on one his Iron Imperative, which you see reflected in the picture above this post:
Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.
That’s Outside-In Thinking, applied to writing. It’s powerful because it focuses your mind on adding value to the reader without wasting their time. If you stick a post-it note with it on the top of your computer screen, it will remind you to take the time and make the effort so that your reader won’t have to, and it will hugely improve your writing.
Actually, that’s not exactly true. You will throw away the advantage you have as a writer if you don’t take the time and make the effort to carefully craft your message and choose your words. That’s why the second half of the book is so valuable. It’s about the project management aspect of writing, and it will teach you how to be productively paranoid, find your flow, and edit your own and others’ work effectively.
The nice thing about becoming a better writer is that it will make you a better speaker as well. So if you truly want to add value with less waste no matter what medium you use, you must learn to get rid of the bullshit. You—and the rest of the world—will be better off.
 I would be guilty of peddling bullshit myself if I didn’t disclose some disagreements I have with Bernoff. While I agree with his Iron Imperative, I don’t believe it says enough about understanding the reader’s perspective and their needs. If the purpose of business writing is to change the reader, as he says, then one should think more deeply about the WIFM when writing.
Gauging from what’s happening in politics this season, fact-based persuasion has gone woefully out of style. And it’s not just politics—one of the most common themes in the sales and persuasion blogosphere is that emotion rules persuasion. You don’t need to have a detailed grasp of the facts to make your case, because anyone can look up the details. Impressions and emotions sway decisions, numbers and details simply bore people.
But when you tear yourself away from a computer screen and pay attention to what’s happening in the real world, it’s clear that having a deep command of the facts—and being able to speak them at the rate of normal conversation without having to use your slides as a crutch—still has tremendous persuasive power. In fact, when everyone else is relying on vague, unsupported emotional appeals, those who state their case calmly, but with airtight confidence based on a tenacious grasp of the evidence, can stand out because hardly anyone does it anymore.
I’ve seen this phenomenon repeatedly over the past several months, as I’ve been involved with a group that has been fighting a battle against overdevelopment in my city. Our little band of dissidents lacks the money or influence that the developers and politicians have, and we’ve learned the hard way that emotional appeals at City Commission meetings are simply ignored. But we’ve also figured out that we can get attention by carefully researching the issues and backing up everything we say.
We’ve also learned that nothing is drier than too many numbers in a presentation, right? Actually, I’ve seen that if done correctly, rattling off a series of numbers from memory can have an enormous impact on the minds of your listeners. Paul, a member of our group, is a master at this. When we met with the editorial board of our local paper to make our case, Paul began explaining the public safety impact that the project would have, citing numbers such as response times, traffic delays, number of incidents, etc. Halfway through his spiel the paper’s editor interrupted and said: “You have an amazing grasp of the numbers!” That’s when I knew we had made our point.
In another public meeting, Paul’s detailed analysis of the weaknesses in the developer’s traffic study was so devastating that when the traffic expert tried to rebut his testimony, every time she mentioned a number, she looked at him as if she needed approval.
These examples point out another benefit of fact-based persuasion. When people are already emotionally invested in their own opinion on a matter, it’s extremely difficult to change their minds with an emotional appeal; they will simply dig an and defend their point of view even harder. Even if they agree with you, conceding your point may make them lose face. But if confronted with irrefutable facts, this “new information” gives them an honorable way out of their position, and they can show themselves to be reasonable people by changing their minds. This is especially important if you’re challenging those who are more powerful; a torrent of facts can be your best protection and surest way to succeed.
There is one key to keep in mind if you want to use details to impress and not to simply bore people. State the bottom line up front and then support it with numbers. As John Medina says in his book, Brain Rules: “Meaning before detail.” People will lose interest if they don’t know what your point is right away. When they grasp the meaning, they can much more easily pay attention to and absorb the necessary detail.
Last week, my church brought in a guest pastor from out of state who delivered a technically perfect sermon. Her message was strong and well-organized, she had great stories, her delivery was enthusiastic with excellent vocal variety and gestures that perfectly choreographed with her key points.
And I didn’t care for it at all. There was something missing. The message made sense intellectually, but I wasn’t touched at all on a personal level. She did not connect with me; she did not tap into a feeling that I could relate to.
Similarly, I watched the presidential debates last night, and one candidate in particular piqued my professional admiration for his technique—but quite frankly he also gives me the creeps. That’s because I can’t tell whether he actually believes or feels what’s coming out of his mouth.
As I analyzed why I reacted this way to both of these examples, my first thought is that too much perfection is a bad thing. But as I reflected further, I don’t think it’s that. After all, Churchill, King and Reagan were also technically perfect, and they deeply touched millions.
I believe the pastor and the candidate missed the mark for two different reasons. The first can be cured with hard work, the second is probably terminal.
I think the pastor truly believed in her message, and genuinely cared about whether the audience benefited from it. Her intentions were pure, but she fell short in her technique. It wasn’t too perfect, it was just one step shy of perfection. Perfection is not only doing everything just right, but making it seem so effortless that it doesn’t call attention to itself. She gave off the impression that she was so proud of her skill that she wanted everyone else to notice it. The problem with that is that she succeeded: I was so busy watching the performance that I missed the message.
That can be cured by working on the technique even more, and getting it to the point where it’s truly unconscious and effortless competence. Here’s a practical example: most people don’t realize it, but natural gestures actually precede the words they support by a few milliseconds. When people are thinking about the gesture they want to use, it comes out at the same time as the words. The difference is so minuscule that we don’t consciously notice it, but something in our minds registers that it’s not right. So, how do trained actors get away with it? They “become” the person they’re portraying, and it becomes real. When you’re so good that it’s a part of who you are, the real you can come through, and that’s where connection begins.
The second reason is less about technique and more about character, which is why it might be terminal. Besides working on their craft over decades, the great speakers had something else that all the practice in the world won’t give you: they started from a place of genuine conviction and feeling and then honed their craft to improve their delivery. They did not work on delivery for its own sake. One got the sense that they cared how their message affected the listener, not how their delivery made them look. Reagan actually alluded to this when he said, “In all of that time I won a nickname, ‘The Great Communicator.’ But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things…”
I am not against working on your style and delivery—after all, I make a living by helping people improve on those things. But I am against working only on style and delivery; I am against thinking that outer perfection can make up for inner conviction. If you don’t truly believe in your message, if you don’t truly believe that the product you are selling will help your listener, there is no amount of technical perfection that will help you in the long run.
In its purest form, lean communication is about making every word count, so in that sense repetition is just a form of waste. In fact, unnecessary repetition can even subtract value. For example, the old third T: “Tell them what you told them” can sound condescending to an intelligent audience. Or if they already got your point, they’re going to get restless and tune out if you belabor it by adding yet another example.
So in its purest form, the lean communication hero would be like the guy who, when his wife complained that he never said “I love you”, replied: “I told you I loved you when I married you. If anything changes, I’ll let you know.”
If you’ve already said something once, isn’t it a form of waste to repeat it? It may seem that way, but that’s like thinking that only the last blow of the sledgehammer cracks the concrete. If you remember that the most important requirement of lean communication is to add value, you can see why repetition can sometimes be essential. Value doesn’t happen just because it’s uttered; it has to be heard, understood, agreed and remembered. Any one of those things may not happen the first time you say something: they may have not paid complete attention, they may not have fully bought into your logic, they may be thinking of the consequences of what you said, and so on. So, if you said it and it did not have its full effect, what you said only once is waste unless you repeat it as often as it takes.
When done right, repetition is the ally of persuasion because of the mere exposure effect, which says that we tend to develop a preference for things just because they’re more familiar. Familiarity seems less risky, which is important because new ideas represent change, which can be scary at first but seem less scary as we grow accustomed to it.
Churchill said it best:
“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.”
Going beyond day-to-day business communication, repetition is one of the most fundamental instruments of inspirational and memorable oratory. In 1940, Churchill could have said, “We shall fight everywhere we need to.” Instead, he said:
We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.
Martin Luther King could have said: “I have a dream, and in it I see the following (bullet points)”
Instead he said “I have a dream…” eight times. Was that wasteful? He said “Let freedom ring” eight times. Was that wasteful? He said “Free at last!” three times. Was that wasteful?
So repetition has its place even in lean communication, and it’s probably more important than ever because your listeners are so easily distracted. But if you decide to use it, you need to be smart about it so you don’t irritate your audience. Keep the following two rules in mind: First, pay close attention to the reactions of your audience and offer to go over parts that seem to be missing the mark. Second, when you do repeat your point, try to say it in a slightly different way.
Did you get all that? If not, go back and read it again.