Friday, August 21, 2015

Power Writing for Technical Professionals

Many (if not most) technical professionals are ineffective writers. That fact is widely acknowledged. The question is does anyone really care? I don't see A/E firms investing much in helping their staff become more proficient writers.

Perhaps they haven't considered the costs of poor writing: Lost proposals, weak marketing, unapproved solutions, project mistakes, client claims, interoffice conflict, lost productivity—to name a few. I have seen all of these over the years as a result of poorly written proposals, reports, contracts, policies, correspondence, emails, or procedures.

On the flip side, strong writing can yield substantial business benefits. I'm hardly a distinguished writer, but I've compiled a 75% proposal win rate over the last 20 years, producing more than $300 million in fees. I helped my previous employer generate millions of dollars in new business that started with prospective clients contacting us because of something we'd written. I wrote letters to regulatory agencies making the case for regulatory exceptions that allowed innovative solutions saving our clients over $18 million.

The business case for strong writing is too compelling to be ignored, although it commonly is in our profession. But you don't have to settle for the status quo. By applying a few principles of what I call Power Writing, you and your colleagues can get the results you've been missing out on. What is Power Writing? It's writing that delivers the desired result. To accomplish that, you need to attend to three basic principles:

1. Purpose Driven: Define the Desired Result. As Yogi Berra famously quipped, "If you don't know where you're going, you'll end up somewhere else." Technical professionals often jump right into writing without much planning, or a clear understanding of what it is they're trying to accomplish. Everything you write has a purpose, but the chances are you don't really think about it. You just start writing because you have something to say. Yet simply communicating your message often falls short of getting the result you want.

Power Writing demands a plan, what it is you want to achieve and how that will be facilitated through your writing. At the most basic level, you are typically seeking to do one of three things—inform, instruct, or influence. Each of these broad objectives calls for a different approach to writing. When you're not clear on your purpose, you're more likely to write a proposal that reads like a technical report. Or a report that has no clear objective. Or a work process description that seems to ignore the needs of the people following it.

Once you have your purpose identified, the next step is to determine your Key Messages. These are the 3-5 things that you absolutely must communicate effectively to achieve your purpose. For each Key Message, you then want to define the supporting points that are needed to clarify and validate your point. This process results in a detailed content outline that will guide your writing.

2. Reader Focused: Facilitate Message Reception. Achieving your purpose is ultimately dependent upon your readers. It takes two to have successful communication. I liken it to a forward pass in football. The quarterback must deliver the ball on target, but the receiver has to catch it. If you're like most, your focus as a writer is on making the pass. But you need to give equal attention to making sure it is received.

A good example of this is email. If you send an email to a client or colleague, you may feel you did your job. But if the recipient doesn't read it or misunderstands it, don't you share some responsibility for that outcome? Power Writing isn't just sending out the equivalent of perfect spirals, but delivering it in a way that makes it more catchable.

That happens in several ways. Foremost, you need to try to see the issue from your readers' perspective. Then they'll be more interested in what you have to say. A common disconnect in our industry is approaching a project from a purely technical perspective when the client is more concerned with the business or stakeholder implications. You won't likely accomplish your purpose in writing unless it aligns in some way with what your readers want or value.

Reader-focused writing also means making it user friendly. One of the best ways to do this is to convey your message as efficiently as possible. Did you know it takes the average adult about one hour to read 35 pages of text? You should write with the expectation that it won't be read word for word (yes, even your emails). Make your main points skimmable. Make effective use of graphics. Use words everyone understands. Write in a conversational tone that easily connects.

3. Engages the Heart: Move Your Readers to Act. Of course, not everything you write is intended to spur your readers to action. But the most important writing you do is when you want to influence a particular response. It's unfortunate, then, that technical professionals struggle so much with persuasive writing. A big part of the problem is that they have been taught to write in a manner that is fundamentally nonpersuasive.

Technical writing is by nature intellectual, objective, impersonal, and features-laden. This style of writing—which pervades our profession—avoids personal language, keeps opinions to ourselves, provides more detail than the audience needs, and buries the main selling points in information overload. It may suffice when writing a study report, technical paper, or O&M manual. But it is entirely the wrong approach when you want to persuade clients, regulators, the public, or employees.

To move your readers to act, you need to engage the heart. That's because persuasion is driven by emotion and supported by logic—not the other way around. It is the human spirit that influences and inspires, and there is precious little of it evident in most of the writing we see in our industry. If you want to be more persuasive, let me suggest you start by dispatching the "technicalese" in favor of acknowledging in your writing the humanity in both you and your audience.

I think the power of writing has been grossly undervalued in the A/E industry. So I want to devote the next few posts to explaining in more detail how to become a Power Writer.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Are You Close Enough to the End Result?

My 17-year-old daughter has decided to become an engineer, but she had no idea which engineering discipline to choose. Since I have connections in the profession, I began setting up appointments for her to meet with different kinds of engineers to see which discipline appealed to her most.

We started with the two that I'm most familiar with—civil and environmental. These engineers did a great job selling their specialty, but none really connected with my daughter. Then one of my clients arranged for her to tour the mechanical engineering department at Virginia Tech. The light came on. She came back with an unexpected amount of enthusiasm (after all, like many engineers, she had been mainly drawn to the profession because she was good at math).

What was it that caught her attention? Well, the robotics laboratory was fascinating, of course. But the attraction went deeper. When she visited the previous engineering offices, they inevitably pulled out plan sets to show her their work. They designed things that others built. In the mechanical engineering lab, students designed, built, tested, and refined their work products. It was much more hands-on.

Now I'm not going to suggest that one field of engineering is better than another. That is a personal preference, and all engineering disciplines do valuable work. But I'm convinced there is added benefit in being closely connected with the desired end result. Ultimately, that's what engineers are hired to deliver. Does that mean that engineers must build what they design in order to be more valuable? No, but I do think many engineers could take a more active role in envisioning and shaping the final outcome.

I have several engineer friends who work in manufacturing. In talking to them about their work, the customer is typically a prominent part of the conversation. This is particularly true among those who make products for other businesses. They have a keen understanding of how their products help their customers succeed. 

Among the engineers I work with in the AEC industry, not so much. Many of them seem disconnected from the ultimate project outcomes. Why is the client doing this? What is the business result that is needed? When I pose these questions, I'm often disappointed how little many engineers in our business understand the answers.

This problem isn't limited to the engineers, by the way. Architects can also be prone to overlooking the client's desired end results. A common client complaint is that many architects seem to favor form over function, emphasizing aesthetic design values over practical priorities (such as staying within the client's budget!). One of my favorite architects once told me that his first responsibility was to create spaces that maximize functionality. Aesthetics take precedent, he said, only when the client has designated that as a critical function of the building.

So how can we do a better job connecting our work with the outcomes that ultimately drive our projects? If you follow this blog, you no doubt recognize that I've touched on this general theme before. I keep revisiting it because I keep seeing evidence that it is needed. So here are a few recommendations on how to make your work more results oriented:

Uncover the strategic drivers behind your projects. A/E projects typically help clients achieve strategic business or mission goals. Do you know what those are? Can you describe specifically how your design or solution will enable the client to fulfill those goals?

Don't overlook the human dimension of your solutions. People are always the primary benefactors of your projects. Yet many technical professionals tend to be more focused on the technical aspects of the work than how people are affected. When working on a technical problem, be sure to consider the human consequences. Your solution should explicitly address both the problem and how it impacts people.

Learn to describe your work in terms of its ultimate outcomes. I often point to our project descriptions as evidence that improvement is needed in this area. What do they describe? Typically the tasks performed. Sometimes the technical problem. Rarely do I read, in specific terms, of how the project helped the client be successful. The same is often true in our conversations with existing or prospective clients. 

Promote greater cross-disciplinary collaboration. One of the most common project delivery problems I encounter is inadequate coordination between disciplines. This is a primary cause of design-related construction claims. But true collaboration across disciplines goes deeper than merely avoiding mistakes. It leverages the different perspectives and strengths of each discipline to deliver a more encompassing, higher value solution—one that looks beyond the details of project execution to achieving the project's ultimate goals.

Follow the project all the way through. Sometimes A/E firms are contracted through construction and even start-up. That enables you to have a more direct role in ensuring the project's ultimate success. But what if the contract ends with the completed design? I urge that you keep in contact with the client, offering advice and answering questions, helping the finished project achieve its stated goals. It's not all that uncommon that design-related problems occur during construction or operation that the design firm is not made aware of. It's best to monitor project progress to the end to be in a position to help and perhaps learn from your mistakes.

The most valuable thing we do in our industry is not engineering and architecture, but helping clients realize their dreams and ambitions. We solve problems that hamper their business performance and create facilities that enable their success. When we get closer to the desired end results, the perceived value of our work increases. Agree or disagree? Do you have other suggestions for how our profession can be more directly involved in delivering business results?