Many books have been written about two skills I believe are absolutely essential to individual success-writing and speaking. Yet both are talents that many success-driven individuals find they lack when it's almost too late to recover. In many school systems across the country, writing is something that is never really stressed. But without the ability to write clearly and succinctly, no one can hope to influence others with ideas and thoughts. And speaking succinctly is equally as important for anyone who wants to display knowledge and expertise on a subject.
So, a practical, common-sense discussion of these two skills could be helpful-even to seasoned business veterans.
Let's start with writing. Too often I find proposals, articles and memos drowning in verbiage. Some people feel a memo should be filled with adjectives in order to earn others' attention and respect. In reality, the opposite is true. Memos or proposals written with brevity are more easily understood. Simplicity is the key word. Do you have time to read proposals and memos that go on and on without a point? We are all in too much of a hurry. We want answers quickly. We do not want to wade through page after page of text that tells us very little about the subject at hand.
Lengthy memos with fancy words don't guarantee that a document will be read any more quickly or more thoroughly than one that is short and crisp. Years ago, I wrote a paper for one of the top psychiatrists in the Army, William H. Grier, M.D., who later co-authored the 1968 book Black Rage, an acclaimed study of race in America. At the time, I was serving in the Army on Okinawa during the Korean War. I was working with Dr. Grier on a project and felt that I needed to put together a solid paper outlining its purpose. I shall always remember Dr. Grier calling me into his office after reading my paper to discuss "brevity as the spice of life." I had made an excellent presentation on the project, he told me, but I had thrown everything but the kitchen sink into the paper. I have never forgotten that lesson.
Frankly, it takes hard work and skill to keep a memo . Editors and reporters are trained to write concisely so the reader can grasp the purpose from the very beginning of an article. Remember this: When writing something, you're writing for others. Therefore, you should respect your readers' time. Unnecessary words demonstrate a lack of manners and courtesy. Give your readers the facts in simple, declarative sentences. You will be doing them a favor.
The same principles apply to speaking. How many times have we heard speeches that go on far too long? In many cases, I'm sure, these longwinded speakers don't understand that they are the guests of their audience-not the other way around. They must be courteous and alert to the fact that their audience needs information quickly. Too often, speakers violate this principle, believing that they must overwhelm their audience with facts and figures that usually end up leading to confusion. As in writing, brevity is strength. When speaking, focus on your objective and give the audience a treat by speaking in short, succinct sentences. On top of all this, let your audience know up front what your objective is and then achieve your goal in an orderly, logical way. Don't ramble and don't pontificate. Tell your story in a straightforward manner.
Of course, it's not easy to give a good presentation as a public speaker. It takes practice and a certain amount of courage to speak to any size group. Too many speakers tend to bore an audience rather than stimulate or entertain them. Too often they read from a prepared script and don't give their audience much eye contact. Too often the slides and graphs are so hard to read they confuse rather than enlighten. Even if the subject matter is a little off the mark, a speaker who identifies with the audience-making plenty of eye contact while being brief and informative-can achieve success.
Writing and speaking are both tough disciplines. Both take practice, both take hard work-and both are absolutely essential to any leader who hopes to influence and motivate others. Anyone can achieve success in either endeavor-but not without a lot of effort. Even the most experienced writers and public speakers can benefit from books that provide sound advice on how to improve these two skills. Some of us forget the basics because we attain success in our careers and become lazy or overconfident. But the best speakers and writers never forget the principles of quality communication.
My advice to those who want to improve their writing or speaking is simple: Read, practice and study other writers and speakers, absorbing some of the tricks of the trade they employ to get their messages across. If you do, there is very little to stop you from standing out as an articulate, compelling executive and leader.
Remember, when trying to inspire and motivate others, speaking and writing are two of your most powerful tools.
I stress these points whenever I speak to sales and management groups. If you cannot articulate your vision of what an organization can be, then just being above average in intelligence and adept at deciphering a financial statement isn't necessarily going to get the job done. We continually should sharpen our communication skills. That's the ticket to success. Look around you, in healthcare or corporate America, and you'll find that most executives have risen to the top by making sure they can communicate their vision and mission. They establish a road map and follow it. They stay the course with confidence-and their writing and speaking skills help make it possible.