Executive Writing

Patrick Lewis, Research Manager, W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics, UBC
FoGS workshop May 26, 2003

Be clear, be brief and be gone

Business rewards effective writing. All academics and researchers will see the day when someone will say, “I’d like you to write a ...

  • letter
  • email
  • notice
  • report
  • note

... and I don't want an academic paper!”

“There is a popular misconception that the written word is not a tool of communication but a means of bolstering the image of your company or department. Hence the proliferation of abstract nouns and vague, phrases, such as “a highly developed service network”, and “extensive client support function,” “designed in delivery flexibility” — that sound grand, mean next to nothing, and keep real people at arms length.”

— Rupert Morris, Financial Times

Executive writing gives every reader, executive and non-executive, access to important information. In every case, this is done by stating your reason for writing, and providing a summary of the critical information, including such things as

  • decisions/actions (proposed, considered, taken)
  • who will be affected and how
  • time constraints, and financial implications, including necessary background information.

Remember, you are writing for a reader.

To be effective, you need to:

  • Understand your assignment. The person who assigns your task is the client. With executive writing, (as opposed to creative writing) you are never writing for yourself. Never guess what the client/manager wants. As soon as you find yourself guessing, ASK!
  • Know your topic. Take the time to educate yourself, it makes what you write more meaningful, and, it makes you more valuable.
  • Know your audience. Are they informed? Do they have a position; is this the first they have been contacted, or is there a history that you will have to live with? Regardless of the size of the collective audience, remember every written work is read by one person at a time. If you fail to know your audience, your writing will lack the key ingredient of all successful writing, respect for the reader.

The assignment, topic, and audience make up the filter your work must flow through!

Some Simple Rules for Executive Writing

Write to the reader, and:

  • Plan carefully and use an outline
  • Use everyday English whenever possible
  • Avoid jargon and legalistic words
  • Use active verbs, “we will do it” not “it will be done by us”
  • Be concise — the best sentences have 15 to 20 words
  • State one idea per sentence
  • Always provide full titles in the first instance
  • Don’t assume your reader will understand an acronym
  • Explain unusual technical terms
  • Documents longer than three pages probably need headings
  • Avoid headings that use one or two vague terms
  • Don’t substitute adjectives for examples (e.g. enhanced programs)
  • Avoid terms like vast or huge — everything in the business world is contained!

For greater overall effect:

  • Avoid bureaucratic language
  • Prune and sharpen: remove all unnecessary words
  • Let it Flow: How does it sound when read?
  • Pack a punch, adjust for emphasis and use active voice
  • Avoid words ending in “ion” and “ment”. They are verbs turned into nouns. Not, “Use that format for the preparation of your report”. But, “Use that format to prepare your report.”

Executive writing is different than academic writing!

The pyramid helps the writer…

This is the way that a writer gathers and organizes information to fully understand a subject, or to develop an argument. It is the appropriate model for a writer to adopt when preparing a report (letter, briefing, notebook, etc.)

But, the pyramid fails the reader…

The pyramid doesn’t quickly identify the purpose of the writing. The purpose is typically buried in the background, analysis or conclusion. It is often stated and restated in different terms.

The pyramid doesn’t consider the reader. It commands a commitment of time and energy that few decision makers can give.

The pyramid doesn't support review. Neither reader nor writer can easily check the relevance of the writing.

Journalists, for example use an inverted pyramid.

  • The first sentence forms a brief summary of the entire article
  • The first paragraph adds flesh to the first sentence
  • Subsequent paragraphs give more information through increasingly unimportant details.

Readers stop reading when they have the information they need.

The Pyramids describe different paths of discovery.

Each pyramid has an appropriate place in business or executive writing.

The writer’s outline often begins with the least important and proceeds to end with most important statements. Reporting, or communicating, however, which reflects reader/audience listening behaviour begins with the most important statement and proceeds to the least important.

The inverted pyramid supports review by placing a clear issue statement at the beginning of the note. Both the writer and the reader can easily refer to ensure relevance.

The Inverted Pyramid Model is critical to most successful business writing.

The writer proceeds as follows:

  • Confirm the assignment
  • Identify the audience
  • Draft the paper using an appropriate outline

Identify and redraft:

  • The most important statement
  • The most important points

Redraft as an inverted pyramid

Review for flow, grammar, punctuation, etc.

Check repeatedly for relevance

Redraft, if necessary

Send it to your audience

Team Writing Assignments

Teams need to explicitly agree on their understanding of the assignment, the audience, and the topic. They also need to agree from the outset on what are the most important and least important statements/points for the writing. Teams must ensure proper team process, with clear ground rules and fair play in order to not interfere with or delay the quality of the work.

Briefing Notes

…Are the cornerstones of government decision–making.

Briefing notes come in various forms, but only one size. For example, most executive council briefing notes are limited to one page and most ministerial briefing notes to three pages.

In all cases, a briefing note presents the product of analysis, not the analysis.

The experience for the reader must be brief. The reader must know what is important by the end of the first paragraph, and be formulating a decision by the end of the first page.

Using the inverted pyramid, the various parts of a briefing note must be organized from most to least important.

A review of briefing notes carried out for a policy unit in a provincial ministry suggests that the length of a note is typically defined by:

  • the space available
  • the writer’s ability to clearly and succinctly state the issue
  • the writer’s ability to synthesize information
  • the writer’s ability to edit

and not the complexity of the topic or the knowledge level of the audience!

Briefing Note Organization

Executive Summaries

…are the cornerstone of policy documents. Executive summaries are often the only source of information used by decision-makers to reach significant decisions.

An executive summary is not a briefing note. A briefing note is a complete report that is no more than three pages in length. Even though they are often circulated as stand alone documents, executive summaries always form part of a larger report. An executive summary may be 1 to 10 pages in length. It allows a reader to decide how to act based on the contents of an overall report.

An Executive Summary

  • can summarize more than one report
  • is usually less than 10% (in size) of the original document
  • includes an overview of the options and all the recommendations
  • is written to recommend a specific course of action
  • is written for the reader who does not have the time or inclination to read the original document

Writing Letters

…A beginning, middle, and end

Start fast — Say what you want to say — then stop END (no summary)

Draft the letter, and check that you have

  • said what you want to say, and answered necessary questions
  • been respectful, clear, and concise, and
  • not inadvertently upset any stakeholders by the letter.

Talking to the Media

Mary Lynn Young, UBC School of Journalism

Scientists, academics, and researchers often interpret the media and journalists to be simplistic and superficial. Journalists generally value descriptive knowledge over empirical data or social and hard science knowledge. They are also trained to be sceptical observers.

The media have influence and power over stakeholders that matter to researchers, scientists, academics, and executives. The media does not necessarily set or change opinions of readers or listeners, but it does set the agenda and influence what is seen to be important at broad societal levels. The media can and often does have a lasting impact on listeners and viewers.

Context is key when getting “in tune” with the media.

You must know about the journalist you are responding to, the mission and business of the organization they work for, and the political, cultural and economic constraints the media outlet brings to the story.

In order to benefit from media influence and get the kind of coverage you want, you must translate your expert knowledge into relevant context and clear language.

Becoming media savvy, or gaining media “know–how”

  • Get to know the work pattern of the organization
  • Get to know their deadlines
  • Read their strategic plan or business plan
  • Be responsive to their calls
  • Respect their validation processes of you and your material
  • Develop comfort with and nondefensive responses to conflict
  • Develop ability to overcome your self-interest in your frame
  • Respect difference between interviewer and editorial role in the media.

News is not necessarily what happened but what reporters interpret to have happened.

Media Tips

  • Frame your expert knowledge in a story
  • Develop your key messages in easily accessible language
  • Manage the interview according to your objectives
  • Embrace the legitimacy of science and ideas being “put out there”
  • Don’t talk if you're not ready to give information
  • Provide a fact sheet, if requested
  • Respond in timely fashion to media calls