If technical professionals are so smart, why are so many of them mediocre writers? Now I'm not suggesting they aren't smart--they are!--but I am convinced that weak writing is largely a thinking problem.
To understand why, let's consider the basic communication process. In essence, communication involves transmitting a thought from one person's head to another. We tend to focus on message transmittal, but before that can happen you first have to conceive what it is you want to communicate. That's where communication usually begins to falter.
The subject of the past several posts has been proposals. That's my focus again today. Notice the sequence of topics I've presented in this series: Determining what problems you're really trying to solve, positioning your firm in advance of the RFP as the preferred provider, defining the content of your proposal by answering the right questions, distilling that into a central theme, and facilitating your message through good design. All of those activities involve thinking deeply about your proposal strategy before the writing begins.
Do those things and you're off to a great start. But you still have to be able to translate those insights into words on a page. And that's were some of the smartest people I've worked with come off looking kind of dumb.
Is it simply that they lack command of language and grammar? Or does the thinking break down somewhere between expertise and expression? I think it's more of the latter. To combat this problem, let me suggest a simple process to improve your writing:
Don't jump right into the writing. You first need to organize your thinking. Many technical professionals are more naturally doers than planners--they're task oriented. That tendency carries over into their writing. With direction from the RFP, and hopefully conversation with the client, many technical professionals dive into the writing without much forethought. What often results is a stream-of-consciousness information dump that hardly begins to meet the standard of persuasive communication.
Develop your core theme and key messages. I wrote about the importance of having a proposal theme in an earlier post. Key messages are the 3-5 most distinguishing features of your proposal, the few points that you think will best persuade the client to choose your firm. The theme and key messages are the primary "structural members" of your proposal that will enable it to stand out in the eyes of the selection committee.
Prepare a detailed outline. I rarely see this done, but it makes a world of difference when it is. A detailed outline is not simply an expanded table of contents. It combines structure and key content. If you think this is a 15-minute exercise, you're not doing it right. Ideally, this is a team effort, where you're determining how best to merge your theme, key messages, and RFP requirements into a cohesive, compelling document. Erect the overall structure first, then begin building it out with the placement of the key content within that structure. It can be well worth spending a few hours on this critical task.
Now you can begin writing, developing the points highlighted in your outline. To illustrate this, consider the development of this post. After determining my subject matter and main points I wanted to make (theme and key messages), I then turned my attention to the action steps I wanted to recommend--which are the focus of most of my posts. I listed the five steps (which are shown in bold), then added the narrative to support each step.
Write this way. I use this same basic structure in virtually everything I write: proposals, reports, white papers, articles, blog posts, even letters and emails. Why? Because besides being a great way to organize my thinking and writing, it makes for easier reading. You can simply skim what I call the "boldface inline headers," or read whatever supporting narrative you'd like. In either case, you'll at least get the gist of what I'm trying to communicate.
When you can convince technical professionals to write this way, most will see a marked improvement in their ability to get their message across. Not just because of the way it's presented on the page, but because of how they organize their thinking before the writing begins.