Read Like a Writer

Brooklyn Museum - Artist Sketching

You know how art students are forever hanging around museums with their sketch pads, copying paintings? My bet is you haven’t spent a lot of time wondering why they do it, because it just makes intuitive sense. To understand how the artist placed a line, created a sense of space, got those proportions right—it surely helps to walk a mile with his pencil.

So why doesn’t it occur to aspiring writers to copy text?

Actually, I have heard of the concept, odd as it may seem: somewhere I remember reading about a writer who taught himself the trade by copying out literature he liked. And of course it’s out of fashion now, but a few generations ago schoolchildren were regularly put to work memorizing poetry.

Still, copying out well-written prose probably seems like a bizarre exercise to most of us. I’ve never done it myself. Nonetheless, if we’re not going to literally sit down and copy something, we can still find ways to bring the same kind of attention to work we admire—or even work we don’t. You read things differently when you read them like a writer. But it takes some practice.

Maybe you’ve heard of lucid dreaming  (also called “conscious dreaming”). It’s the dream state most of us experience on occasion, when, while still asleep, we become aware we’re dreaming. Often it happens in the last moments before we awaken, or just as we’re falling asleep, and it happens without us trying. But it turns out that for centuries people have tried to consciously induce lucid dreaming, for all kinds of reasons. Some have used it as a way to control the direction of their dreams. Today one of its uses is to help people who suffer from nightmares. (Go ahead, google it. You’ll find dozens of websites, seminars, and products claiming to hold the secret to producing lucid dreams.)

Reading like a writer is like lucid dreaming. Even as you immerse yourself in the text, you maintain a smidgeon of awareness at another level, paying enough attention to consider why the author did what she did in the way she did it.

When you read an article that pulls you through from one paragraph to another, creating curiosity and suspense, you stop to consider what it is about the writing that creates these responses. When you find a word that surprises you, you stop to think about why it is surprising, how it is more typically used, and whether it works in this new context.

Sometimes I bring my writer-consciousness to bear even when nothing in particular has caught my attention. If I’m reading the narration of an event, I stop to think about how the author got from Point A to Point B. What details did he include? What did he leave to my imagination—and did that work? How did he use quotes (if nonficition) or dialogue (if fiction) to advance the narrative?

Reading like a writer is most pleasant when you’re reading something that’s well-written (well, reading is most pleasant when you’re reading something that’s well-written) but it can be just as useful when you’re reading something that’s not. If I have trouble understanding something, I try to fight the immediate assumption that the problem lies with my inadequate brain, lack of sleep or rapidly declining attention span, and instead consider what about the writing is making it so difficult to grasp.

Similarly, if I’m finding something boring, I stop to consider what has made it that way. Sometimes, of course, it’s simply a topic that doesn’t interest me. But I’ve noticed that in the hands of a really good writer almost any topic can become interesting.

Another kind of bad writing, which I think is unique to fiction, is when the writer inserts herself too strenuously into the narration. This often happens in stories that take place in other times or unfamiliar (or imaginary) locales, when the writer tips over some invisible line from providing necessary background into creating a dumping ground for her research notes. Although I don’t write fiction, I still find it fascinating to try to figure out where this invisible line lies—how much does the writer need to say and how much should be left to the intelligence and imagination of the reader? Surely understanding this helps me write better informational prose.

You might wonder if taking this approach spoils the pleasure of a good read, but I’ve found that not to be the case—it only enriches it, letting you more consciously savor the experience. So if you’re not already taking your mental sketchpad out every time you open a newspaper or power up your Nook, give it a try!

If you’re not seeing my blog as often these days, one reason is it’s Great Place to Work application season and I’m hard at work helping companies tell their unique stories. Have questions about the application process or need someone to lend a hand? Download my free tipsheet—or just drop me a line!




The Goldilocks Rule

Subtlety has its place in writing, of course. Specifically, it has its place in literature, where it’s often agreed that the more interpretation possible, the better the work. But subtlety has no place in employee communications. And it certainly has no place in “great place to work” applications. At least, not in the actual part you write down.

If you’re working on the latter right now, do yourself a favor and think in terms of Dick and Jane, not Virginia Woolf.

This is not, of course, because the judges read at a first-grade level. It’s just that they’ve got a job to do and to do it they need information. The last thing you want to do is make them read between the lines. (Or worse, read your mind.)

This may seem obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. I’m constantly seeing Great Place to Work submissions—and myriad other “best employer award” submissions—that omit the most important facts.

Here’s how it works: You set out to answer a bunch of open-ended questions about your work environment and culture. You’ve got a good company that works hard to support its employees, so you know you have a shot. You reach the question about how well management listens. Easy! First, you assure the reader that management does, indeed, listen. Then, you mention an event in which management listened. “Done!” you think, and move on to the next question.

But you’ve left out the most important part. The part that describes how management listens. The part that all but proves management listens.

For example, lots of companies have town halls. In some, leaders show up, make speeches, provide prepared answers to a few questions that have been submitted in advance, and leave. In others, leaders invite discussion, candidly answer questions from the floor, promise to personally provide an organization-wide answer to any emailed questions that should follow, and ask what else employees need. Do you see why it may not be enough just to say you have town halls?

Or say you have a system for employees to submit suggestions. Great. You write that down. But do employees know about it? Do they use it? And if they do, what happens then? Does anyone respond to their suggestions? Have any suggestions actually led to changes in the way things are done? That’s the kind of information that demonstrates you’re a company that listens.

In some ways, writing about management communications is relatively easy. Other kinds of questions actually do require some subtlety—not, as I said, in your writing, but in the way you think about your response. Maybe you have an organization with a real sense of mission—employees are passionate about what they do and feel they are making a difference. You can’t convey this by simply stating it’s the case. You can’t convey it by copying out your mission statement.  (Although you probably should do both these things.) Somehow, you’ve got to show that employees feel that way. This can be tough, but there are several ways you can approach it. Maybe you’ve got quotes from employees about how they feel. Maybe you’ve got quotes from customers about the level of committed service they received. Maybe you’ve got stories about employees going the extra mile—demonstrating by their actions that they care more about their mission than their job description.

Connecting the dots in this way is critical. But it’s equally important not to be distracted by some dot that has no business being there. According to my secondary sources, it was Chekhov who said: “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” In other words, include the details that make your point—any other details are a distraction.

For instance, if you’re describing a policy supportive of employees, you’ll want to say how it works and who it benefits. You might have some statistics on usage, or feedback on how helpful it’s been. But you don’t have to go into details about how employees go about signing up for it, or include fine print from your legal department about the occasional exception to the policy. The extra detail just confuses the message, requiring the reader to figure out what matters and what doesn’t—a variation on having to read between the lines.

Which brings us to what I’ve just dubbed the Goldilocks rule: Good communications have not too little, not too much—but just the right amount of information.  Apply this to your “great place to work” submission, and at very least you’ll ensure you’ve gotten your message across.

Thinking ahead to benefits open enrollment? Ask me how I can help you make it easy.

To my loyal readers: sorry my posts have been a bit less frequent lately. It’s busy season here! Be sure to click on “Follow” to be notified when I next manage to post.

Ten Great-Place-to-Work Conference Takeaways

I’m still relatively new to this blogging business but regular readers will have already figured out my dual (and not unrelated) professional commitments:

  • writing that communicates in the most powerful and effective way possible and
  • organizations that are fabulous places to work.

Today’s brief post centers on the latter. Here are ten  things I took away from last week’s “Great Place to Work” conference (sponsored by the Great Place to Work Institute, of course) in Atlanta. (The company presenting  each tidbit is credited in parenthesis):

  • Work is the fifth most important thing in employees’ lives, after (in order) their roles as parents, as spouses, as friends and as members of their religious communities. (Bright Horizons,  apparently based on research by Peggy Thoits.)
  • Storytelling is a critical element of culture and it works best when it’s plastered across your walls (or better yet, scrawled there by employees.) (Kahler Slater)
  • An organization’s mission matters most when every single employee recognizes his or her role in it—like the woman on the Mayo Clinic’s housekeeping staff, whose job includes disinfecting surfaces in patient rooms. She told a television reporter (apparently without prompting) that her job was  “saving lives.” (Mayo Clinic)
  • Companies can put together some pretty darn impressive videos.  (Corollary: I can never pack too much Kleenex.)
  • A successful business doesn’t get there by cajoling and coercing people to get things done. It gets there by hiring great people, then stepping out of their way. (W.L. Gore) 
  • Organizational values are just words on paper. Defining the behavior that represents the value is what makes it come to life—even for engineers. (Novozymes) 
  • The folks at DreamWorks get free breakfast, lunch and dinner. And they get to work at Dreamworks. (DreamWorks) 
  • It’s much better to share too much information with employees than too little. (Whole Foods) 
  • Employees get a kick out of managers who are willing to make fools of themselves. (CarMax) 
  • Breakfast sandwiches are better when eaten hot. (Robin Hardman Communications)

How are things at your workplace?

I’m lucky: my boss (here at Robin Hardman Communications) is letting me take next week off to visit some colleges with my son. The following week, I’ll be in Phoenix for the Alliance for Work-Life Progress (AWLP)’s “un-conference.”

It being the twenty-first century, I’ll have my various electronic devices with me during these trips. So don’t be afraid to contact me if you have questions or need anything at all. It may be a few weeks until my next blog post, though.  If you want to be notified when the next one arrives, just click on the “follow” button in the column to the right.

You Know You’ve Got A Great Place to Work. So How Do You Get On That List?

On Tuesday, I’m heading to Atlanta, where for two-plus days I’ll barely step out of the Hyatt Regency. Am I excited at the prospect? You bet!

That’s because I’ll be spending those two days at the Great Place to Work Conference, run by the institute that developed and administers both the Fortune “100 Best Companies to Work For” and Entrepreneur’s “Best Medium and Small Company” lists. The annual conference draws hundreds of representatives of organizations on these lists—including an impressive number of CEOs—and hundreds more of list wannabes.

The program is always inspiring and frequently quite entertaining, as leaders get up one after another to show off their ultra-cool workplaces. Over the years, I’ve heard about companies where you can opt to slide between floors instead of taking the stairs, companies where top leadership runs meetings in drag, companies whose ethics-training videos are actually laugh-out-loud funny.

But the folks from the Great Place to Work Institute (GPTW), as well as many from the “Best Companies,” themselves, would be the first to tell you that you don’t have to have nap pods and ping pong tables to be considered for these lists. You just have to have employees who feel they are trusted and empowered, treated fairly and respectfully, and encouraged to enjoy their work.  And you have to make sure the folks at GPTW know that.

There’s no shortcut to getting on the 100 Best list.

It’s an in-depth application process. You can’t fake it: the heart of the application—two thirds of your score—is a confidential survey of your employees. No one gets on this list unless the vast majority of their employees agree that theirs is truly a great place to work.

But the final third of your score is based on what you say about your organization. It may not count for as much, but it does count, and you ignore it at your peril. This third of the application is called the Cultural Audit, and it has two parts. Part 1 is a long list of short-answer and yes/no questions about demographics and benefits. This part isn’t so bad; it just takes time and care to get it right.

Part 2 is the one you may have heard about. In its current iteration, it comprises sixteen open-ended questions, such as “What are the distinctive ways in which managers share information with employees and foster a culture of transparency?” “How does your company promote a sense of fairness?” “How do you encourage fun and camaraderie…?” etc. And when I say open-ended, I mean open-ended. No word counts for the GPTW: you are free to write as much—or as little—on every topic as you like.

This fact—no boundaries—instills an existential terror into some who open the application. How much should I write? What should I include? In how much detail? The simple (and obnoxious) answers are: write until you have answered the questions. Include everything that’s relevant, in as much detail as is necessary to get your story across. But since I realize that isn’t necessarily terribly helpful, herewith are three tips for attacking the GPTW Cultural Audit, Part 2:

Get Beyond “What” to “How” Cultural Audit Part 2 is your chance to brag about the things that make your organization unique. You can’t do that with platitudes and broad generalizations. For example, I don’t think there’s a company in the U.S. today that doesn’t “value teamwork.” So the question is not whether or not you value teamwork, but how you act on that: how does your structure promote teamwork? what kind of rewards do you have for it? what specific recruiting or interviewing techniques do you use to ensure you’re hiring people who will work well in teams?

Likewise, anyone can say that senior leadership is available to answer questions (and everybody does), but how does your company show that? A senior leader at one organization hands out extra vacation time to employees who ask questions spontaneously at Town Halls. Now that’s a good story to tell.

Remember What Matters, Even if It Isn’t Specifically Asked. For example, the folks at GPTW care a lot about employees having a chance to contribute their thoughts and ideas. They ask about it specifically, with three whole questions out of the sixteen falling under the category of “Listening.” So don’t limit your mention of employee input to these three questions. If you’re writing about your training program, and some of the courses were developed in response to employee requests, be sure to say that! If you’re writing about rewards programs, and some awards are based on recognition by peers, make that clear!

But DON’T Say It Ad Nauseum. I’ve helped a lot of companies with their Best Company submissions. And many times they don’t say nearly enough—they err on the side of generalities, leave out all examples and stories, focus on the what and not the how. But sometimes I see a company that is so proud of one or two particular aspects of its culture that it can’t stop talking about it. Over and over again. The same exact examples, the same exact data. This can happen easily if you’re writing by committee, with different subject matter experts assigned to different questions—and no one editor overseeing the whole thing. It can also happen if you get confused by the questions—you’re not quite sure what question your story fits best, so you put it down in answer to all the questions.

Either way, it’s a mistake. As GPTW makes clear in its instructions, you only need write about something once. You can then use a word or a sentence to refer back to it elsewhere in the submission. The folks at GPTW probably stress this mostly to make both your and their lives easier. (After all, they have to read through this thing—twice over, in fact, as part of their scoring process.) But I have another reason for saying this is a mistake, and it has to do with strong communication.

There’s a rule of thumb among communicators that once is not enough; you have to say something repeatedly to get your message across. And while this is absolutely true, I offer one caveat: not in the same piece of writing! Say it once, it’s a great story. Say it twice, it’s a trifle annoying. Say it three times, and I think, at best, that you have nothing else to say and, at worst, “the lady doth protest too much”— maybe this thing you’re writing about isn’t so darn special, after all.

So There You Have It:

Write until you have answered the questions. Include everything that’s relevant, in as much detail as is necessary to get your story across (and no more). And see if you aren’t the one up there showing off at next year’s Great Place to Work conference.

Still rather not do it all yourself? Contact me for customized help with your GPTW submission. Or, if you, too, plan to spend the better part of next week in Atlanta, just look me up!