The key to productive workplaces where public servants excel is clear, concise communicating. That sounds laudable, but how do you get there?
First take AIM — audience, intent, and message. Who are you writing for? What does the audience already know and what do they need to know? As to intent, or purpose: What should readers think, say, or do as a result of your message? Believe me, addressing those issues at the start will have you moving along efficiently as you write that first draft.
The Email Example
Let’s consider an email to a supervisor before a face-to-face meeting. She had asked you, as unit head, to estimate travel expenses for the coming fiscal year’s zero-growth budget. The audience is, of course, the boss, but also her superiors in the budgeting process and perhaps parties unknown in the building and on the Hill, particularly since email makes it so easy to forward messages.
Your intent? Get your subordinates the travel opportunities they need to do their jobs and enjoy the occasional morale boost of a trip. Plus, any boss would appreciate your careful stewardship of the taxpayers’ money and the needs of the entire department. Indeed, do you feel obligated to actually suggest budget cuts?
Flowing out of audience and intent is brainstorming (also known as pre-writing or exploratory writing) that help you fashion the first two or three paragraphs of the message, which could begin with: “Taking care not to go beyond this year’s expenses in a new budget year, I hope some members of my team can still familiarize themselves with regional issues and officials in-person, but also address a variety of topics in virtual meetings.”
Then you lay out specifics, with dollar signs, comparisons to previous fiscal years, anticipated rationale in detail for travel, visits with local officials, topics handled best virtually, relevant staff changes, any new regulatory impact, etc.
Here are two brief aphorisms about writing worth remembering. They’re quite similar, but both loom large when I begin organizing a piece of writing:
Ideas and details. State the former and support it with the latter. As a matter of fact, the same applies to structuring paragraphs.
Show don’t tell. Specifics carry so much more weight than generalities.
Being understood on one reading should be your goal. What I’ve mentioned so far addresses that, but there’s one other factor: Word choice. Plain English, the sort you use in conversation (minus profanity or colloquialisms like “ain’t”) works just fine in business writing. You are writing to edify, not impress.
One more pair of rules to live by: Length alienates. Brevity and clarity go hand in hand.
Dave Griffiths has hosted seminars on workplace writing and presentation skills at some 15 federal agencies, including the Army IG in Germany and South Korea and USAID in Cairo. He was the national security correspondent for Aviation Week and Business Week and taught journalism at Penn State University.