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Career Coach: Tips for improving your writing in the age of instant communication

By Ken White,

With the fast-paced universe of instant communication via e-mails, text messages and social media, we are all constantly writing. Since we write so much, so often, our words have the potential to reach more people than ever before. As a result, we need to pay greater attention to the quality of our prose.

Effective writing skills are half the equation for effective communication, a critical component of leadership. Unfortunately, top executives aren’t always the gifted writers they should be. In many cases, leaders may have had top-notch writing skills at one time, but as more responsibilities are added to their plate, those skills can diminish.

The sheer amount of writing that the average executive and business professional does on a daily basis is causing some to become lax on quality.

Your prose doesn’t have to be a lost cause. Effective writing is a skill that can and must be practiced.

Make time. CEOs with full plates have to do their own writing, too. Block time on your schedule to focus on writing to avoid interruptions. If it’s on your calendar, you are more likely to treat writing as a priority.

Have a plan. When we’re writing, we tend to just jump in head-first. We often bang out e-mails without much planning. The better approach: Take a few minutes to figure out what you’re trying to say. Think about your message or your thesis statement first. Get that set, and then write. This applies to creating PowerPoint presentations, too. Don’t start populating slides before you first plan, and then write, your presentation.

Be concise. We are bombarded with written communications. Every one of us has an inbox filled with e-mails, and we want to read what’s on the Web and in the newspaper, etc. We have so much to consume, but if you need to get your message across in writing, it needs to be concise.

Be authentic. Social media has been a game-changer. In the “old” days, (10 years or so ago), a CEO wouldn’t have thought twice about having someone in marketing or communications draft his or her communications. Now with blogs and social media, the audience expects and demands the author to be the author. You can’t ghost-write a blog. You can’t be a CEO with a Twitter account and have someone in marketing doing the tweeting for you.

Know your audience. The best communicators are those who put their audience first. Every member of every audience asks, consciously or subconsciously, “What’s in this for me?” Know how best to reach them before you begin writing.

Hone your craft. Like anything, improving your writing skills takes practice. Become a consumer of good writing and communications that you hope to emulate. Write more often than required to practice. Start a professional blog or contribute to an established blog at your organization or for an industry group. Pen an op-ed or letter to the editor on an issue you feel passionate about. The more you write, the better your writing will become.

Ken White is assistant dean of marketing communications at the Smith School and holds a Ph.D. in communications from the University of Missouri. He teaches executive education and MBA courses on communication. He previously served as the chief communication and marketing officer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and the Virginia Military Institute.

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