With decreasing attention spans, it becomes more difficult to engage employees and more important to have simple, focused writing. In this episode of Employee Buzz, senior director, Cheryl Ross, walks through a difficult writing assignment and shares how she overcame the challenges.  Learn how to choose the right language, simplify complex information and manage pushback from stakeholders. You’ll even hear some important data you can use next time you’re up against a difficult colleague.

Episode transcript: 

Alyssa Zeff:      
Hey everyone. Alyssa here with a bonus round. Not all of our conversations get captured completely, because we try and keep our episodes focused and concise. So, we create these bonus rounds, or mini episode, as an added treat on top of our regularly scheduled program. We’ll sprinkle these in on occasion to provide bits of practical knowledge when we know it’s a hot topic that you can learn from.

Alyssa Zeff:      
This bonus round is about overcoming writing challenges and handling pushback. Give me an example of one of your most difficult writing assignments, and how did you overcome the challenge of writing it?

Cheryl Ross:     
I’ve actually got a really good one from a recent project. We had a client who was writing a letter to associates, employees in the company, who were receiving grants of equity in the company. Now, what happened in this particular situation is that the legal team wrote the letter first, and I don’t want to slam legal teams, they do fabulous work and their work is very important. However, they’re not trained in writing for an employee, and so the first draft that I read, that came to my plate in my email box, was incredibly long copy. Half of it I literally did not understand. I mean, there were Latin phrases in there from legal jargon that I had to look up. I just straight up didn’t understand it.

Cheryl Ross:     
I had to search for the what’s in it for me, or the WIIFM. I couldn’t find it, which is kind of alarming when you think about this is a letter that is granting you equity. It’s a pretty simple what’s in it for me.

Alyssa Zeff:      
Money or stock.

Cheryl Ross:     
I couldn’t really find it. It was buried way far down in the letter. So, this was a challenge, because you don’t want to make the legal team feel like they haven’t done a great job. I mean, they’ve gone a great job putting all the information together. But, now I had to politely sort of take this information and shape it. Well, I read the letter maybe three times to make sure I actually understood everything, did a little Googling a couple times. Not going to lie. Then, I unpacked the facts. I just bulleted out in a list, what are the main points in this piece? Then, prioritized, here’s the most important thing employees need to know. Here’s the second most important thing, third most important thing. The rest of these things, they don’t need to know, they’re just kind of nice to know.

Cheryl Ross:     
So, I prioritized and kind of figured out an outline. Then, I wrote it in layman’s terms. I took out the legal jargon as best as I could. I had to leave in a couple things, and then breaking up the copy with subheads, so readers could figure out, "Okay, I want to read this paragraph. This paragraph’s not so important," and then linking out to that extra policy information that the legal team said was critical. Can we leave that out of the letter and just link to it? Sure, why not?

Alyssa Zeff:      
It’s a good transition to another question that I have, and something that we face a lot, which are, we get leaders or subject matter experts, or legal teams that think they’re writers. So, how do you deal with that pushback, especially when you know what they’re asking for isn’t a best practice?

Cheryl Ross:     
First and foremost, it’s important to be respectful, because we’re each bringing to the plate our expertise. So, the legal team is bringing the information. The subject matter expert is bringing the information that they have. We’re bringing the best practice of how to write for employees, so what we need to do is politely but also assertively share best practices. For me, the best way to do that is through data. There is a ton of research out there that we can tap into. Yes, this is writing, but there definitely are studies and pieces of research out there that we can lean on.

Cheryl Ross:     
A couple of my favorites come from this report that was done by the Association for Computing Machinery, which sounds odd, but they do research on web content. One of the most alarming stats that I love to use is about attention spans. So, back in 2000, it was studied and researched that our attention span was around 12 seconds. In 2013, they found that our attention span had decreased to eight seconds. We’re in 2019. What do you think our attention span is now?

Alyssa Zeff:      
Sure. Sure.

Cheryl Ross:     
We have fewer than eight seconds to grab somebody’s attention when we’re writing something. That is a very powerful stat to share with any subject matter expert.

Alyssa Zeff:      
I think you’re exactly right. This isn’t just haphazard. This is data. This is a proven science, in the same way that at a health care company, they’re not questioning the medical team’s authority, or the legal team’s authority, or the regulatory team’s authority. It’s about us demonstrating through evidence that this is a science, and there is a right and wrong way to do things.

Cheryl Ross:     
It’s even as simple as we have reference materials out there. One time, pretty early on in my career, and this was gutsy for me to do, I literally photocopied a page of the “AP Stylebook” to prove a point on comma placement. If that’s what you’ve got to do to make your point, then that’s what you’ve got to do.

Alyssa Zeff:      
Thanks for listening to Employee Buzz where practical advice meets fun. If you like what you’re hearing, go to your podcast platform, iTunes, Podbeans, Stitcher or Google Play to rate and review.

Recent Podcasts