The Importance of Building a Writing Culture

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires federal agencies to use clear, understandable language in government communication so the public can understand and act accordingly.

Imagine creating writing legislation for your business...

It would be against the law for Vicki from accounting to send that typo-ridden email on a Saturday morning. John from sales would be legally required to not disregard the meeting agenda by bombarding everyone with weekend escapades. 

That reality isn’t possible. Suing co-workers would get ugly. 

But it is possible to create a strong writing culture that extends to every nook and cranny of the company. A focus on excellent and thoughtful writing improves company culture, productivity and efficiency. 

Here’s more on this issue, why it matters and how you can implement an effective writing culture. 

Communication Culture vs. Writing Culture 

“The importance of communication.” We see it everywhere. On annual reviews, emails from bosses, inspirational memes and posters. When teams or businesses fail, we often assume it’s due to a communication breakdown. Too much information was withheld while frivolous details ran rampant. In actuality, the culprit of failure might be too much communication. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos immortalized this line of thinking more than a decade ago. During an offsite retreat, a group of Amazon executives presented their ideas on how to connect distant teams. Bezos famously retorted, 

“Communication is a sign of dysfunction. It means people aren’t working together in a close, organic way. We should be trying to figure out ways for teams to communicate less with each other, not more.”

Of course, the statement was meant to help employees improve and innovate on their communication, not eliminate it. Bezos installed this into the culture at Amazon. He addressed it with the two-pizza rule. Teams and meetings should not require more than two pizzas for everyone to be fed. This rule was a philosophy and didn’t mandate an exact number. Large teams mean more bureaucracy, more confusion and less effectiveness. 

This communication paradox doesn’t apply to just internal communication. Ryan Fuller, co-founder of analytics firm VoloMetrix (acquired by Microsoft), shared a productivity analysis case study of a billion dollar tech firm. The firm worked with a large network of outside partners (vendors, manufacturers, etc), and estimated 700 employees managed this partner-facing side of the business. They wanted to analyze the value of this communication. VoloMetrix discovered that in reality, 7,000 (not 700) employees spent at least one hour per week interacting with outside partners. The review concluded that 50 percent of time spent on this form of communication was unnecessary did not translate to real value. That’s equivalent to 500 full-time workers and one million annual work hours. 

COURTESY JOSH BERNOFF -  https://withoutbullshit.com/

COURTESY JOSH BERNOFF - https://withoutbullshit.com/

It’s not just that we communicate too much or in a disorganized fashion - we can also be bad at it. Author Josh Bernoff conducted a survey with 547 business people who read and write for work more than 2 hours per week (excluding email). The survey inquired about the quality of writing they review. The research identified telling figures, 

  • 65 percent of respondents said that what they read is poorly organized

  • More than 65 percent of respondents say that what they read is too long 

  • 54 percent of all readers thought jargon was a frequent problem

  • 44 percent of supervisors, managers, and directors think their writing is not direct enough; it’s their top issue

Also, the majority of the respondents say their own writing is not poorly organized or too long. This shows the problems are not due to individual limitations but the failure to institute a system that encourages and incentivizes quality writing. 

The Workplace Disruptor 

The data above shows many businesses (even successful ones) have widespread communication problems. And many smart people are bad writers or think they read bad writing all day. 

How did we get here? There’s more availability of data and information sharing. But there’s also been a transformation in how we work. Email, project management software, wikis and the most divisive addition, Slack (workplace chat). 

Slack was originally thought to be a replacement for internal email. Faster, easier and more fun. But the increase of messages doesn’t always mean more clarity. Time Is Ltd. is a research firm working with 10 large companies who have more than 500 employees. They estimate it would be physically impossible for workers at those firms to check every Slack message every day. Remote employees feel the pressure to hover around Slack to show they’re working. This decreases the amount of time we spend on ‘deep work’ or concentrated periods of high productivity. 

Back in 2012, McKinsey predicted new communication software (such as Slack) would increase productivity. Their data showed an estimated 28 percent of the workweek was managing email and 20 percent looking for internal information or tracking down colleagues for help. However we now have information in more places than ever. Chat and email, project management software, internal wikis or file servers, etc. Despite powerful search functions and detailed organization of information - it’s still a grind to find exactly what you need. 

Solution: Guides & Guidelines 

Talk to any leader in company culture and you’ll hear about the importance of writing culture down. Define the values, mission statement, goals and other important aspects of company culture that all employees see and hopefully follow. This usually includes a branding guide with typography, brand colors, logo treatment and company info. This is important, especially for startups looking to build cohesiveness. 

But to build a great writing culture, consider creating a company style guide with guidance for all writing that occurs in the organization. 

Here are the basics for your company style guide: 

Voice, tone & personality: Oftentimes, a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) will communicate in emails and chats with an upbeat and enthusiastic tone, while a sales director communicates in a completely different way (or vice versa). This seems frivolous but you’re missing an opportunity to instill a sense of belonging and togetherness. Of course, we’re not robots and should not be forced into a box. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t encourage all employees to use a similar voice and tone, and the same acronyms and abbreviations. This will impact daily mood, productivity and can be extended from chat conversations to the company blog and email blasts, even the holiday party. A defined company personality can be a competitive edge in recruiting. 

Communication etiquette: If one manager sends out a daily goals through Slack while another uses email - it may seem trivial but these issues snowball as a company grows. Set standards for chat, email and meetings. Maybe you enforce quiet hours or a quiet day of the week where deep work is the focus and chat communication is reserved only for emergencies or epic gifs. To Slack’s credit, they’ve built a series of tools to help users manage their notifications. These features should be explained during the employee onboarding process. 

Meeting laws: Meetings might not come to mind when you think of writing culture but how many times have you heard the quip, “this meeting could have been an email.” This painful truth is unavoidable without clear guidelines on why meetings should take place, and it doesn’t require micromanagement. For instance, some CEOs require employees to develop a clear agenda via a shared document before a meeting can take place. Bezos created a “memo culture” at Amazon where PowerPoints were replaced by 6-page documents and meetings began with a study hall (more on this below). 

Writing guidelines: A comprehensive style guide for writing is important, but to build a strong writing culture you need to inspire employees to improve their writing or at least feel confident enough to write out their ideas. 

Ann Handley, founder to marketingprofs.com and author of the relevant best seller, “Everybody Writes” has 10 rules to follow to create a culture of writing. 

  1. Reframe who’s a “writer”

  2. Schedule time each day to write

  3. Outlaw self-slander

  4. Write badly. Then, fix it

  5. Don’t sweat the grammar

  6. Create your own style guide

  7. Hire a dedicated editor

  8. Create a collaborative writing environment

  9. Shed the idea that companies always have to buy content expertise

  10. Invest in training

There's an unlimited amount of ways to format your style guide. It should be concise and easy to digest to be effective. While a branding guide will be updated sparingly, this document should be shared early in the hiring process and routinely updated. 

Writing Culture: Real World Use Cases

All this theory and advice is great but seeing how these ideas are put into practice is more powerful. Take a look at a few examples that stretch across industries and sectors. 

Amazon - Memo Culture: As mentioned, Amazon may be the best example of a writing culture focus. Bezos banned PowerPoint presentations for all meetings. Instead, team members develop a written document that outlines the issue, such as a roadmap for a new feature or a public relations issue. Everyone in the meeting reads the document together before any discussion begins. These memos force employees to think deeply about an issue. They can take weeks to write. Oftentimes when the memos fall short, it’s because of a wrong expectation of scope, not bad writing. In a traditional meeting-presentation environment, this conclusion might not be discovered until much later.  

Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia - Writing Center: This group of 250 Philadelphia bankers, regulators and supervisors spend a great deal of their time writing. Detailed reports (up to 40 pages long) are required to explain to bankers in the region how to comply with always-changing regulations and laws. A consultant was hired to improve the organization's writing. She implemented an unconventional idea - a writing center. The program was voluntary, delivered feedback in-person or over the phone and directly to the “student.” A post-mortem analysis showed a 20-56% improvement in overall quality, organization, clarity, grammar, support and analysis. This concept can be easily applied to a business environment. 

Ogilvy - Pre-Digital Writing Culture: David Ogilvy built one of the largest creative agencies in the world. It was well known that upper level executives at Ogilvy & Mather had to be masterful writers. He demanded concise and clear language and wrote, “the better you write, the higher you go at Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well. Woolly-minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters, and woolly speeches.” This shows the importance of a strong writing culture precedes the digital age. Many people who worked at Ogilvy spent decades at the firm which was known for a strong corporate culture. 

Evernote - Elevate Writing: It makes sense that a note taking app would have a strong focus on writing culture. Andrew Sinkov, employee #6 at Evernote, explained how the company built a positive writing environment. Most of his rules have been discussed above: 

  • Be intentional

  • Build a playground

  • Find your voice

  • Create cadence

  • Hire talented writers

  • Critique often

  • Apply your voice to everything

Regardless of your politics, we can all agree government literature should be clear and easy to understand. The Plain Writing Act attempted to accomplish that. If your business has yet to think about this issue, now is the time. Whether you’re creating an all-hands communication guide or just getting everyone on the same page with email and chat, any investment toward your organization's writing culture is a smart investment.