American Heart Association’s internal writing course a giant success

Roger Campbell, an editor at the association, teaches a writing course for employees that’s so popular it fills up hours after it’s posted. How does he do it?

Roger Campbell, an editor at the association, teaches a writing course for employees that’s so popular it fills up hours after it’s posted. How does he do it?

Roger Campbell didn’t like what he saw, or rather, read, when he joined the American Heart Association in the early l990s. Matter of fact, he was stunned by employees’ writing deficiencies.

“I was overwhelmed by clutter, clichés and verbal mistakes,” he said. “I was ashamed of some of the stuff coming out of here. I wanted to do something.”

Learn best practices and top techniques from award-winning employee publications. Download Learn from the best: Tips and strategies from the winners of the Ragan Recognition Awards now!

And so he did.

Five years ago, Campbell, senior editor and writer at the association’s headquarters in Dallas, created a course called “Write to the Point” to teach the elementary principles of English composition to workers at every level in AHA’s 600-person national staff.

The class is practical, popular and a giant success.

Campbell believes that his class has raised the credibility and authority of the communications department. Internal communication at AHA now has the reputation for being a go-to department. He contends, “People say more often, ‘I need to run my publication by editorial.’”

Three hours of theory? No

Campbell strictly limits enrollment for “Write to the Point” and teaches four classes of 12 students each. His seminars run three hours.

He is certain his course could benefit everyone from the CEO down: “It’s very interactive and practical; you don’t hear three hours of theory. That’s one of the things that makes it popular. You can sum up the course outline in two parts: I communicate my principles, and they practice what I preach.”

Those principles boil down to what Campbell calls “the three C’s”: writing that is clear, concise, compelling. Campbell’s class is probably the most popular taught at the AHA training department workshops. On one occasion all the spaces in his class were snapped up within an hour.

Campbell tells students, “The primary goal for this course is to improve your writing no matter what your skill level. One of the main benefits is it can make anyone better in the mechanics of writing.”

Instruction that is informal, but serious

What do his students want? Campbell says, “I ask them ‘What is the biggest thing you hope to take away from this class,’ and the answer is always, ‘I want to learn to write more clearly and concisely.’ Clear writing is number one, with conciseness a close second,” Campbell said.

He calls part of his workshop, “Don’t Go There.” The idea? “Never use that word again. Vow with your blood never to use that word again.”

Campbell relies on his flair for gentle humor to drive home lessons: “How many times do you hear a child say, ‘Mommy, can I utilize the washroom?’” he asks his students.

“Never.”

“That’s my point. Good writing, no matter how technical, must be simple.”

Some very smart people can’t write

Campbell speaks the language of a man on a mission: “We take high-level science, translate it and communicate it to the public. I’m in a company that has its own language, and I have to translate it for people who don’t speak it. What we write here at the AHA can save people’s lives. That makes clarity even more important.”

His boss, Robyn Schaub, director of internal communication and services at the AHA since late 2006, says of the quality of writing at the association: “I work at a place where the intelligence and brilliance of the people on our staff continually astonish me. But the low writing skill of some who have amazing scientific talent surprises me too.”

Campbell says proudly of the communications department he works in: “We prompt people to think rather than just regurgitate corporate clichés.”

The real key to good writing: practice, practice

Campbell tells his students they won’t become better writers by attending one three-hour workshop or even a semester’s worth of classes, but only through constant practice.

Campbell delivers his passionate plea for simplicity to anyone who asks him. The association’s HR people requested that Campbell find out why they weren’t getting their messages across. He said to them, “You’re not reaching the staff because you’re not talking to the staff; you’re talking HR language.”

Soon the AHA will expand its training programs and rename its training department. The new name: American Heart University. The Heart Association will hire a dean for this “university.” They recently held a three-day conference to train some employees to be its “professors.” Campbell will play a prominent part in this new teaching institute.

One new course he will teach will be “How to write e-mails.” Campbell gets repeated requests that he teach a class on writing better e-mails.

A short course of “Write to the Point”

Here’s what Roger Campbell teaches his Heart Association students under his scheme of The Three C’s: Clear, Concise and Compelling:

Clear:

  1. Know your people.
    • Who are you writing to?
    • Who are you writing for?
    • What is your purpose?
    • What is your plan?
    • What type of writing will it be?
    • What are your tools?

Concise:

  1. The “KISS” form: Keep It Simple and Short.
  2. Get rid of clutter.
    • Clutter is any word, phrase, sentence or paragraph that makes the reader work too hard to get the message.
    • Bullets make too-long paragraphs readable.
    • Concrete language is a powerful aid to understanding.
    • The power of periods to break up sentences that are too long.
      • They help you isolate important points.
      • They increase readability.
      • They improve customer service because you’re making it easier for customers to understand what you’re doing to serve them.
    • The power of parallel structure to clear up confusion and reduce complexity.

Compelling:

To read the full story, log in.
Become a Ragan Insider member to read this article and all other archived content.
Sign up today

Already a member? Log in here.
Learn more about Ragan Insider.