Why and how to ditch writing in favor of conversation

Crafting effective prose takes time. If your calendar is too tight to spend hours on a message, try mapping out key points and talking.

People are always pressing me with their “buts.”

“But how can I write more easily, so I can get on with other work?”

“But isn’t there a more efficient way to prepare a message?”

“But I want to write faster!”

Usually, these “buts” are an attempt to sidestep the process I recommend for crafting a business message. My process is not fast. It’s a deliberate and time-consuming series of steps:

  • Ask good questions
  • Make a mess of a draft
  • Let it sit
  • Reorganize
  • Revise, several times
  • Question the whole thing
  • Revise again
  • Read aloud
  • Have someone read to you
  • Proofread
  • Take a deep breath
  • Deliver

That’s what it takes to write strategically—to choose and order your words so they will move the recipient to think, believe or do what you want. This process works. When the stakes are high, when your reputation is on the line, when written words are the way to get things done, that is time well spent.

Still, many people would rather do anything than labor over a page of text—and not all communication requires so much time or so many written words.

Take another tack

So, when your schedule is tight and your writing patience is thin, heed this advice:

Don’t write.

That’s right. Don’t put words on the page. Instead, find another way to communicate.

You could spend hours agonizing over a sensitive letter, followed by several days correcting misunderstandings and smoothing ruffled feathers, or you could spend 15 minutes thinking about what you want to say and how your recipient is likely to respond. Instead of writing a letter, you could jot down a few key points to keep yourself focused, then pick up the phone and hammer out the issue in 30 minutes of challenging but productive discussion.

You could spend days slinging email messages back and forth with a dozen colleagues who chime in at odd hours with sometimes complementary but often conflicting points of view, or you could spend two minutes inviting everyone to a web meeting that breaks the chain. Draft an orderly agenda, and get the team together in real time for 60 to 90 minutes, reserving the last 15 to agree on and assign next steps.

You could spend weeks assembling a 50-page presentation of detailed bullet points and charts supported by citations, footnotes, and an appendix that’s triple the size of the main deck, or you could set aside one hour to outline the three ideas you absolutely must convey, another to draft your talking points, and another to choose a handful of images and headlines that reinforce your message. Build a 10-slide deck that invites curiosity, not scrutiny. Then, take all that time you saved and spend it rehearsing your message.

Time to refocus

You’re not just saving time. You’re thinking differently. What did it take to shave time (and written words) from these three scenarios? A shift in focus—away from the writing to the conversation.

It’s not about writing the letter, but having an honest conversation. It’s not about managing email, but scheduling a conversation. It’s not about manufacturing the slides, but sparking a conversation.

To be fair, all these alternatives do involve some writing—but not much. A few key messages, a meeting invitation and agenda, talking points and headlines.

Good writing gets things done. So does conversation. If you want to be a more efficient and effective communicator, consider the many ways you could get your point across. A well-planned conversation could save you time and keep you from having to write (much).

A version of this post first appeared on the Spencer Grace blog.


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