How to Write Like a Leader

How to Write Like a Leader

I love getting emails from my senior clients.

Why? Because their correspondence is invariably upbeat, well-organized – and short. Their messages not only make it clear what’s expected of me, they motivate me as well.

“A leader,” says a person I admire greatly, “is someone who inspires people.”

There you go.

It’s not surprising that so many accomplished leaders write well, and encouragingly. What’s mind-boggling is that so many others write so poorly, and discouragingly. They produce material that’s jumbled, laden with self-interest, riddled with grammatical and even spelling errors, and much, much too long.

Lacking structure and clarity, their reports and missives confuse readers, and dispirit them, too. At the end of an especially abhorrent email, a reader might wonder, “What the ….?”

Fill in the appropriate terminology.

How well you write says a lot about you. Adhere to the following guidelines, and your business circle will be saying good things. 

1. Think before you write.

This appears to be a novel concept for many. Think – as in, actually think – before you rush to fire off some weird, hastily-conceived creation.

Effective writing begins in your head. What do you want to accomplish with your communication? What’s the ideal outcome? What information do you need to provide your recipients in order to achieve the results you want?

If you aren’t clear about your objectives, no one else will ever be.

2. Dial in W.I.I.F.M.

Those are the call letters of everyone’s favourite radio station: What’s In It For Me?

We each ask ourselves that question, basically every minute of every waking hour. The sooner you answer it for your readers, the better.  

We need to put ourselves in their position. What’s their state of mind? What motivates them? How can you serve their needs while achieving your goals?

The more you focus on your audience, the more effective your message will be. It all starts with the subject line, which needs to be reader-focused, and action-oriented.

An example: ‘Carol and Tom, please provide your comments on the attached report by March 3’.

3. Be positive.

Be positive! There’s so much negativity and rudeness in the world – it’s exhausting. Don’t let any downer vibes seep into your correspondence, unless you’re seriously out to deliver bad news, and in that case, I’d recommend a conversation, in person or on the phone. (A telephone is a device that people once used to speak with one another.)

Generally, though, be as buoyant as possible, while of course authentic, true to yourself. I’m a schmoozer, a classic Boomer, so I may open up with, “It was great to see you last week,” or “Thank you for your terrific work”.

If I mean it, I’ll write it. If I don’t, I won’t.

Withholding genuine sentiment is small-minded. Life is short. If you can incrementally boost someone’s day with a kind comment, do it. 

4. Go more formal.

You can never go wrong when you write more formally in business, especially when engaging senior executives. It elevates your correspondence – and you.

I absolutely loathe the salutation “Hi”. It makes me feel like I’m still in high school, back in the Pleistocene Era. I much prefer “Hello”. If I’m tight with the person, I’ll simply use his or her first name, such as “Elon”.

(I’m on a roll here. The word “guys” should be banned from all forms of written, and, for that matter, verbal communication.)

Abbreviations, short-forms and slang don’t belong in high-end business communication. 

Use full and proper names, terms, and references. If you must employ an acronym, spell out the entire terminology with the first reference. If you have to use a highly-technical word or phrase, provide a definition, unless you’re dead certain that every one of your readers knows its meaning.

The bottom line? When in doubt about the knowledge level of your recipients, explain. Usually, no one resents reading – or hearing – the same information more than once.

Finally, ensure that grammar and spelling are correct. Really, how hard is that? 

5. Get to the point.

After your greeting, get to the point quickly, and be explicit about your purpose. Whatever the news, get it out, right off the top.

If the news is good and you delay sharing it, your readers will think it odd. If the news is bad (assuming that a meeting or call wasn’t possible), they’ll feel manipulated, “worked”. Bad news delayed, is bad news exacerbated.

Many, when they need to convey unpleasant information, hide behind email. That’s weak, my friend. Guaranteed, those on the receiving end will forever remember the correspondence, and you.

Protocol (and common courtesy) dictates that if you’ve met the recipients, at the very least a phone call is required to communicate what, for them, will be a disappointing outcome.

6. Keep it tight and bright.

Never have so many in the workplace waded through so much bad copy – and bailed out before finishing it. We’ve become highly selective in determining what we read, and for how long.

Be disciplined as a writer. Limit your content to stuff that definitively serves the interests of your readers. You can always write long to get your thoughts out, then cut short. (I learned that technique in smoke-filled newsrooms, back in the day.)

7. Go for visual appeal.

It can be daunting to open a document thick with text, and interminably long paragraphs. The more difficult it is to read, the lower the comprehension and response rate.

Ensure that your material has visual appeal by providing plenty of white space, which enhances attention and retention. Use headings and sub-headings to organize content simply and clearly. If you need to include several elements or factors, enumerate them in a reader-friendly list.

I love lists, as long as they’re not overdone. They usually demonstrate that you have the confidence – and certainty – to organize related (and occasionally, unrelated) elements in a simple, easily understandable way. 

8. Aim to inspire. 

The best leaders are great at this – they employ optimistic narratives that galvanize their readers. They convey energy, enthusiasm, and a can-do spirit.

They use words like accomplish, achieve, benefit, commit, and together. Unless there’s a compelling reason for including them, they minimize negative-based words like can’t, claim, fail, problem, and wrong.

They invariably end their correspondence with a positive, or at the minimum a reference to some shared common objective. They always give their readers something to shoot for. So should you.

9. Consider a call to action.

Too many letters, memos, and emails simply drop off a cliff at the end, leaving their recipients mystified about what’s required of them. If your purpose is simply to provide an update, state that early on, or in the subject line, or both.

If your communication is meant to bring about action, you need to tell your readers what it is that you want them to do. Unless you tell them, they may not know – and confusion brings about delay, or worse, inaction.

10. Never send in haste.

The irate email you send today will exist long after we’re both gone.

Just thought I’d brighten your day.

If you’re angry with someone, or incensed about a situation, sure, write it out – in your journal. But never communicate those sentiments through work-related channels. 

First, it’s doubtful that you’ll feel as aggrieved in 24 hours, let alone in an hour. Second, outrage letters and emails come across as unhinged. You can undercut a career with one crazy communication.

Leaders control their emotions.

When they draft an important document, they’ll often print it off, and edit from the hard copy. They’re almost always able to refine it, making it cleaner to the eye, and more inspiring to the heart and mind.

After all, with their writing, they’re telling their readers a lot about themselves. And they want to make sure it’s good, all good.

Jim Gray is a Senior Communications Advisor in Oakville, Ontario.

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