Impactful Written CommunicationBy
Information has value only if it drives action.
Though most finance and accounting professionals have strong analytical and technical knowledge, many have gaps in their ability to communicate effectively. Indeed, in a CFO.com study, CFOs, controllers, and senior finance executives said that “communicating with other groups in the firm” is one of the biggest skills gaps for finance and accounting staff (http://bit.ly/1RQb5hl). This gap limits the effectiveness of these employees: Recommendations aren’t executed, analysis is ignored, and the company doesn’t perform as well as it could. Information has value only if it drives action; poor communication hinders information from being turned into action.
Altough I’ll focus on written communication (e-mails and documents), much of this applies to spoken communication as well.
THE INVERTED PYRAMID
Any professional, especially one in senior leadership, is short on time and must give her limited attention to multiple competing priorities. An effective communicator must grab the reader’s interest and convey key messages as quickly and concisely as possible.
In any communication, it’s best to put the most important facts, including your recommendation and key supporting information, in the opening lines. This has two benefits. First, it means that if the reader is tight on time and only reads the start of your document, she will still understand the message that you are trying to convey. Second, it gives the reader the option to continue reading or to stop. Maybe the content isn’t relevant to him or he isn’t a decision maker. Show management that you respect their time and give them the option to stop reading if the content isn’t a priority. Known as the “inverted pyramid,” this prioritization of key messaging is a technique that journalists use for newspaper articles, as they know that readers won’t always want to read a piece to the end.
At the same time, ensure that you aren’t overcommunicating. Clarity and brevity are key to action and quick decision making, so only include the information that’s critical to the subject and the recommendation that’s being made.
WRITE TO DRIVE ACTION
Strong writing makes intent clear to the reader as early as possible. Are you seeking deliverables? A decision? Or is this a process document in which you are explaining steps to be followed? Whatever the goal, let the words drive your intended outcome. Writing that includes conflicting or inconclusive arguments without a clear direction, position, or recommendation is unacceptable in business.
A good rule of thumb is to ensure that you pass the “so what?” test. Let’s take an example: A competitor has launched a new product with similar positioning but at a price that’s 5% lower than a company’s most profitable brand. An analyst wants to communicate this to his general manager. In isolation, this is an interesting piece of information, but if the analyst communicates only this fact, the first words out of the GM’s mouth will be “so what?” What is the expected impact of the launch? What are our recommended actions? What will their impact be? What do they cost? And so on. The analyst can already anticipate these questions by providing additional perspective and a recommendation at the same time.
I recall an analyst who had completed a three-month competitive analysis project but handed me a draft document summarizing her findings without any reference to recommendations or next steps. She felt that there are plenty of other people in the organization with more experience in this area; how can she recommend to them how to do their jobs?
I told her that this is precisely what people are looking for. She had completed an in-depth piece of analysis and thus had a different perspective to bring to the management team. As such, they were eager to hear what she would do in their position. They did implement some of her recommendations.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
Let’s say that you’re writing a recommendation for a complex accounting booking. Your description would differ depending on whether you are writing for a subject-matter expert vs. writing for your regional president. The subject-matter expert would want to know the details, the relevant accounting rules, the complex justification, and the precise account where the booking should be made. Your regional president, on the other hand, would only want a quick summary, the impact on their targets, and confirmation that this has been approved by the relevant expert.
This distinction is particularly important if you are communicating across functions. Marketing and sales generally work with a different lexicon than the one used by finance people on a daily basis. When trying to influence across functions, you need to ensure that you make your message accessible to the audience. If your writing mires an executive in irrelevant detail or presents prohibitively complex information to cross-functional colleagues, how can you expect to be influential?
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Good writing is never easy. It requires effort to structure and organize your thoughts in a clear, compelling way. Practice always helps, so take opportunities to write and seek feedback from colleagues and managers. You can start today and work daily to improve the clarity of your communication. One helpful tactic is analyzing the writing of others to identify the strengths and weaknesses of communications you receive from various channels. Seek out those who write well, and look to adopt their style.
As you develop your skills, clear writing will come more naturally. Eventually, it will become a habit. You will also significantly increase the impact of your analysis and recommendations and positively impact your business.
IMA LEADERSHIP ACADEMY
The IMA® Leadership Academy provides leadership opportunities for all members. From leadership assessment to leadership courses offered in person as well as through WebEx to participation opportunities in mentoring, be it reverse or traditional, the IMA Leadership Academy can help you meet your leadership goals and improve your leadership skills. For more information, please visit the Leadership Academy website at www.imanet.org/programs_events/ima_leadership_academy.