One of the great pleasures of my job is that I frequently get a chance to talk to people who really are at the top of their game.
Over the last 18 years, my colleagues and I have worked with over 40,000 people. And among them have been many industry leaders who have built seriously impressive careers and truly made a difference in their particular sector. These people are undeniably successful – regardless of whether you define success in monetary terms, in what they’ve been able to achieve, or both.
Along the way, I’ve noticed certain characteristics coming up again and again in the documents and emails that these super-successful people write – and in the approach they take to writing them. Clear patterns have emerged: ways of writing that so many successful people seem to share that I strongly suspect they are habits that underpin their success.
Some of these patterns are in the way they write. Others are in what they write (and in how they develop that content). Together, these things propel them forwards, enabling them to make the kind of progress that others can only dream of – and often to earn many times more than those people.
No single person exhibits all the traits, or even most of them. And these extraordinary individuals may not even be aware that the way they approach written communication is special or know why their approach works so much better than what other people do. But the fact that they do it that way has almost certainly been a major factor in their rise to the top.
So here are those characteristics:
They write with confidence
It takes courage to tell it like it is, but these people have it in spades. There’s a fine line between being arrogant and being confident, and these people are definitely the latter. They exude belief in their messages by never hiding behind flowery language or using 30 words when ten will do.
They nurture their ideas
So much writing advice (and presentation training, for that matter) focuses on methodology. But even the most articulate wording will not disguise lazy thinking. Effective thinking needs to come first and it takes time. It can’t be done between emails or checking Facebook. These people make and take that time, building and developing their ideas. As a result, what they write has real value. In the longer term, this builds their personal PR, and their organisations begin to recognise that value more and more.
They keep notes
Neuroscientists have made many real breakthroughs in the last 20 years. One of these is the discovery that there are two distinct types of thinking: focused thought and free association (sometimes called ‘mind wandering mode’). Our brains can’t do both at the same time, needing instead to switch between the two. (Brain researchers have even identified the neural switch that does this – the cingulate cortex.) The best ideas often spring from the second type of thinking, which typically happens when you are not sitting at your desk. In fact, it tends to happen when you’re doing something completely unrelated to work – like shopping or loading the dishwasher. Successful people tend to capture ideas from these moments of mind wandering by noting them down on their smartphones or on a small pad, which they keep with them at all times for that purpose.
They are careful readers
Successful people often seem to recognise that their attention and mental capacity are precious resources that they must spend wisely and renew regularly. As such, they use social media and other websites judiciously, reserving them for ‘free thinking’ time rather than getting sucked down into all-day Facebook fests that drain them of energy and original thought. They also allow time to focus on one thing – which benefits them not just because they can develop their ideas but because continually switching attention drains mental energy.
They look after their mind
This habit often extends into other areas of their lives. For example, they make sure they get enough sleep and they eat sensibly: avoiding the highs and lows of sugar binges or overdosing on caffeine. Of course, they are human. But their secret is self-awareness. So, if the ideas aren’t there, they do something about it: whether that’s going for a walk, stimulating their mind – with more reading or music, for example – or simply stopping and picking things up tomorrow.
They are conscious writers
This one is critical. People who build extraordinary careers are expert influencers, so they are acutely aware of the effect both poor and good writing can have on others. They know that every document or email is an opportunity to influence many more people than they will ever meet, so they never squander that opportunity. That means they think before they write (unlike their less successful colleagues, who typically think while they’re writing – or even afterwards, when it may well be too late).
They write to express, not impress
The most successful writers never waste time or screen space posturing with verbose language. They’d much rather engage directly with the brains of those they seek to influence in the most efficient way possible.
They know that it’s not all about me
The first and main focus for them is their reader: who they are, what interests them, what they might be thinking and what they want them to think. That focus underpins their planning and stays with them throughout the writing process. (This is in contrast to less effective writers, whose focus tends to be on just getting the thing written and crossed off their list.)
They see the big picture
This is another aspect that truly marks out highly successful people from the rest. I’ve noticed that they develop a keen understanding of where their organisation is going and make sure they keep that at the front of their minds, rather than dwelling on the minutiae of the day-to-day. But that doesn’t mean they ignore minor tasks or issues. They just see those as part of the bigger picture and keep that in mind when they’re writing. As a result, they often have a direct connection with the executives in the C-suite, who tend to be similarly focused.
They know when enough is enough
The most successful people make their written communications only as long as they need to be: never longer. They also know that those communications usually need to be a lot shorter than many of their colleagues think they do.
They set clear objectives and they plan
Uncommonly successful people know exactly what each report or proposal needs to achieve. Often, they write down those objectives; always, they base them on a knowledge of their readers. (See point 8.) This is part of an essential planning process. Many people start their documents by immediately firing up Word (or, if they’re a management consultant, more likely PowerPoint) and starting to type. But not these people. They know that planning is essential and they take time to work out a structure for their document before they even touch their keyboard.
They know how to build a persuasive argument
By the time they start typing, they already have a clear idea of who their reader is, where they need them to go and – crucially – how they’re going to get them there. The most successful people know that persuasive writing is more of a science than an art. So they build their argument carefully first. As a result, their battle is half won even before they open up their laptop.
They are politically aware
Awareness of organisational politics – and how to use that knowledge to your advantage – is a sensitive issue. In an ideal world, everyone would work together selflessly and and logically for the greater good. But the real world is populated by humans, with all their foibles, ambitions and emotions. Successful people know that their documents will have to work with those too. So, regardless of what they’re writing, they take into account human psychology and how it’s played out in their particular workplace.
They don’t rely on writing alone
It’s tempting to think that the written word is the only tool in your communication toolbox. The most successful people know that there are other tools too, and they’re careful to choose the right one for the job each time. So their documents often include captivating charts, diagrams or pictures. And these people know when to talk to someone instead of emailing them (sometimes as a way to ensure a document hits its mark).
They sweat the small stuff
I’ve deliberately left spelling, punctuation and grammar to the end of this list – even though those are the things that most people think of if you mention effective writing. That’s because a technically perfect document can still be devoid of original thought, totally disengaging and, therefore, potentially useless. However, it is still important to make sure that silly mistakes in accuracy don’t undermine all your hard work. Successful people use spell-check and proofread their work.
This list is still evolving and it’s not exhaustive. You may well have noticed other habits that make all the difference. I’d love to hear what they are – feel free to share them in the comments below.
About the author – Rob Ashton:
Rob is a former scientist and editor, and a specialist in the neuroscience and psychology of language, trust and influence. He’s the founder of Emphasis, which has helped improve the written communication of more than 50,000 people in 5,000 organisations. His work has been featured by The Guardian, The Telegraph, Accountancy Age, Training Journal and the BBC.
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