Shelly Davies is a business writer, trainer, and keynote speaker who gets her kicks from helping businesses turn corporate jargon into plain language. Last year you told us through our training and development survey that you’d like to learn more about communicating clearly and persuasively. So we enlisted Shelly's support in upskilling ACE members on how to write the perfect executive summary (Wednesday 8 April), and at a workshop on business writing (Wednesday 14 April). We caught up with Shelly to find out how these events will make you a better communicator.
Shelly, what’s your background?
I used to be a high school English teacher, and then I discovered that teaching adults is way more fun than teaching kids! I spent some time at universities where I taught academic and research writing before discovering this thing called plain language.
That was nine years ago, and I quickly realised that if we could communicate more naturally and authentically, the message would become more powerful and work so much better for readers. I have edited PhDs and published academically, but I now say that I am an anti-academic writer who’s determined to spread the word about plain language.
Are we getting any better at writing in plain language?
I have seen some improvement in the style of copy when it’s focused on an external audience, i.e. marketing material. But our internal and technical communications aren't showing much progress because we still don't understand the disconnect between our experience as readers and the drivers we feel when we're writing. Readers want plain language, but so many of us still feel we have to write in a more formal style because “that's what professionals do.” (Spoiler alert: Not true.)
How important is the executive summary?
The executive summary is the only part of a report you can guarantee everybody will read. If it's a satisfactory reading experience for your non-technical audience and decision-makers, they probably won't bother reading the rest of the report – and that’s a win! Now you’re going to ask why we bother with the rest of the report if a well written executive summary will suffice for most people? The body of the report is all about credibility. It shows that you did your job and provides information for your technical audience. That's the bit that will excite people who need the detail, but those who want straightforward answers will likely be content with the executive summary.
Is writing an executive summary just a matter of cutting and pasting from the body of the report?
Actually, in an ideal situation, yes. But to do that you have a to have a well-written report in clear, straightforward language. We don't want the executive summary's voice to be any different from other parts of the document. We’ll discuss how to make sure your executive summary is written in clear, plain, powerful language during the webinar.
There is some magic that I’ll also cover in the webinar, including in what order readers expect to find answers to their critical questions. If you don't tick that box, then your executive summary isn’t going to work.
Moving on to your Auckland workshop. What topics will you cover?
The focus will be on developing an understanding of how modern business readers behave. It's not called a reading workshop because I'm not teaching you how to read! But to write appropriately for today's audience, you need first to understand how your audience behaves. Once we understand that, writing for them gets much easier.
How can our writing skills improve?
If you aren't questioning or challenging the status quo, then you're not improving. As long as you continue to believe these phrases - 'this is the way I've always done it, so it's the right way' and 'that's what I was always taught' - you’re not questioning the way you are writing. You need to ask yourself whether the approaches that are informed by those phrases are still fit for purpose and whether your writing is stuck in the last century because you’re just sticking with old habits.
Where do buzzwords and industry jargon fit into plain writing?
When you speak to colleagues from the same industry, it's generally with a shared language, so buzzwords and jargon aren’t a problem. They can be useful shortcuts, but as soon as the audience widens to include people from outside the industry, jargon isn’t helpful.
How do you start motivating people to write in plain language?
Real change has to be internally motivated. I could talk to you all day about what you need to change and what should be done differently, but that’s not going to help you change, because we’re all very attached to and feel secure in the way we currently communicate.
I’ll take you through a process of recognising what the challenges of plain language writing are and then figure out what the solution is so that you can start doing things differently. I’ll give lots of examples that’ll help grow your confidence and show that plain language writing is common, acceptable, research-based, and most of all – it works!
Will you look at how to write great emails?
That’s a part of the day that everyone gets super excited about. We all spend so much of our day composing emails, so it’s an easy place we can embed and reinforce our plain language skills. Another huge advantage of using natural language in an email is that it’ll save you heaps of time. Believe it or not, there’s some cognitive and neuroscience associated with both writing and reading emails. But you’ll have to come along to find out more about that!
Who will benefit from attending your workshop?
Put simply, this workshop is for anyone who writes for humans and wants to write their documents quickly and effectively. It’ll also be great for anyone who wants to feel more confident about their writing because confidence is a massive part of getting better and more efficient at writing.
Often the people who feel least confident are actually writing well! They just think they're not writing well because they haven’t got a university background or aren’t confident in using big flash words. In all honestly, I do more untraining than training. If you want to know what things you learned about writing technical documents that are actually making your writing worse, come along!
By the end of the workshop, you should feel more confident about your business writing, plain language will be part of your DNA, and you’ll be able to look at your completed documents and reports through a fresh pair of eyes.
Register for the Perfect Executive Summary
Register for the Business Writing Workshop