Friday, November 23, 2012

How to be a Consultant, Part 4: Written Communication Skills

This is Part 4 of a series on what it takes to be an effective computer consultant. In this post we’ll be discussing communication skills; specifically, written communication.

If you’re a consultant, you’re not only going to be writing code you’re also going to be authoring or co-authoring documents. There are many kinds of documents a consultant may need to write, such as estimates, statements of work, user stories, specifications, findings and recommendations, plans, trip reports, and hand-off documents.

Not everyone attaches strong emotion to writing, but there are definitely some people who love to write as well as those who absolutely dread it. Likewise, some people are naturally better at it than others (if you weren’t paying attention during elementary school grammar class, you might be paying for it now in your adult life).
Whether fair or not, some people will significantly raise or lower their opinion of you based on your writing. That might include your customers, your colleagues, your manager, or your subordinates. It’s not only your reputation that’s at risk; your company’s reputation is also on the line.
Know and Conquer (or at least Avoid) Your Weaknesses
Are you a horrible speller? Do you find yourself struggling over the difference between affect and effect? Are you unsure when to include an apostrophe in its? Have you ever used the [non-]word irregardless? If you have a weak area in grammar, spelling, or vocabulary either conquer the problem or avoid it.

Even educated and well-read people with a lot of writing experience can fall prone to common writing errors. I’ve found most of us have a blind spot or two here and there where it comes to grammar and vocabulary. This is easier to notice in others; and it’s quite humbling when you discover you’ve been making an error yourself, especially when pointed out by someone else.
We all have weaknesses we need to work at. The first step is to become aware of them. One of my own writing weaknesses is a tendency to be verbose. Once I became aware of the problem (through reviews of my early technical books), I now work hard at brevity and not repeating myself.

If you just don’t think you can conquer a weak area, try to avoid places where it will come up. If you feel you’re completely hopeless as a writer, you might consider arranging for someone else to do the writing instead. Even better, get a colleague to collaborate with you on the document so you learn from the experience.
The Min Bar: “If I’d Had More Time, I’d Have Written a Shorter Letter”
A consultant isn’t expected to write with the beauty of Shakespeare, the storytelling mastery of Stephen King, or the professorial style of a college lecturer. On the other hand, it’s not acceptable to write at a level below the expectations of high school English class.

In your communication, you should value the following:
• being clear rather than being pedantic
• being succinct rather than being verbose
• having an orderly sequence rather than a jumble of non-sequiturs
holding interest rather than droning on monotonously like a pedagogue
• conveying a singular interpretation rather than being ambiguous
• avoid needless repetition (but do emphasize key take-aways)

It takes work to make your content clear, succinct, orderly, interesting, and unambiguous. You won’t nail these qualities on your first draft so iterative refinement of your composition is essential to arriving at the shorter version that communicates your intent. More simply put, refine your document until it sings.

It’s always important to know your audience when you write something, especially for a consultant. The way you write for a non-technical stakeholder like a CEO should be vastly different than how you write for an IT professional. This should affect not only your choice of words but what you emphasize. A businessperson is going to be interested in benefits, risks, ROI, and market advantage. An IT Professional would be more interested in hearing about capabilities, performance, scale, security, and management.

In consulting, however, you’ll sometimes be writing for a mixed audience. A trip report is one of those cases where technical and non-technical stakeholders might be in view. A good strategy here is to include an Executive Summary section early in the document that summarizes activity, findings, and recommendations clearly and succinctly, with technical jargon de-emphasized and business/financial aspects emphasized. The rest of your document is the supporting detail for the Executive Summary and may assume a more technical audience.
It’s important to inform your audience but not insult their intelligence, and I think this is particularly difficult in consulting. You may feel compelled to provide subject matter context in case your readers are lacking it, yet you don’t want to imply an assumption of ignorance. A good way to find the right balance is to include hyperlinks to online explanations the first time you introduce a term that might be unfamiliar to some of your readers. The hyperlinks will be much-appreciated by those who need it, while those already familiar will keep reading on without giving them a second thought.

Avoiding Techno-Speak
Even for a technical audience, unnecessary techno-speak should be avoided. I always marvel at people who feel they have to use words like repository to describe a database or collection of files. Choosing snooty words for everyday things does not aid reader comprehension, which should be your goal. Sadly, using snooty words seems to be an effective way to justify higher rates for consulting time (“work done today: optimized the web site configuration“ sounds like more work than "I edited the settings file") or sinfully high prices for products (six-figure CRM and ERP systems being prime examples). Hopefully you’re more honest than that.

Acronyms are a tough one (AATO). They’re all but impossible to avoid in computerdom, and they’re both helpful and dangerous. They’re helpful in keeping things brief: would you rather say Customer Relationship Management over and over again, or CRM? Enterprise Resource Planning or ERP? Yet acronyms are also a problem: readers can get annoyed or disrupted when they encounter an acronym they’re unfamiliar with, and quite a few acronyms have more than one meaning (does “ASP” refer to Active Server Pages or Application Service Provider?). The best policy is to use the full term initially, followed by the acronym in parentheses; now that you’ve made it clear what you’re talking about, you can just use the acronym going forward: “For source control the team decided to use Team Foundation Server (TFS) from Microsoft. TFS has a number of features that match the project requirements well, such as… “
Neutrality of Tone
Consultants need to be careful in their tone: they need to provide value without coming off as judgmental, partial, or political. This applies to all communication, especially written. Consultants often operate in an advisory capacity where they are expected to provide a client with a summary of activities performed, options for moving forward, and a recommendation. You’ll be expected to provide “the full picture” on options (what are the pros, cons, benefits, and risks of each?). Your recommendations need to demonstrate that they are based on weighing the pros and cons through the filter of what the client values most. Moreover, should the client not take the consultant’s recommendation and go in another direction, the consultant is obligated to accept this with grace and still do the best job possible.

You should also be neutral and respectful when mentioning direct competitors or competitors to your preferred vendors, partners, or platforms. There's a graceful way to show superiority over the competition that doesn't require going into the gutter--which will turn off many clients. In fact, you can compliment your competitors and still show reason why you're the better choice. For example, "Amazon is a respected cloud provider, but for your particular needs there are several compelling benefits only Windows Azure provides".

Identifying Sources
You do not ever want to put yourself or your company in the position of making claims that cannot be substantiated. Be sure to identify the source of claims you make in your documents. If you’re stating your own conclusions or experience, say so. If you’re repurposing material from another source, be clear about its origin. You should not include material if the source has restricted its use, but a hyperlink to the original may suffice in such cases.

Citing an authority is a great way to add extra weight to any points you want to emphasize. However, using a poor source can backfire on you so be careful about who you quote. Also be careful not to cite material out of context.
The freshness of information is critical when citing others in the technology world. Be sensitive to when online information you plan to use was posted. For example, you may have found a great comparison of two technologies or products that you'd like to reference, but if that comparison was done several years ago the things being compared have likely advanced and might compare differently today.
Be professional at all times. Avoid risky humor such as off-color jokes, political statements, coarse language, or anything that might offend a reader. If writing for an international audience, this is doubly important and easy to miss. It might not occur to an American that “bloody” is a swear word in the UK.

Written material, once created and distributed, might find its way over time to many different people. Even if you think only one person will receive your document, they could decide to pass it on. Therefore, assume an audience of unknown size and go out of your away not to offend.
Layout, Formatting & Templates
It’s a simple fact: whether we’re talking about documents or presentations or public speaking, some people care more about the content and others about appearance and delivery. For document writing, that means it’s not enough to have valuable content that is well expressed: layout and formatting matter just as much in the end or you risk negative perception from some of your audience.

Written documents need styling (title, headings, fonts, etc.). Your company may have a document template available you can use where the styling has already been set (and perhaps some boilerplate content as well). If not, you’ll need to create your own styles. If you’re completely the wrong type of person to do something like this, use one of the styles built-in to Word or base your document on another document whose styling you admire.
Copy and Paste from Other Documents
You may be able find a similar document to the one you need to write, and that may allow you to copy and paste some of the content you need or at least get some inspiration, which you can then tweak for the specific client and project at hand. However, you need to be really careful when cutting and pasting. Don’t represent content you didn’t write as coming from yourself, and don’t represent content that didn’t come from you or a colleague as coming from your company. Above all, avoid accidental mention of the name or details of another client, which can happen quite easily when you’re doing a lot of cutting and pasting. The best policy for documenting copying is to have a “sanitized” boilerplate document that is known to be free of references to specific clients or projects.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
Diagrams, charts, and screen captures can add a dimension of life to a document that greatly clarifies your message and heightens reader interest. Diagrams and charts can be very challenging for some, however, and if they don’t look good it’s actually better to not include them at all.

Screen captures are easy: on a PC, the Prnt Scrn function key on your keyboard will capture your entire display onto the clipboard; ALT + Prnt Scrn will do the same but just for the application window that has focus. Once you’ve captured something to the clipboard you can paste  it into your document. If you want to crop or otherwise edit the image first, paste instead into a tool such as Paint to make alterations, and then copy and paste the revised image into your document.
Many people have difficulty creating charts, but if you have data you can create charts easily in Microsoft Excel with just a little practice. Be very careful with charts: it’s possible to skew perception quite easily by the choices you make about chart type, use of color, units, scale, and so on (see How to Lie with Charts by Gerald Everett Jones).

Creating diagrams is another area some find to be challenging. Visio and PowerPoint can come to your aid here. Visio contains many illustration components you can easily drag and connect; and additional templates are available to extend your collection. PowerPoint offers Smart Art as well as basic shape drawing. A decent mastery of either tool can take you a long way. Interestingly, I find many people strongly prefer one of these tools over the other, so it’s useful to note that whatever you create in one can be pasted into the other.
Emphasizing Take-Aways and Accommodating “Scanners”
You’ve worked hard on your document, and you may be expecting the recipients will carefully read it from stem to stern, devouring every word and retaining everything you’ve said. Those people exist, but they are a distinct minority of the population. Many people will merely scan your document quickly. Even those who read it through may not hold on to all of your essential points. To combat this, you need to work on emphasizing take-aways as well as finding ways to capture the interest of “scanners”.

Think of the most important take-aways you want to communicate and ensure they are brought out and emphasized. It is here that you can make an exception to the “don’t repeat yourself” rule: a small amount of repetition can help here, such as including key conclusions both in an Executive Summary at the start of a document as well as in the Recommendations or Conclusions section at the end of a document.
To capture the interest of the light reader who merely scans, you need things they can’t help but notice as they leaf through your document at high speed (if you’ve used a DVR with your TV you may have experienced this when fast-forwarding). Images, diagrams, or screen captures are the easiest way to do this: the scanning reader will likely focus on these, and if they find them interesting might pause to fully read that section of your document. The choice of words in headings might also be an attention getter, as headings are shown in larger type and also appear in your table of contents if you have one.

Peer Review
No matter how good a writer you are (or think you are), important documents should be reviewed by others. It’s simply too easy for an author to miss their own mistakes: you’ll often see what you think you typed instead of what’s actually there when you review your own work. A second reason for review is to test that the reader gets out of what you wrote what you intended to communicate: written text is easily misinterpreted, as any user of email knows.

This peer review is not just about your writing quality: it also serves to double-check your claims, citations, reasoning, and conclusions. Embarrassing mistakes or content that should not be shared might be caught by a peer review.

Any writer will tell you that you never arrive: the way to improve is to keep writing (and reading). Seek out feedback on your writing and learn from it in a spirit of continual improvement.
Client-directed Outcomes
Sometimes a client will pressure you to reach a particular conclusion. Even worse, where multiple stakeholders are involved there are may be pressure from various parties in opposing directions. This pressure or cross-fire can put a consultant in a very difficult position. What if a client’s “desired outcome” does not match your actual recommendation?

There's no easy answer here, and I suggest involving your management chain when such issues arise. The more you follow the aforementioned advice on neutrality of tone, citing authoritative sources, and professionalism the harder it will be for your work to be attacked. Don't be surprised, though, if at some point in your career you are directed to spin things a certain way because that's what the client want to see in their deliverables. If and when this happens, you'll have to decide if that's a big deal or not and whether you need to make a moral stand or not.

In Conclusion
Writing: it comes with the territory in consulting, so you need to get good at it. Learn from others, learn from yourself, and aspire toward greatness. It’s worth it: working regularly to improve communication (of any kind) yields lifelong benefits. You’ll be immensely satisfied when you get to the point where others compliment you on your writing and imitate you.

Next: Part 5: Verbal Communication Skills

1 comment:

Philippe said...

Very nice Post , thanks !!