The How-To’s of Technical Writing

or, How to Develop Useful Policies and Procedures

A lot of internal communication in business (specifically, process documents and policy statements) isn’t very good. Why? There are several reasons, among them:

  • No one’s listening (to one another or to internal/external customers). How do we expect to expand our knowledge bases if we don’t watch and listen. Listening seems to be a dying art.
  • We don’t know how to communicate in writing or orally. Professionals are the worst, primarily because they’re not required to learn communication skills.
  • We give too much (or not enough) weight to our own experiences. Either way, we are our own worst enemies.
  • We give too much (or not enough) credit to alternative viewpoints.
  • Our needs/requirements are not aligned (they conflict) with those of others. Are we all on the same team or not? Why would we work on a project without considering how it might affect other areas of the organization?

How Do We Begin to Communicate Better?

  • Learn to listen. Barring sufficient evidence to the contrary, everyone else’s opinion is as good as ours. Or, as Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.” Listen and learn.
  • Learn how to communicate effectively. Take a class – or two or three – in oral and written communication. Better still, join an organization like Toastmasters and continue to improve your communication skills. (Use it or lose it.)
  • Learn how to avoid biases and accept alternative viewpoints. Be open to the possibility – however remote it may seem – that others know a lot that you don’t.
  • Share your knowledge and experience with others in the organization. Ask those others to share their knowledge and experience with the organization, as well.
  • Treat all internal communications as if they apply company-wide. They do.

Two Key Pieces of Internal Documentation – Policies and Procedures

Keep in mind as you’re writing a policy or procedure:

  • Keep it simple!
  • Be direct, clear, and concise.
  • Write like you’re introducing the subject to someone who’s never “been there – done that”. Internal documentation is commonly used to train employees unfamiliar with a given process or concept. Don’t talk down to them, though.
  • Don’t assume anything. Assumptions are like automobiles without brakes – they’re highly dangerous, even in the hands of an expert.
  • Ask a lot of questions, even when the answer seems obvious to you. (See the preceding point.)
  • Include your target audience (e.g., people who are already involved in the process) in the planning and development phase. They’ll see things you won’t and they’ll feel they have ownership of the process. (Q: How do you ensure employees won’t follow a procedure or policy? A: Write it without asking for their input.)
  • Remember – you not only represent yourself. You represent your manager, your department, and your company. There are a lot more reputations at stake than just yours.
  • Use the active voice in every statement.
  • Paragraphs shouldn’t be longer than three sentences. If you’ve written a paragraph with five or more sentences, consider breaking it up. (What did you do for your kids when they were a year or two old – put a rack of ribs on their plate and expect them to figure it out? No! You broke, chopped, or sliced their food so they could easily digest it. Breaking up paragraphs is the same idea.)
  • Ensure the use of proper punctuation, spelling, grammar, etc. (“Spell check” is useful in some areas but it misses a lot, too. See the note on proofreading, below.)
  • Don’t use terminology, industry jargon, or acronyms without explaining them. The CEO, CFO, and the Board don’t approve projects they don’t understand.
  • Use enough diagrams, pictures, and symbols to help explain or emphasize points you’re making in the narrative. Remember — a picture may be worth a thousand words but a picture without words has little context or meaning.
  • Always have one or more individuals review, or proofread, your work. If it’s not clear to them what you’re trying to say, consider reworking your document. After that, have them review the document one more time before you publish (release) it.

Thanks for your time. If you have additional suggestions or a differing opinion, I’d like to hear from you.

Next Post – What Is “Policy” and Why Is It Important?

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Posted in Better communication, Policies and Procedures, Policy development

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