Wednesday, April 14, 2010

16 Tips for Writing Upwards

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These days my upward communications are almost always in the narrative format, typically 6 page documents with detailed data in the appendix. I've written dozens over the past few years and reviewed dozens more. These are a few things I've learned that I think have helped me write more effective docs. Whether you're writing for big company executives, boards, or V.C.'s, many of the same techniques may apply.

1. Identify Your Audience
A good doc has a specific audience in mind. The same doc will never be ideal for audiences up, across, down or out. Once you've identified the audience, many of the choices you'll make while writing the doc (e.g. altitude) will be much easier to make. In this post I focus on docs written to be circulated upwards.

2. Identify the Document's Goal
Documents should have a goal in mind. The goal could be to communicate an operational plan for the year, provide a status update, seek approval for a specific course of action, or explain the root cause and steps to prevent reoccurrence of a problem. Once you know your audience (but not before), and the goal the document is intended to achieve, you're ready to move on. If you're unclear on either then punt on the doc or clarify the audience and doc's goal with whoever asked you to write it.

3. Find Some Good Examples
Hunt around for other similar documents and pore through them. You may find some on your company's Intranet and you can ask around among peers for good examples they've written or come across. I guarantee you, if you read 10 docs you'll come away with a sense for which were effective and what you can learn (i.e. copy) from them. This is not cheating. Be aware that if you're writing for a particular exec or group that the format they favor might be different than the format favored by others. Find this out ahead of time if you can.

4. One Doc, One Author
Co-authoring a doc is painful, and the Frankendocs that result are usually painful to read as well. Collaborate on the outline, perhaps, but either write it yourself or have your prospective co-author write it. Don't tag-team.

5. Add an Executive Summary
Boil the entire doc down into a few bullets or a paragraph. Spill it. Your temptation will be to save the good stuff for the end of the doc to build suspense or get your excuses in ahead of time. Resist! If you are emailing your doc to a group of people many won't read the whole thing. The exec summary communicates the highlights, which is all some of the audience needs to know. For those that will read the whole doc the executive summary lays out the structure of the doc and answers key questions that might otherwise have clouded comprehension.

6. Take Time on the Outline
Just like it is quicker to fix a software bug during unit testing than in production, it is much more efficient to iterate of the outline of a document than to rework a fully written doc. I often ask my newer product managers to review the outline of a doc with me and incorporate any structural feedback I have before going on to write the full doc. Sometimes I even provide them a rough outline of what I'm looking to get from a doc to help get them started. Simple bullets are ideal. I don't want sentences or mini-paragraphs.

The outline should tell a story from top to bottom, and it shouldn't be flat. An outline with 16 sections at the same level isn't an outline, it's a list. If you find yourself with more than 5-6 sub-sections underneath any one heading consider grouping them. This gives the reader a framework to attach the information to, and helps them understand what to make of it. You'll know you're getting really good at outlines when you can go from the outline to the full doc by replacing each bullet in the outline with a couple sentences.

7. Add Themes for Structure
Themes are a great way to provide structure for a doc. If you're laying out an operational plan for the year you might want to communicate 2-3 themes for the year, why different themes will be focus areas in different parts of the year, and how resources are going to be allocated between the themes. Themes take a doc from the 100,000 foot view to the 10,000 view. If you skip them, then you risk losing your audience between the high-level content and the tactical content; they don't know how they got there.

8. Anticipate Key Questions in the Main Content
As you write the individual sections, take the reader from the 10,000 foot view to the 1,000 foot view. Start with the minimum amount of content necessary to achieve your goal. Use plain words and declarative (not flowery) language.

Your content will prompt questions from the reader. Try to anticipate what those questions are likely to be and answer them immediately after they're likely to be arise from your content. If you don't, the reader will be distracted as they read the rest of the doc looking for the answer (at least I am). I try to include one level of answers in the doc, but anticipate the second, deeper round of questions and have the answers to those in the appendix or in my back pocket (figuratively).

9. Use Numbers
Never use words like "huge", "large", "rapid", "tiny", "significant", "meaningful" alone if you can accompany (or replace) them with a number. Which statement communicates more information?

"Sales grew at a rapid pace in Q2."
"Sales in Q2 were $12.5M, an increase of $2M (19%) over Q1 and $4.5M (56%) over Q2 of the previous year."
Also, get in the habit of providing absolute values as well as percentages. Don't make the reader whip out the calculator app on their iPhone and figure it out for themselves. Finally, if you're communicating the change in a percentage value (e.g. conversion, attrition), give the change in basis points (bps), not another percentage.

"Gross margin grew by 10 bps, from 3.2% in Q1 to 3.3% in Q2."
is easier to parse than:
"Gross margin grew by 3.1.%, from 3.2% in Q1 to 3.3% in Q2."

10. Use TK's for Flow
While you're writing the doc, don't stop to dig into your Excel spreadsheet or plow through your email archive to find that specific number you need. Use "TK" (short for "to come") in place of the number, or highlight it, or add a comment to the doc and fill it in later. If you're on a roll and in the flow state writing the doc the last thing you want to do is context switch. Exception: If the value should impact the outline or the story you're trying to tell in the doc then find it out ahead of time.

11. Avoid Weasel Words
Replace "may", "might", "plan to", "possibly", "close to" with words like "will" or other replacements that add accountability. Which statement builds confidence more?

"We expect to complete project X early in the year, which may generate hundreds of thousands of new customers."
"Project X will be completed in April and generate 340K new customers through the end of 2010."
12. Review for Inconsistencies
After you've written the doc, review it for inconsistencies. Did you say that your themes for the year were going to be improving the product and then ramping up customer acquisition, but your roadmap has the big SEM spend at the beginning of the year and your hard-core prod dev work at the end? Do you say that fixing UX potholes is a priority for the year but have no specific projects or resources allocated to this area? Finding the inconsistencies in a doc is a skill that comes with experience. The people reviewing your doc probably have that experience.

13. Double-check Numbers
Explicitly double-check all the numbers in your doc again, backwards and forwards. Recalculate absolutes and percentages in both directions. Cross-check them against a different set of values. If your doc states that your cost for customer acquisition is $5 and you plan to add 100K new customers next quarter, does your financial forecast later in the doc have a line item of $500K for customer acquisition? If not, explain why the numbers don't add up or fix them.

Factual errors and wrong numbers in a doc can completely erode confidence in the doc and its author. People remember them.

14. Proofread for Spelling and Grammar
Duh. These make you look stupid and/or lazy. If your doc is littered with misspellings then it gives the impression you didn't put a lot of thought or effort into the doc, which can also erode confidence.

15. Put Details in the Appendix
Don't add a ton of graphs, charts, source data, or explanations to the main document body. Put the key stuff in the main doc and the supporting data in the appendix. If you find yourself putting content in the main body that changes the rhythm of the doc, then ask yourself if it is really necessary to achieve the doc's goal. If not, appendix.

16. Find a Friendly Reviewer
It's not cheating to have one or more people review your doc before prime time. Find someone who is really good at writing docs (especially for your intended audience) and ask them if they wouldn't mind reviewing your doc. Make sure to give them adequate time to review it (at least 3 days). Don't send them a half-baked doc. Don't have them review it multiple times. Don't ask them to keep reviewing your docs if you haven't incorporated feedback from their previous reviews. If you pick the right person, then the pre-review can flush out key questions you didn't answer and inconsistencies that you're too close to see.

I hope these 16 tips are useful. Did I miss any?


1 comment:

  1. These tips are really useful. Thanks for sharing them! I've got them bookmarked. I would be curious what sort of tips you would give, along the same lines, for presentations. Perhaps you're already answered it on Quora!