Economy of Expression

Economy of Expression ④

Economy of Expression is a four-part series about the role of communication in business. In our fourth and final post, we discuss with Eleanor Scott, artist, educator and Silicon Valley communication specialist, about why the art of written communication is dying in modern business and what we can do to save it.

CHRIS: It's our final post, the last stop on our journey through the Economy of Expression.

ELEANOR: It is, and you know what? I’m really glad we waited until the end to talk about written expression because I feel, out of all the elements of communication, this is the one that is the most endangered, the most under attack.

CHRIS: In what sense do you think it is under attack?

ELEANOR: I feel like written expression isn’t as valued as much as it once was, as much as I believe it should be. It seems today, especially in business, that the art of written expression has been lumped into the category of ‘soft skills’, skills that are nice to have, but not essential. Being an effective verbal communicator is hard and by the same token producing engaging and impactful written communication is equally difficult. When things are challenging or require an investment of time to improve, the natural tendency is for people to kick the can down the road and claim that they are simply too busy.

CHRIS: Are there particular things you see in business that draw you to that conclusion?

ELEANOR: I’ll give you the perfect example. Presentations! I find presentations fascinating because they are at the intersection of written, verbal and non-verbal communication. It’s staggering how often I see people trying to cram as much content as they can onto their slides. I’ve come across people who actually reduce the font size so they can squeeze more text on the page! It’s insane!

Now granted, there are different use cases for presentations, but what I find horrifying is that these folks don’t even realize what a huge mistake they are making. Putting too much content on a slide is a crutch, it’s a backup. People read off slides because they haven’t prepared, and if they haven’t prepared, how can they expect the communication of their ideas to be authentic?

CHRIS: It seems to me that one of the issues is a lack of consideration of the audience for written communication.

ELEANOR: Absolutely. Realizing there is an audience for our written communication is the first step. Who is that audience? Do I need them to read everything I put in front of them? Are they even likely to read everything, and if not, what will they read? Is my written content an aid to support my verbal communication or is it the centerpiece? In the last post we talked about the importance of our bodies when communicating and actively thinking about what we want our bodies to say. Similar consideration needs to happen with written communication.

CHRIS: If written communication is under attack, who or what is it under attack from? Is it technology?

ELEANOR: I actually think that technology presents a fantastic opportunity for all forms of communication, not least written communication. Video, as an example, is an amazing narrative tool. It can be a hugely engaging and effective medium to communicate something that traditionally would have been written. But a great video, relies on a great script. The quality of the experience is inextricably linked to the quality of the writing. If you don’t think about the throughline, the dialogue or the vocabulary, then, no matter how slick the production is, the video will fail to effectively communicate your message. Because of all the ways that we can now digitally communicate from a written standpoint, we actually communicate more. 30 years ago I would have had to write you a letter, or fax you something but now I can instantly text you, email you, Slack you or message you on LinkedIn. It’s easier for us to share ideas, and what tends to happen is that because it’s so easy, we neglect to apply a filter to both the idea and the quality of the communication of that idea. It’s almost as though written content has become disposable.

CHRIS: If the content itself is disposable, are the ideas also disposable?

ELEANOR: I don’t think there has been a reduction in the quality of the ideas, in fact you could easily argue that more great ideas are being generated than ever before. But because we are drowning in so much content, much of it about people’s moment to moment experiences, the great ideas are getting buried. And when I think about Economy of Expression, I think about how to excavate those ideas and shine a light on them.

CHRIS: So what can we, in the business world, do better when it comes to written communication?

ELEANOR: I have plenty of Pro Tips up my sleeve. These are some of the things I’ve seen make a big difference in the businesses I work with.

  1. Use emails for scheduling, clarification, validation or actions only.
  2. Avoid using email for discussions, especially heated ones!
  3. Try to limit the length of your email so that it can be read on one screen of a smartphone (no scrolling!)
Presentations for in person delivery
  1. Present a maximum of three ideas per slide.
  2. Where possible, use images rather than text.
  3. If you find yourself squeezing content onto a slide, start over, there is WAY too much content!
Written communication of ideas
  1. When you have an ‘aha moment’, right it down in full and walk away. Come back in 15 minutes and cut it in half, then walk away again. Come back in another 15 minutes and cut it down to an elevator pitch.
  2. Try Abraham Lincoln’s ‘hot letter’ technique when you are frustrated or angry. Write it all down, get it all out then put it in a drawer. Come back the next day and write the content that is going to lead to a productive result.

CHRIS: It's not rocket science, but I can see how putting those tips into practice could make a big difference.

ELEANOR: They really can. Another piece of advice I give people in the business world is to write more by hand. There are a number of studies that provide evidence of the benefits to both children and adults of writing by hand. I think it’s one of the most creative activities we can all participate in, and creativity is so important, especially in business. To solve the problems of our time, we need creativity, and we need to able to express our ideas effectively.

CHRIS: Well, it's a sad time, but we've reached the end of our series. Thank you for taking the time to share your ideas. Is there one final word of wisdom you have for us?

ELEANOR: I don’t know about wisdom, but here’s what’s captivating: Everything. Everything can be captivating if the person who is conveying the idea has put time into thinking about how they are going to tell their story, if they put time into finding their authentic voice. And here’s what is stultifyingly boring. Everything. Everything can be boring if it is not conveyed without being considered. Without empathy, without preparation. The Economy of Expression is at its core about being authentic and when we are authentic, the great ideas we all have, can truly shine.

Interview with Eleanor Scott, Artist, educator and Silicon Valley communication consultant by Chris Watt, SVP of Corporate Strategy for Tigerspike