For me, as the parent of a new senior in high school (gulp!!!), it brings out a unique form of anxiety as well with a host of to do’s, like filling out college applications, getting recommendations from teachers and writing those dreaded college essays.
And oh – those essays – your one and only chance to convey a lifetime of experiences and choices (the good, the bad and the ugly) distilled down to one page.
As I worked with my high school senior to draft his essays (carefully, very carefully, as this particular species can be a bit touchy), I was reminded of several of the basic tenets of communication that have to be incorporated when it matters the most, whether in a business message or an essay that can take you to a dream school:
- Tell a compelling story. My son has several to tell that would give colleges a great idea of who he is, what he wants out of life and how he wants to achieve his goals. In business communications, this much tougher to do when the content of what you have to convey is (by nature) NOT personal. When you have one and only one chance to get your message right, figuring out a way to tell a story is the critical component of an effective communication. Define and focus on a central theme of what’s important to the reader (the WIIFM) make it uniquely interesting and compelling.
- Give it an emotional “hook.” Ask yourself, “why does the reader care about this?” If you can’t answer that, your communication isn’t right. A reader will get through two sentences into a communication before deciding whether or not the message is relevant; if you don’t lay this out from the beginning, they simply won’t care enough to read on. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath remind us that a story has to be sticky to stay with you and resonate long after the reading is finished. Pull in the unexpected and you’ll get the readers’ attention.
- Weave in the facts. Let them support the story but don’t let them dominate. Business communications need a story behind them – decisions to take a different strategic direction, reduce the workforce or implement a new system should utilize the facts and number to tell the story, but they aren’t the entirety of the story itself. For example, incorporating your business case savings into a message about outsourcing may be relevant, but it’s not the entire reason why a company has decided to make this strategic decision.
- Don’t assume “one size fits all.” My son has different stories about why he wants to go to different universities, so he’s taking his core messages from his essays and tailoring them to each (where the reasons for why he’d want to go to each are different anyway!) In a business communication, different audiences (sponsors, stakeholders, users, etc.) will need different messages tailored to what’s most important to them.
- As always, keep it simple. Don’t weave in the lofty concepts and business jargon – no one cares and they don’t know what it means anyway. Keeping it simple (and rewriting and rewriting until it’s as straightforward and focused as possible) is key.
Sheri Browning is a Partner at PeopleResults and is struggling to deal with the fact that she has a senior in high school. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sbPResults.