Getting Things in Writing

One question I’ve learned to ask myself since I first joined the workforce is “Did I get it in writing?” Why? Well, in my experience, it’s to remember commitments that were made by clients, coworkers, and myself and to keep the right people accountable. It’s also to set and clarify expectations across the board. You can hold as many meetings as you want, but if only verbal agreements ever come out of those, how do effectively track everything that’s been said and done? Good question.

In my first month in the workforce, a coworker introduced me to this wonderful acronym: CYA (cover your ass). I loved it; it held no punches. I’d committed it to memory since then, but it took a few bad experiences to learn to take it to heart.

I used to be satisfied with verbal agreements made at the office, but as it turns out, people forget the things they say. When this happens, it’s best to avoid a he said, she said scenario, especially if you are managing up—another topic altogether—so always have documentation on hand. Who’s going to believe that you have impeccable memory, even if you truly do? Always in hindsight, I realize that I should have gotten it in writing.

Unfortunately, most of us grew up with negative feelings about getting things in writing. Does the Little Mermaid ring a bell? Ursula knew the power of the written word, and the lovesick Ariel signed her life away in a binding contract. Many lessons were learned from that Disney movie, most notably the importance of reading the fine print prior to signing a contract. But let’s not take things too far. For most people, a contract is too formal, too binding; it scares people away. Not everything needs a contract; a simple message will do.

Here are three principles I keep in mind:

  1. Clarity
    Make your intentions clear: what is the purpose of the message? And, of course, what is your message? If you need something done, state the action items. If you need help with something, ask for help. Don’t leave room for interpretation. Some people just want the facts.
  2. Brevity
    Thank you for your effort in drafting your message, but no one’s going to read that if it takes more than x minutes of their time. So what are you supposed to say? Is there a word limit for these things? This can get tricky because people have different styles of consuming content: some will stop reading after x sentences; some will only read headings. Suffice to say that people will have different advice on this one, but mine is this: if I’m on the receiving end, will I bother reading this? Edit away.
  3. Visibility
    What’s the best medium to use for communication? It differs per company, so know your audience. Clarify the official line of communication and the main stakeholders at the onset, so you can make sure that you send your message using a channel that your stakeholders have easy access to and that the right people are reading your message. You also want to make sure your message isn’t going to get buried in the noise: if someone tells you they didn’t receive your message, it should take you less than a minute to pull it up for them.

Essentially, I am saying that abiding by KISS (keep it short and simple) is no longer enough. All three aspects matter equally, which I realized as I joined companies that communicate on several platforms. I’ve found that, for some people, seeing things in writing is like taking a breath of fresh air. As for people who dislike reading, well, they’ll appreciate the more deliberate approach.

Document with purpose. Spread the word.