Why Should You Choose Writing Over Meeting?
Like I said in part one of this post - it is my firm belief that the brief shall inherit the earth. COVID-19 has provided me the opportunity to acid test that theory. Happily, I’m finding that my hypothesis was correct. Writing is a workplace skill that works for you, and rapidly pays dividends. It allows you to refine your ideas, spread them easily, and sway people to your point of view - all while improving your own understanding, reclaiming your time, and measuring your output.
Writing clarifies your thinking.
It’s much easier to spot a good idea when you’re not working hard just to remember it. Writing frees you from the mental overhead of organizing your thoughts. Transferring your ideas onto a written page allows for questioning, pruning, critiquing, and reworking. Your energy becomes focused on analysis rather than retention. This is a critical shift. It is good analysis that allows you to kill half baked thoughts before they’ve made it out the front door. Thoughts that have aged well will likely survive several rounds of critical thinking before they have matured to their proper point of debut. This is a win for everyone at your company: it ensures that only your strongest thinking is released into the wild.
One of the most powerful outcomes of a written brief is that it clarifies your own thinking first. A convenient secondary outcome is that your thinking is now captured in a format that’s really easy to distribute. It’s much easier to share an email, or a Google Doc, or a Confluence page than it is to schedule a meeting and give a presentation. This only becomes more true as the number of stakeholders who need to receive the presentation grows. Good luck getting everyone in the room if you’re in a large organization, or worse - a multinational corporation. Your ideas need a way to reach all of those people that’s not bound to your time!
Sure, if you’re working for a startup, and it’s just you and your two cofounders, it might be easier to convey your thinking over coffee. But think about this - if you’re successful, you’ll eventually want to hire someone else. That person is going to need to come up to speed on all of the context you and your cofounders have already developed. It’d sure be nice if there were some sort of manual they could read that explained your thinking and your decisionmaking!
Distributing a written idea helps expose your thinking to external feedback. How? First, it helps sort your readers into three piles:
- The folks who read it and grok it,
- The folks who read it and didn’t understand it, and
- The folks who read it and don’t agree with it.
This is a huge benefit for everyone involved. Why?
- It saved you the time of personally convincing some subset of your readers.
- It identifies what points could be made more obvious.
- It helps reveal logical bugs - either in your writing, or in your reader’s understanding.
This step is so important because it’s an opportunity to further improve your brief. Your brief has given your readers a window into your thinking. It’s important to perceive how your thoughts are reflected by your readers. Is the reflection clear? Or is it distorted?
Once you start having these conversations and gathering these reflections - don’t stop writing! Revise! Edit! Redistribute! Learn what is confusing people, and add details to clarify. Figure out the flaws in your logic, and revise until they are gone from your brief. Determine the counterarguments to your plan, and include details to pre-empt them.
A conversation can only be had once. A brief can be revised a million times.
Modern tools help you measure your written ideas.
Digital tools make it a lot easier to gauge how good of an idea you’ve had, by seeing how far it spreads. Is your email getting cc’s added? Are your Google Docs getting shared out? Are your Confluence page views spiking? Sounds like you might be getting traction.
Writing is more convincing than presentations.
How many times have you managed to utterly convince someone with a 15 minute PowerPoint deck? Or even an hour PowerPoint deck?
It’s hard to win people over with PowerPoint presentations. The challenge only multiplies as the audience size grows. They might be the default means of pitching ideas in corporate America, but PowerPoint presentations have a lot of issues:
- Many presentations are paced too fast for people to absorb the logical details.
- The recipients’ attention is divided between PowerPoint and presenter. That inherently makes it hard to know what to focus on at any given point.
- It’s really hard to add a convincing chart or graph into a powerpoint deck. That makes them weaker approaches for data driven decision making.
- If there’s a point in your presentation that one of your recipients doesn’t understand, there’s a chance they will not to speak up for fear of looking stupid.
A written brief solves every single one of these challenges:
- It’s reading material, which allows the reader to set the appropriate pace.
- There’s only one piece of material on offer, so your recipient’s attention is undivided.
- It’s easier to add detailed charts, and even more detailed explanations, in a written brief. There’s no time artificial time pressure to understand a chart in a brief; the reader is not under the gun to glean all possible conclusions from it before the looming “next slide”.
- Since briefs are read, they are somewhat private. There are tons of options for your recipient to tell you they don’t understand a point in your brief without looking stupid.
Writing is uninterruptible.
Since we’re talking about presenting: think of the number of times that you’ve given a presentation and someone has jumped in with “…one quick question” - which completely derails the conversation.
I have never once been interrupted mid-written-brief. That’s a powerful advantage. It allows you to tell a story, with examples, and data, and logic. Great briefs have a narrative, and a structure, and a message. They’re also harder to counter - partly because a great brief takes a lot of time, energy, and thought to make. It’s a bit Machiavellian, but one way to succeed is to build a skillset that is hard to counter. Writing is one of those.
As an aside - I have some theories about what drives people to interrupt presentations:
- Insecurity about their own ability to comprehend you,
- a desire to ensure their understanding is correct,
- a desire to feel like they have some control over your presentation.
…but that’s a deep enough topic to warrant its own post.
A brief is not a silver bullet. They certainly don’t account for differences in learning styles. Some people absorb information visually. Some people learn by talking. Some people consume information through reading. Respond accordingly to these situations with strategic conversations - or even meetings, if you must.
Another caveat: a brief is the sort of artifact that can be unearthed in a political cleansing, and held up as evidence that you’re deserving of the axe. Clever readers will note that this move is an attempt to retcon history. A brief is not a window into the future; it’s a summary of your thinking based on the best information available to you at the time of writing. One hopes that reasonable leadership will understand this, although I admit that hoping for reason or leadership in an organization that is subject to purges is probably a pipe dream.
Thanks to Sara Morris for several rounds of detailed feedback and proofreading.
Find her on the Instagram at @saramorris____.