I was about to start coaching Steve (not his real name). He looked nervous, waiting to hear what I thought of the writing sample he’d sent me. I’d only known him for ten minutes but I liked him: he was funny and straightforward.
Unfortunately, his writing was terrible. It was a speech for his boss, the head of a think tank, full of phrases like “business architecture restructuring” and “building a financial escalator”. Still, I’ve helped people become coherent before. We started working on some exercises, using techniques that have worked for other clients.
After two sessions we were in exactly the same position. He seemed to understand what I said, so why couldn’t he improve?
An idea occurred to me. Steve had told me that he felt he was less educated than his colleagues. I think he was unconsciously making his writing ‘difficult’, and therefore sound clever, to compensate. So for the next session, I took my dictaphone with me. I asked Steve what one of his more mystifying paragraphs meant; recorded his answer, typed it and printed it.
It was good: brief, concise, mentioning the most important points first and backing up assertions with real-world examples. True, it’s unlikely his boss would want to swear quite so much in a speech, but fixing that took a couple of minutes. Redrafting the abstract, complex, jargon-rich writing he’s been producing till now has taken hours, and never produced a good result.
Now we have something. We’ve found a way of getting Steve to write the way he talks.