Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Why are you writing, anyway?

When you decide to communicate by writing to someone or some group, you consciously, or unconsciously, choose from among three styles: transactional, expressive and poetic.

If you have ever written a love letter, you'll recognize the expressive style:

"I love you from the depth of my being, Bubba! I worship the ground you walk on! I will love you forever, until the end of time!"

That style of writing is pure passion! Lots of exclamation points! Words bleeding onto the page with no editing, a simple, emotional outpouring! And, that's the way it should be! (Try writing a love letter in memo form and you'll see why.)

We don't write many love letters in business, though. Occasionally we write notes of praise, and they sound somewhat similar to love letters, that is, very expressive:

"You rock, Bubba! You completed the project a month ahead of schedule! The client loves you! We love you! We are proud of you and proud to work with you! Keep up the good work!"

These communications celebrate those occasions when we have seen something special happen at the office. In rare instances these messages cross over to the "poetic" style and we experience brief JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr. moments:

"You've been to the mountain, Bubba! You suffered the cold, the deprivation, the harsh winds of business but you persevered and scaled the highest peak and returned with the flag! All of us in the department are proud of your accomplishment in the last client engagement!"

Most of the time, however, we have our feet planted firmly in the cubicle and are communicating to transact business. At those times we use a transactional style to inform, query, or persuade. We arm ourselves with logic and leave the emotions behind. We begin with a statement of our purpose and use the language and style that support our arguments in a logical, coherent fashion, using the paragraph as the unit of thought.

For instance, Barack Obama might write: "We must reduce the federal deficit by 30% within the next six months. We will accomplish this by freezing salaries, cutting expenses, and reducing staffing through attrition. Therefore, I ask that all directors of executive departments prepare a plan within the next two weeks to show precisely the process by which they will accomplish these objectives in their areas. I expect to see specific strategies and actions attached to measurable outcomes. We have a long road ahead of us to financial responsibility but we can arrive at our destination when everyone is on board and moving at the same pace in the same direction."

In this hypothetical message Barack knows his purpose for writing, as stated clearly in the first sentences, the "topic sentence." He supports that statement with specifics in the next three sentences, and he summarizes his message in the last sentence. He has created a "unit of thought" in a transactional style.

When you want to share understanding with an audience (that is, communicate), know your purpose. State it clearly and simply. Write it down to make sure you understand what you are trying to archieve with the communication. When you understand, your audience will also likely understand. As a result, you will save time and money. Hey, who knows, you might even be poetic!


  1. You know, Prof, I really wish all the Academic Professors read this. Sometimes I'm not sure what *purpose* they are trying to achieve when they deliver their lectures. I honestly think that they go by the motto: "If you can't convince them, confuse them."

  2. You have that right! Someone said, If you can't impress them with intelligence, baffle them with bull shit!