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This skill will still be very valuable in the future world of work

We are rushing headlong into a world of virtual meetings and digital interactions. As I outlined here last week, we all need to raise our digital game: running meetings on Zoom; building teams on Teams; delivering projects on Basecamp.

It is tempting to think that new-world skills – working with software, deploying new-fangled hardware – will be those most in demand. But allow me to make the case that there is a very old-fashioned skill that will still be needed and valued greatly.

Writing. Clear and persuasive writing.

It has always been thus, ever since humans began carving letters onto rocks, and creating squiggles that represent words, and words that tell stories, and stories that move mountains.

And it will always be thus, say David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried, the founders of the aforementioned Basecamp, a project management and team communication company. This company has been remote-first for a decade. This is what they think about writing skills (from their book, Remote):

“Being a good writer is an essential part of being a good remote worker. When most arguments are settled over email or chat or discussion boards, you’d better show up equipped for the task. So, as a company owner or manager, you might as well filter for this quality right from the get-go.”

Think about it. If we meet in-person less and virtually more, the one thing we all need to be able to do better is write properly. Which means clearly and precisely. Yet so many are endeavouring to ignore or lose this precious skill, in the mistaken belief that “digital” is about other things.

The person who can capture the essence of a discussion or point of view, and put it across accurately and objectively and with great precision, is valuable indeed. The one who can craft beautifully meticulous emails and updates stands out from the crowd. The one who can convince and charm using the magic of words has even more distinction.

If you wish to be one of these wordsmiths, think of the skill as both an art and a craft. The art lies in breathing life into the material, in telling a compelling story that holds the attention. The craft part is the skill of the artisan, of putting words together sensibly and painstakingly so that final product is fit for purpose.

No matter how digital we make our world, wordcraft will continue to be essential. Brands are built on words – they only connect when the words are resonant and relevant. User instructions depend on good word choices – they must be clear and unambiguous. Project reports, feasibility studies, product descriptions, transport signage, danger warnings – words, words, words.

To elevate their lives to places of meaning, human beings need stories, narratives that create an arc of movement and progress. They need to believe in beginnings, endings and trajectories. Narratives about faith, about identity, about shared challenge, about kinship and community – these all come from words. The wordsmith is ever-present, ever-needed.

Don’t take my word for it – ask organizational leaders. One of the first things a person appointed CEO does is work on their writing game. Loose language, weak grammar and crude typos have to be put behind. The communicator-in-chief’s writing must be as good as anyone’s. I have observed many, who failed to see this earlier in their careers, falter when they take the top seat.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos actually requires all proposals and ideas of substance in his organization to be put in long-form memos (not slides), and to be read silently by all concerned. Not because he is a pedant, but because he thinks we all benefit from putting our argument in well-structured words. He claps for ideas that have the “clarity of angels singing.”

I have written here before: “If you have any designs on leadership or senior management, teach yourself this skill – or have it taught to you. It’s not optional. You won’t be able to delegate it to others. Not all of us can be skilled writers, but many of us do need to be able to express ourselves competently in writing…cultivate it. Use it to stand out. Use it to develop distinction. Use it to do something that’s hard, that requires high standards – and that will make you better and stronger.”

My advice, repeated: “Don’t revel in being a poor writer. Don’t justify it. Remedy it. Even if it doesn’t come naturally to you (it doesn’t to most people), work on it. It will make you a better thinker and a better communicator.” Read a lot more, practice writing a lot more, make yourself better.

(Sunday Nation, 25 April 2021)

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