S4e20 The Getting the Best From Your Written Communication Edition with Leslie O’Flahavan
James chats with Leslie O’Flahavan a get-to-the point writer and an experienced, versatile writing instructor. E-WRITE owner since 1996, Leslie leads customised writing courses for Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and non-profit organisations.
Leslie helps the most stubborn, inexperienced, or word-phobic employees at your organisation improve their writing skills, so they can do their jobs better. As a result of her work, Leslie’s clients improve their customer satisfaction ratings, reduce training cycles, improve productivity, and limit legal risk.
She is a LinkedIn Learning author of five courses on topics including writing for social media; live chat and text; plain language; and technical writing.
They discuss improving communication with your customers in written channels, the emergence of email, writing great web content, plain language, getting the results you want, training your employees to write well, improving CX through better communication, text and messaging, and where to start writing better.
• Twitter: https://twitter.com/LeslieO
• LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/leslieoflahavan/
• Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ewriteonline/
• Email: Leslie@ewriteonline.com
• Website: https://ewriteonline.com
James Nathan 00:53
Hello and welcome to The Only One Business Show with me your host James Nathan and I’ve got a fabulous guest yet again for you this week and I’m hoping you’re going to really enjoy what she’s got to say. This person is a get to the point writer and an experienced versatile writing instructor. Owner of a business E-Write since 1996. She leads customised writing courses for Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and nonprofit organisation. She helps the most stubborn, inexperienced or word phobic employees at your organisation improve their writing skills, so they can do their job better. As a result of her work her clients improve their customer satisfaction ratings, reduce training cycles, improve productivity, and limit legal risk. She is a LinkedIn Learning author of five courses on topics including writing for social media, live chat and text, plain language and technical writing. Please welcome Leslie O’Flahaven. Leslie, how are you?
Leslie O’Flahaven 01:54
I’m really happy to be with you today. Thank you so much. I’m doing fine.
James Nathan 01:55
That’s great. It was lovely to hear from you. And you’re all over in Maryland, which is one of my favourite parts of the States. What’s happening in Maryland at the moment?
Leslie O’Flahaven 02:06
Well, it’s a gloomy but dramatic day, we have beautiful fall foliage here and all as well.
James Nathan 02:15
Excellent. Growing up in Australia, where there aren’t really seasons, it’s just kind of really hot or not quite as hot, and sometimes rainy. Fall/Autumn is one of my favourite parts of northern hemisphere. There’s just magical
Leslie O’Flahaven 02:29
Mother Nature showing off again.
James Nathan 02:31
Absolutely. Absolutely. And you work with some really big businesses, don’t you?
Leslie O’Flahaven 02:36
I do. I certainly have along these 26 years that I have owned my business. I have helped a lot of companies, you know, improve their communication with customers, because many of them employ people who used to connect with customers on the telephone in written channels. And you know, it’s always sounds patronising to say, bless their hearts, but bless their hearts, those frontline telephone customer service reps aren’t really well prepared to write email, chat, social media, text, chatbot content, etc, etc. So that’s where I step in and help brands thrive when they deliver customer service responses.
James Nathan 03:25
Fantastic. I mean, the written word is one of those things, which you I think there’s very few people say I don’t like it, but how did you get to doing the work you’re doing now? Where did it start? And how did you end up in the position you are now?
Leslie O’Flahaven 03:39
Well, it seems kind of funny, really. My professional life began, I was a high school English teacher, and then I became a college writing instructor. That part isn’t funny at all.
James Nathan 03:54
But you know, we’ll get there.
Leslie O’Flahaven 03:56
Well, actually, that part of my career was a wonderful time, I was not one of those teachers who got burnt out, not at all. But when email joined the workplace as a communication channel, I knew enough about how people learn to write and how they did it well, because that was my profession. I knew enough that email and other kinds of online writing were going to do make demands on people’s writing skills they weren’t prepared to meet. So back in 1996, I started a company which as you know, as you mentioned, is called E-Write E hyphen, WRITE, that’s how old it is. It’s still a hyphen after the E because I know I knew as a writing teacher, that writing email is more like improvisation than for many people then craft. You know you compose and publish at once. And all of the other ways, the other safeguards that we have as writers that we will compose, reflect, review and then publish, many of them disappeared when email became a writing channel in the workplace. And that has only intensified the writing channels we use, teams messaging, slack, are a lot more like improvisation. So how do we help people do this? Well, that’s how I knew there would be room in the in the work world, for someone who could help companies communicate better.
James Nathan 05:34
It’s amazing. You say that, because we do use email now, as a matter, of course, for a lot of stuff. And I’m always saying to people, you know, pretend you’re a carpenter, you know, carpenters, say, you know, measure twice and cut once. With email, read twice and send once it’s a whole lot better than backtracking and trying to fill in the gaps. But say, How long did it take ’til the snowball started to really move with email for you?
Leslie O’Flahaven 05:59
Well, when we started the company, and really our mission at the beginning was to help people learn to write well, at work, that’s still our mission. But back in 1996, we’re like, hey, would you like a workshop on writing email? And the world said, no, no thank you. Because, you know, in 1996, and, you know, from 5/10 years after that, email was channel people used for less substantial communication. So an email might say, Would you prefer to meet at 10am? Or would 11am be better. And if he had something important to say it was never in an email. Well you know, now, that isn’t true at all. And really, email should be, we should think of email as the name of the box the communication is packaged in, it doesn’t reflect anything about the complexity or the seriousness of the, of the communication. So when we started, we switch quickly from helping people learn to write better email to helping people learn to write better web content. And that was a strong need. People did not know how to write web content. And and they had the notion that if they took their six panel print brochure and made a PDF out of it and put it online, that that was good web content. Of course, it wasn’t.
James Nathan 07:28
But that was the start, wasn’t it? For most businesses, it was just a brochure.
Leslie O’Flahaven 07:32
Indeed, indeed. Let’s clip that PDF to cyberspace and let people struggle through it.
James Nathan 07:40
And struggle they did, I think, I wonder how many of those brochures actually ever got read. You know, the amount of time that was put into writing copy for those things for people just to stick it in a drawer. Whereas the internet is different. But how is it different?
Leslie O’Flahaven 07:56
Well, we can’t assume that we we can can suggest or even control, a sequence for reading, you know. So when, when the writer, the provider of the content, can’t suggest or control the sequence for reading, then each component that a person might read, each web page, each form, each caption has to have merit in isolation, has to make sense and create an emotional reaction and have meaning separate from its written cousins. And this is why people, you know, needed and continue to need help on creating content that will not be read in a predictable or linear way. Because the pressure to write a smaller unit, but make it really worth reading is a great pressure.
James Nathan 08:52
And you mentioned in that introduction, I mentioned plain language. And I know you’re a big advocate of plain language. But what does that mean in context of what people are doing in their day to day jobs.
Leslie O’Flahaven 09:03
Plain Language is a communication philosophy that describes a relationship between the writer and the reader. And it simply says that it’s the writers responsibility to make what they’re writing easy for the intended reader to read. And not the other way around. Academic writing is the opposite of plain not only because academic writing often includes long sentences and rococo words and all that kind of thing. It’s because in academic writing, the writer the student is writing for the most knowledgeable expert, the professor and is not intent on making the writing, easy to read. But in plain language, the writer accepts the responsibility, the obligation to make the information easy for the intended reader to read.
James Nathan 09:58
I’m lost for words a little bit Leslie because that just makes sense. If I write an email to you, I want you to understand it, I don’t want you to misinterpret it. I want it to be as simple as possible to, for you to get exactly…. the meaning of communication is the response you get, isn’t it? So, if I don’t get the response I want, I’ve written it badly. That just makes sense to me. Is that not the case with most people?
Leslie O’Flahaven 10:20
Well it is the case, you know, just like everyone intends to exercise more and eat better and be nicer to their parents, you know, everyone says, Yes, of course, I want it to be easy to read. But when you really accept the work you might have to do, there’s a challenge there. If you’re the writer, you might have to do substantial work to make it easy to read. So take for example, a ballot measure that all the residents of the county or a state will vote on. Well the people who write the ballot question need to do a tremendous amount of work to ensure that all eligible voters will be able to understand it? You know, that’s, that’s a that’s legendary amount of plain language work. But let’s imagine that you’re writing an email. And it’s a request for a double double the size budget for a project and you’re writing to the Chief Financial Officer at your company, not knows one writer and one reader, you know, and then in the plain language work you might have to do to write that email would involve being honest with yourself about why the CFO will be sceptical of doubling the budget or resistant and figuring out which reasons to double the budget will matter the most to that particular reader and presenting them first. So it’s, you know, it’s not the…. you don’t have to adjust the readability level of your email, because you can assume that the Chief Financial Officer at your company has a comparable reading literacy level to you, the writer, but as you might have to do on the ballot measure, but you will have to do some work. And it’s accepting that you will do that work. And that’s your obligation to do the work that defines plain language writing.
James Nathan 12:24
Ah, you know, it’s, in fact, I, just thinking back to the communication, you and I had ahead of recording this podcast, I sent you a request for some information, I’m not going to go back and read that and make sure it’s written better.
Leslie O’Flahaven 12:40
That’s the effect I have on people.
James Nathan 12:42
That’s a good thing. That’s a good good thing. What’s interesting is the response I got from you, because some people you know, they don’t send me anything. And I have to chase and what have you. But the response I got from you, Lesley was beautifully structured, highlighted the areas of which I’d asked you for a response to, and very simple to read. And I appreciate that as your your stock in trade. But as a reader, for me, I look at and go, awesome. That’s what I want. And it makes it so simple. And I do wonder if sometimes if the parts of our jobs, which should be quite simple, we try to complicate
Leslie O’Flahaven 13:19
Well, we I doubt we try to complicate that. One of my one of my my business philosophies as a person who helps people learn to write better, one of my business philosophies is that people are trying to do a good job, even when they fail. It’s rare that people are trying to do a poor job and people are trying to write clearly, they’re trying. They may not have the skills or the repertoire, I like that word, they may not have the repertoire, they may not know what else to do. So you know, James, in that, in that communication you sent me, I’ll give you one plain language tip right now. Put the requests up at the top.
James Nathan 14:03
Right. Fine. I think from a sales perspective, and I build the image to the point where I asked the question, do you see and now I’m going to change that completely. So thank you. I’m right on that. And literally, but I appreciate that, you know, people are doing the best job they can with the resources they have available. And, you know, I doubt for a moment that anyone’s trying to do a bad job. But also I don’t think people think about these things enough. And you know, if you said to someone, when was the last time you thought about the quality of your your email content that they would probably say to you what you’re talking about?
Leslie O’Flahaven 14:39
Yes, they might and you know, here’s a way a perspective to offer them in this one I do offer. I wouldn’t say have you thought about the quality of your email writing lately, you scoundrel, you should. I wouldn’t ever say that. What I would say is, did you recently send an email that didn’t get the results you wanted? Even if it was a request for someone’s banking details, so you could pay their invoice, you know, did you recently send an email that didn’t get the results you wanted? Well, let’s see if we can figure out why. And you know, the answer isn’t always that your colleagues are stupid, hateful and lazy. That’s not the answer. Not always. So. So I like to think about making important and practical changes in the way you write. Because you have identified the result you want to get, and you’re wondering, how should I write so I get that result? And then customer service writing, you know, how should my company respond to this tweet so we get the result we want? Or Should my company improve itself service offerings? Should we replace our stupid dusty stringy old FAQs page with a searchable knowledge base so we get the result we want? And the result is fewer questions, or more trust or more business, all of those results.
James Nathan 16:18
It’s interesting, you mentioned FAQs, because my my experience of them has been that people put FAQs there because it fulfilled a need for Google search algorithm, rather than actually help their client base, which is ….. If I’m sitting here, and I’ve got, I’ve got my business, we’re going okay, and I think, right, I’ve listened to Leslie and I reek, I like the idea of improving our written communication. Where do I start it it email? Is it social? Is it website? where’s the where’s the starting point? For most people?
Leslie O’Flahaven 16:49
Well, I think all companies need a website they can be proud of. And, and, you know, I’m not sure you would start there. But you can never ignore the website, you just can’t it, it would be…. I don’t know any business that would defend that, but we need a website we can be proud of. And we need internal communications, that improve the employee experience and help people serve customers better. So I would say the need for high quality internal content is as high as the need for high quality external content. We also need a climate of learning about writing and learning to write better, because the way we communicate keeps changing and is changed more quickly in the last generation than…. because the tools we use to write have changed so much, than in any period before. So one, when when the utility, you know, the lights go on, the internet is steady, you know, we need a learning content for writing in our organisations. So we can help people meet the changing needs of writing. So I would start with the website, I would move quickly to high quality internal content, whether that is well regulated, or I don’t know, fertile Slack, or an intranet or great policies about internal newsletters and great internal newsletter content. And then I would ask how am I helping the people who work in my company continue to learn to write well?
James Nathan 18:39
Are people just getting lazy with writing?
Leslie O’Flahaven 18:42
No, and you know what? I’m older than you are. I’m older than everyone I work with. And I will have no, I will have no…..
James Nathan 18:50
That’s a change for me Leslie. I’ve always the old man in the room!
Leslie O’Flahaven 18:53
I’m older than you. And I will have no part of the kids these days refrain about writing. I’m not here for it. I think it’s stupid. And I’m not here for it at all. So if you have…. if there are young employees in your, in your company, and you notice, my goodness, they they approach writing very differently from me than either stepping and help them learn how to write email, they don’t want to write email. They don’t like it and they haven’t done it in their personal lives. If you need him to do it, well step in and help them learn and embrace what they do know. You know, they know they write more nimbly, they create more language than you know I did when I was a teenager.
James Nathan 19:37
Well, it’s yeah, I mean, I don’t buy into the difference in generations in any way, in that sort of way. And I think it’s a great creative outlet for people to to ask them to be more imaginative with the language they use and to think about the way they operate. But you know, I remember at uni when I was doing my Bachelor of Business in the years before internet, business writing was a part of that and actually really enjoyed it. But it was different. And we had to learn to do it. There’s no reason why someone coming to the workplace today should suddenly know how, when, you know, they don’t even ask my kids about email, they said, that’s an old person’s thing.
Leslie O’Flahaven 20:13
That’s right. That’s right. And young employees in the workplace, they suffer and their managers suffer. Because if they say you should know how to write email, I know how to write email, you should know how to write an email. Well, this person doesn’t. So what are you going to do now? You know, move, move forwards stop dwelling on what they don’t know. I think it’s disrespectful.
James Nathan 20:37
And when you work…. because you do work with, I mentioned at the beginning, some big companies and you’re certainly, you know, working to help them communicate better with their writing, what are some of the big wins or big results you’ve seen, or differences you’ve seen in businesses that when they’ve been able to improve their communication?
Leslie O’Flahaven 20:54
Well, it depends which part of the company I’m working with. So I’ve worked with many airlines, many airlines, and help their frontline customer service writers write better email, write better social media posts, write better chat, and there are so…. it’s like planting a garden, there are so many positive results of helping some of the company’s most disempowered employees find their footing when they write because they, the employees have better job satisfaction. And customers write back less often. So you know, talk about making a bad situation a little bit better, the employees feel happier. And you know, the angry traveller whose bag was chewed up by the baggage handler, the machine that delivered it to the carousel, that person isn’t going to write four emails to the airline, they might write just one. And if they have to write a double, they’ll write to. So we see better customer satisfaction, fewer contacts with the company, in this case, an airline and better employee satisfaction quickly, because mostly, what we’re… what I help frontline customer service writers do, is blend what I would call free text with pre written content. You know, most companies use form letters or email templates, or macros, or whatever you want to call them. Some part of the response is pre written, as well as should be, we don’t want anybody keyboarding prices, for example, we want that pre written, we don’t want them keyboarding policy verbiage want that pre written, but we do want them to free text or custom write portions of the response. Otherwise, the customer distrust the information and feels resentful for being served a form response. And as a writing task, it is extremely difficult to knit free writing with pre writing, this is a very high level task. It’s much harder than free writing the whole response.
James Nathan 23:14
I can imagine. I mean, I think we just… while you’ve been speaking there and thinking about the, you know, the email communication I’ve had with different businesses, and some of them are very, very good indeed. And some of them are not. And that frustration of having to say sorry, no, you didn’t read what I wrote. Or could you please read that last line as well as the first line? My goodness, it goes on and on and on. I mean, I’ve had a lot of content recently with with Tesla, I’ve got a car and it needed something doing with it. They are fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. But it’s all through a text system. There’s no email at all. And actually, for that instance, that works very well. Where your thoughts around communicating with our clients on social apps like WhatsApp and, and even text messaging? How does that differ for your clients? And where do you think the future goes with that?
Leslie O’Flahaven 24:08
Well, we are our companies should be communicating with customers and colleagues via WhatsApp and other text messaging apps, just any company that’s not doing that as I don’t know, blind or in denial of some good, you know, the text, SMS is the most widely used App of all the apps in all the countries across all age groups. So like, you know, come on, just just join. The difference, one big difference, though, is that we don’t when we when we talk on the phone, you know, it is synchronous conversation and we begin it at the same time, and we end it with a ritual word goodbye, thanks, you know those kinds of words, and we close it out at the same time. Email of course, is asynchronous. And in general, we’re trying to achieve completion with each communication in email. You know, we want to write well enough in email that we don’t beget 10 more emails, we want to kind of accomplish it. But with SMS communications, we don’t. It’s a conversation, not, not synchronous, really, it’s not, it’s not synchronous. It may be asynchronous, but it’s not discrete as in, we’re not trying to finish it off one communication at a time. So there are some important writing skills that we need to bring to SMS communication because we really…. we want and accept the idea that it’s going to continue. And then the conversation might be reopened at an unknown time. And it needs to reopen well, and continue again, in the future sometime. So there are some different writing skills there.
James Nathan 26:03
It’s fascinating to think about how that works, and where it where it moves to. Who’s doing well, who’s writing well, or who’s who’s using language in these contexts, the best that you’ve seen recently?
Leslie O’Flahaven 26:16
Well, I’ve seen success in lots of different realms, in lots of different industries. You know, nonprofit organisations, big ones, and small ones. In one example, here in the US, the American Association for University Women, they, their social media, communications are excellent. And of course, given who they are, they have a strong political perspective, and their communications are saturated with it. Another great example here in the US, of government communication, in social media, that’s very candid is TSA, the Transportation Security Administration, you know, which everyone loves to hate. You either love to hate them or hate to hate them, but but they, they have always been known for efficiency and candour, in social media, and in fact their social media communications, have been staffed by TSA agents, which is pretty remarkable. Talk about non writers doing a great writers job. In airlines, I think Hawaiian Airlines is a fascinating example. And they have been a client of mine, though, not recently. Their brand, consistency, the consistency of their branding, and their communication is really strong. And also, I don’t know quite how the expresses it’s not. It’s not laid on thick, it’s just sincere. So, and their efficient. So those are three examples I can offer with happiness.
James Nathan 28:02
And if I’m sitting in my office, and I’m listening again to you, and I’m thinking, yeah, I think I’d like to, to improve what I’m doing. What’s the starting point for me? How do I go about improving my writing generally?
Leslie O’Flahaven 28:19
Just as an individual?
James Nathan 28:21
Leslie O’Flahaven 28:21
Yes, I’d say first thing you can do is start to collect writing that you notice is good. And, and, you know, find a place to park this the samples, in your make a folder called good writing, you know, paying you for that tip. That was brilliant. And, you know, reading analytically, or reading in a way that you can notice what the writer is doing is the first step to building better writing skills. And to read that way, you have to have noticed why something worked well. So and most of us, you know, we may struggle as writers, but we, we will know, what worked well. For us, when we were reading there’s, there’s not much struggle there. So I’d say start collecting writing that you notice is good. And, you know, maybe grouping the samples, you collect by type, here’s a business email from a colleague. That’s good. You know, it was easy to read why? And here are social media posts that I don’t… that are funny, but not snarky. How did they do that? You know, that kind of thing.
James Nathan 29:34
Fantastic. It was really good advice. Because we do that in other aspects of our business life, don’t we? So it makes absolute sense to, to think about that now. And Leslie, if you were…… I want to ask you the one big question, what would be your big tip your your golden nugget, your piece of advice for people listening today, something that they could do in their business today to make it better for today, and better for the years to come? What would that be?
Leslie O’Flahaven 30:00
Honestly, I’ll go back to a tip I offered earlier. I would say, if you are an employer, you should expect to be called upon to help your employees write better, you should expect that and you should consider it an expected business expense and a retention opportunity. Plan to help your employees learn to write better. Offer them training opportunities. If you can’t afford training opportunities, work in house to help. Let your Director of Communications, talk to the administrative assistants and talk about how we write here. Why we have a style guide. What we’re trying to accomplish in our company, but do expect to help people improve.
James Nathan 30:56
Leslie, that’s absolutely fabulous. And thank you so much for your time. You’ve given us so many great things to think about there.
Leslie O’Flahaven 31:02
It’s absolutely been my pleasure. And I’m so grateful that you invited me to speak with you.
James Nathan 31:08
Love to do it again. Thanks a lot Leslie.