How to Use Writing to Amplify Your Leadership Impact
The case for writing more at work, and a smart guide to getting started
Whether it’s a casual discussion or a big presentation to the team, talking is a crucial part of the job of a manager or team lead. However, what’s often overlooked is the importance of effective writing.
I’ve been surprised to learn that doing a little less talking and a little more writing was an amazing amplifier of my leadership impact. After having led teams in small startups through to large, listed companies, it’s become obvious that when I take the time to write something —including other visual content like diagrams or spreadsheets— it’s had a much bigger impact than I would have imagined. It’s also a consistent thread across both leaders I’ve personally worked for and famous leaders admired in the world today.
Why Writing Gives You Bigger Impact
Writing forces greater precision
Writing organizes and clarifies our thoughts … writing enables us to find out what we know — and what we don’t know.
— William Zinsser
Whether it’s a few dot points, a spreadsheet model, a diagram, or long-form text — the act of writing forces a higher level of precision than talking does.
Have you ever had some kind of meeting — maybe for design or planning — where everyone agreed with what was said, but when someone tried to document the discussion, a whole set of new questions came up? This is because the brain can gloss over the fuzzy parts verbally, but when the discussion is being written, down the fuzzy parts become much more obvious.
Those with experience in software development will know what I’m talking about. When something is coded, an even greater level of precision is required.
As an idea moves from talking to writing to coding, the precision level increases.
Verbally, we can easily gloss over edge cases, but when in the spec or code, these cases must be handled.
Writing has been shown to increase critical thinking skills, which is part of the reason it becomes more precise. Leadership great and former Intel CEO Andy Grove had some things to say about this in his classic book, High Output Management. He explained how his written reports helped:
“To validate ad hoc inputs and catch, in safety-net fashion, anything you may have missed… as they are formulated and written, the author is forced to be more precise than they might be verbally. Hence their value stems from the discipline and the thinking the writer is forced to impose upon themselves as they identify and deals with trouble spots in their presentation.”
— Andy Grove
More recently at Amazon, CEO Jeff Bezos has created a unique culture in which writing is crucial. He runs meetings in a distinctive way. Before any discussion is allowed, everyone — including himself — sits in silence and reads over a memo that can be up to six pages long and take up to half an hour to get through!
Bezos says this benefits both the reader and the writer. The act of reading the memo gets the undivided attention of the team, but also, the writer is forced to be more clear and precise. He told Fortune:
“There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”
— Jeff Bezos
Writing is more permanent and is available exactly when needed
When it gets written down, it lasts — it’s more permanent. There are times when it’s powerful to create more enduring materials. Think of anything from a white paper, a product requirement document, a policy document, or even a simple FAQ or glossary. These permanent assets can be immensely powerful in a company. Creating more reliance on written assets rather than just the tribal knowledge passed around verbally in teams reinforces consistency.
Permanent doesn’t necessarily mean unchanging. Some written materials may even require updating — so-called “living” documents —to be updated and maintained over time as a reference.
Written materials also open up the options for when the information can be consumed.
A huge benefit to creating written content is that it is consumable asynchronously — meaning each person can consume the info when it suits them.
Particularly in high growth organizations like startups, creating something more permanent can have asymmetric benefits — when you write it once it can be read many times over.
Writing is more accountable
When it gets written down, there’s a higher degree of accountability to what was stated. One of the biggest advantages of putting things down in writing is the record created — it’s more tangible than talking.
When information or decisions move from talking and into text, it creates a higher level of both personal and public responsibility for what was said.
It’s easy to innocently (or less innocently) recall that things were said a different way when it was a verbal conversation three months ago. I recall many situations at work where people recall different things that were said, and you probably do too. You may have even encountered the extreme — someone who refuses to write anything down. Sometimes “I can’t write” is a smokescreen for “I don’t want to be held accountable”.
When everything is done verbally, it’s harder to create a culture of accountability. When we write something, we are doing our part to create a culture of continuous improvement and learning — because we can refer back and be accountable to what we said.
Documented OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) are a commonly used example of this. OKRs are a goal setting methodology, popular in companies like Google. The act of writing these goals down and communicating them creates a higher sense of accountability.
“Written communication to engineering is superior because it is more consistent across an entire product team, it is more lasting, it raises accountability.”
— Ben Horowitz, co-founder Andreessen Horowitz
How to Get Started with Business Writing
I know when I first started trying to create more tangible written outputs it was not only challenging, but a touch intimidating. If you feel similarly, the good news is you can start very small. Like the well-worn analogy of training your muscles in the gym, if you’re new to it, don’t grab the biggest barbell. Writing is no different.
When to choose writing
Writing is a higher latency way to communicate — it’s less immediate — so it’s not always appropriate and you’ll need to use your judgment in assessing the urgency of the communication. Check out Moss in the clip below for an extreme example of choosing written communication inappropriately.
Talking face to face or picking up the phone and talking with your team and colleagues is immensely important at times.
1. Identify the opportunity to write
Be on the lookout for times to create a more precise and permanent asset—times where writing instead of talking could yield asymmetrical benefits and be a bigger overall return on investment (ROI) on your time. It’s likely to be when there’s not operational urgency, when deeper thinking is required, or when less of the personal touch is required.
I've included a list at the end of this article for written assets that have been particularly powerful for me. They are grouped in levels of effort required, and immediacy of the ROI. They can serve as inspiration if you’re not sure where to try this.
2. Schedule time to write
Once you’ve identified what you want to write, it helps to carve out some specific focus time to work on it. I like to schedule an hour in my calendar at a time that I think will be able to think clearly. I like the mornings when the office (and my mind) is quieter.
It’s always helped me to set a location, particularly if you work in an open plan office. Maybe it’s booking a meeting room if you have that luxury, or planning to go to a cafe if being in a more dynamic environment helps you.
Honor this appointment on your calendar as you would any other.
3. Create the draft
Start small. Often the hardest step is the first — typing a title, filling one cell on the spreadsheet model, or drawing the first box on the diagram.
Maybe it comes easy to you, or maybe it’s painstaking — it is for me, a lot of the time.
I approach starting in two different ways, depending on what I’m creating. I start either with a blank screen or with a template.
To use the blank screen method, the goal to get down a super rough draft. This draft is about getting everything out of your head, without stopping to filter or edit yourself — similar to the rules of brainstorming. You might have heard it called “brain dumping” or something similar. You scribble a messy outline to the diagram or just brain dump words the document — no lines get straightened on the diagram, no typos get fixed on the doc, no cells get formatted on the model.
Anne Lamott said it well:
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down.
If starting with a blank screen appears daunting, there is a second approach you can consider. You can copy from a similar example, or start with a template, in the spirit of Picasso’s “good artists borrow, great artists steal.”
There’s a wealth of templates online that can give you a jumpstart. I’ll link to some useful ways to find examples and templates in the following sections.
In reality, writing and editing aren’t always discrete steps; you might iterate. Sometimes when I’m editing my own work I need to go back and do a major rewrite — restructuring the whole thing. Sometimes I realize I need to change the message, which is frustrating. However, these are the times when it’s apparent how much writing aids critical thinking.
At a minimum, when you’re done with getting the first draft down, you’ll want to edit. Here’s an editing checklist you can use to enhance your business writing your audience.
Business Writing Checklist:
- Spelling: Spelling mistakes can distract from your message, so appease the nitpickers with a spell check. This tends to be built into most tools fairly seamlessly.
- Grammar: Similarly, poor grammar can distract. If good grammar isn’t one of your strengths, a tool like Hemingway might help.
- Clutter: Einstein said something like “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Cut the clutter—like wordiness—as much as you can.
- Title or subject line: This is nearly always more crucial than we realize. Make it descriptive, and also make it enticing if possible.
- Structure: The overall structure or flow is crucial for your audiences digestion. Try to lay out your work out in a logical and appealing way. Headings and subheadings help the reader navigate the content. Use bullets for listing items, or numbered lists for instructions or steps that should be done in a particular sequence.
- Design: Aesthetics do matter. A few nicely highlighted headings or cells can go a long way to getting your work it the attention it deserves.
- Feedback: If you’ve got a trusted colleague, you might want to ask them to give you some specific feedback, e.g. “would you please read this and let me know three areas in which I could improve it?”
Get it out there as soon as possible.
I find that I have to be careful not to procrastinate too much at this stage. It can be better to move faster and share the work instead of trying to perfect it. For many things in a busy modern work environment, getting it to a “good enough” stage is better than getting it perfect.
6. Prepare for impact
Once you’ve shared what you’ve written, you should be prepared for the impact it generates. After all, that’s the point.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t give you one warning at this juncture — when you take the lead to put something in writing, and you lose the verbal wiggle room, you might need to steel yourself, because criticism may follow.
I don’t know any way around this, other than to warn you to be aware that when you do create anything — even as simple as meeting agenda — it comes with some vulnerability to criticism. This is the price of creating, of leadership. It helps to remember that it’s considerably easier to critique than to create. You have taken the more difficult—and rewarding—path of creation.
As many wise people have said — nothing worth having comes easy. The effort will be worth the reward. Good luck using writing to amplify your leadership impact!
What To Write
Need inspiration? Here’s a selection of written documents that I’ve found to be powerful business assets. You might choose to start from scratch, or you might look at some of the examples and templates linked to below in order to jumpstart your efforts.
These are some simple small ways to start that can give you the fastest ROI.
- Meeting agendas: If you don’t create agendas for meetings you run, that’s a great place to start. The GAP (Goal, Agenda, Planning) style agenda is a great structure to use. Read more about the GAP agenda here.
- Decision making: After a decision is made is a good time to do some writing. It might be as simple as a slack message or an email saying “Today we made the decision to start a project to move to ABC technology for X, Y and Z reasons.”
Creating these kinds of written output has less immediate returns — it might take longer to get the ROI, but within weeks or months, you will see the rewards.
Whether internal or external facing, getting knowledge out of people’s heads and mouths — and into writing and diagrams — can have benefits. This type of writing often shows up in knowledge bases, wikis, and FAQs. Some examples are:
- Internal glossary — most organizations have some specialized terminology, which would be great to have as a reference. It could be a simple shared spreadsheet or Wiki page with a table covering the term, the acronym or abbreviation, and a definition. I’ll often scan over some examples to get inspiration.
- Process/policy documentation — this is another area that can have a profound impact. Browse through some of these to get ideas of how yours could look.
- Employee onboarding: Although it’s a subset of some of the above assets, this deserves special attention. It’s often an excellent optimization opportunity in companies where everything is done verbally. Here are some examples.
- Work planning: Most organizations have some kind of planning tool, whether it’s an agile board like JIRA or Trello, a Gantt chart like MS Project, or a product roadmap like ProductPlan. If your organization doesn’t have this, or it’s overkill, maybe it makes sense to jot some high-level plans in a spreadsheet or document as a starting point.
Creating this kind of written output has the slowest and hardest to quantify ROI, but also the biggest potential returns.
- Goals/targets: Every organization is different, but most tend to have some kind of overall strategy — including goals and targets that would be well worth having written done. Many of the companies I’ve been involved with lately have adopted the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) goal-setting methodology. The strategic objectives are set first, and then the tactical key result targets. Having these written and shared made them more tangible for the teams. Read this by Christina Wodtke for a great primer and scan over these tools and templates for ideas for what would work for you.
- Mission/values: As a CEO or founder you might want to write down the mission or values to which your organization aspires. I’d avoid seeking examples and templates initially for this — instead, start with a blank screen or page in a notebook — you’ll likely yield something more authentic that way.
- White papers/blog posts: If you’re contemplating a white paper or similar — think e-books, blog posts, case studies and the like — you’re probably already quite advanced as a writer. However, don’t disregard the wealth of outlines and examples online for you to peruse to jumpstart your progress.
I like Anne Lamott’s advice in terms of these strategic types of writing:
Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t — and, in fact, you’re not supposed to — know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it’s finished developing. First you just point at what has your attention and take the picture.
— Anne Lamott
Appendix — Template Resources
While not an exhaustive list, here’s a bunch of template resources for popular business tools that can kickstart your writing.
If you already use a popular particular wiki or docs or spreadsheet tools it’s almost always best to stay with that — shifting to a new tool is likely to add friction to both get things written, shared, and viewed. Each platform below has an array of templates for many different types of written asset. And if you don’t find what you need there, try the broader internet.