Author and journalist William Wheeler once said, “Good writing is clear thinking made visible.” This is especially true for the public sector, where the most important issues requiring the clearest thinking are examined in writing.
Advice and decisions are written on paper for posterity and ease of access. Reports are drafted to inform large populations of interested stakeholders. In an era of satellite teams and flexible working arrangements, teams problem solve and interact through writing.
In this environment, public sector officers must be effective writers. This extends beyond using “program” and “programme” appropriately or shunning the Oxford comma. It is about using writing to communicate complex issues clearly and with influence.
Communicating elaborate issues often falls to technical experts who have worked with the complexity for a sustained amount of time and inevitably become ‘specialised’ in that issue. However, that understanding is useless if they are unable to accurately and clearly explain their ideas to someone with just a fraction of their expertise.
Find out more about AIM Public sector’s Writing Right for Government suite of programs, addressing the nuances and skill set required to write clearly and effectively across beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.
The link between problem solving and decision-making
Problem solving and decision-making are separate processes. The technical expert works intensely on a complex issue, but then it is moved up the hierarchy to a decision maker for the final call.
That decision-maker, due to their position, is almost always less knowledgeable about the topic than the initial problem solver. This is simply because the decision-maker’s bandwidth and the issues that fall under their responsibility is much broader than that of the problem solver.
And for good reason. Their role in the organisation is not to be a specialist. Their role is inherently about zooming out: seeing the big picture in the organisation rather than zooming in on specific issues.
It is up to the problem solver then to present all available options and to offer advice on which option is ideal, almost always in the form of a written document. If this document doesn’t accurately reflect their ideas, or is difficult to understand, then the decision-maker is unable to make the best decision.
This is where the process falls downs. It is not that the problem solvers don’t have good solutions or ideas, but rather, they are not communicating them in a way that is engaging to the decision-maker.
This is why we call writing capability the missing link in the public sector. It is this link that can inhibit the entire decision-making process. It’s not that the ideas are bad, or that the decision-makers aren’t capable of making good decisions, it is simply that the requisite information required for decision-making is not communicated clearly or interpreted properly.
Top four tips for communicating complexity
Understand your content
Your writing will directly reflect your own understanding of an issue. Thus, the clearer the idea is in your mind, the clearer the idea will be presented in your document.
Know your audience
If your audience is already familiar with the context of your issue then keep background details out. However, if your audience does not have a good grasp of your topic then make sure you include that information to enable a more complete understanding of the issue.
Use plain English
Writing in plain English is not about dumbing down your ideas. It is simply about communicating a complex idea in a manner that is conducive to a non-expert understanding it.
Consider the fluency effect, a phenomenon where information is deemed to be more influential or of higher value when it is processed faster or more smoothly than other information.
Apply this effect to your own writing. Write in plain English to make your content easier to process so it is more likely to be remembered and deemed influential by your audience.
Structure your writing strategically
A good structure will go a long way towards ensuring your writing is easily understood. I often say that a good structure makes up for poor prose.
If you don’t consider yourself a good writer, then ensure you focus on an appropriate structure for your document so that your argument flows logically and your reader can easily follow it. This is especially important for complex matters where there often is no inherent logical order. It is up to the writer to turn that complex issue into a manageable document for the reader.