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No News Is Bad News

The group of managers walked into a Better Business Writing class, talking to each other but not to me. They responded to my greeting but didn’t seem especially glad to meet me. That’s unusual. Most people act eager at the start of a writing seminar.

Despite the chill in the classroom, I led the session as I usually do. By the end of the 1.5-day writing class filled with practice and feedback, everyone was excited about what they had learned and enthusiastic about applying it back on the job. Only as they were leaving did I find out why they had been cool at the beginning of the first day. One manager happened to say something like this:

"No one told us why we were signed up for this class. We just found it on our calendars, no explanation. We’re busy managers–a 1.5-day class meant we had to cancel standing meetings, without any explanation of why we needed to work on our writing."

He added that it was a great class and he had learned a lot. The problem was that he and his peers had not known why they were there in the first place.

No news was bad news. No explanation led to resistance and resentment.

When we talk about bad writing, we often mention endless paragraphs, disorganized documents, and sloppy errors. But another aspect of bad communication is no communication.

The department director needed only to have sent a short message like this:

The members of the executive team took a writing class that we all found valuable. We want to extend the same opportunity to you and the other managers. The class is scheduled on ____ (dates) at ____ (times) and has been added to your calendar. We know your schedule is very busy. But taking time now to tune up your writing skills will save you significant time later. We have already seen an improvement in our writing. Note: You can work on real work documents in the class, so you can get your job done while you learn.

Whenever you make a decision that affects others, be sure to write to them about it. Add a writing task (communication piece) to any implementation plan. Without clear communication, your good decision may have a bad outcome. Even an investment in better writing seems like bad news when it comes with no explanation.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

One comment on “No News Is Bad News”

  • Lynn-

    I do love your weekly newsletter. There is always something to learn.

    I would like to add a comment about the use of Blackberry type tools in communication. I believe that it might be better to phone a person rather than respond back with a too brief, poorly written, thumb typed message. Example: I needed to communicate a complex problem to my manager. I typed a carefully worded e-mail and sent it to her. I wanted a well thought out response. I received a response from her Blackberry as follows: “O.K.”
    Are these tools really time savers? I think not.


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