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Experience Is Not Enough. You Must Do the Work.

Updated 27 January 2022

I wasted time and money recently when I went to a talk by an expert whose topic interested me. She had over 20 years of experience. But other than scribbling down a few phrases before she got up to speak, she appeared completely unprepared.

She didn’t seem to have a purpose or plan, despite the program description. She had no handout, list of tips, impressive data, pointed questions, or poignant stories for us. She had no humorous or attention-getting opening and no memorable close. All she had was 20+ years of experience and a pleasant manner.

Experience is not enough. She needed to do the work of preparing for us.

The same is true of business writers. It’s not enough to have taken classes in writing and editing or to have gotten a degree in communications. And it’s not sufficient to have a proud writing portfolio. Each assignment, each message, requires the work of planning, writing, editing, and proofreading.

1. Plan by answering these questions: Who is the audience? What do they need? What do you want them to do in response to your message?

2. Write by answering the likely questions of your audience. In the case of the disappointing presentation, my questions were:

  • What do I need to know about your topic?
  • Which stories or anecdotes can help me embrace and remember your message?
  • How can I do my job better (or live my life better) if I understand and apply what you have shared?
  • Where do I start for a quick success and ongoing growth?
  • Where are additional resources available?

3. Edit by taking these steps:

  • Cut extra words and unnecessary content.
  • Break up long, complex sentences.
  • Get to the point. Make sure content flows to meet readers’ needs.
  • Format for quick understanding and access.
  • Clean up unclear language.
  • Check for a positive, professional tone.

4. Proofread by printing the piece and reading it aloud.

I felt cheated by the presenter’s lack of preparation, and I left with little new information about her topic. Yet she reminded me of an important lesson: My experience and expertise are not enough. I have to do the work of writing every time.

How do you feel about doing the work of writing or presenting? I welcome your views.

To be sure your writing communicates value to your readers, take my online course Business Writing Tune-Up.

Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
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. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

14 comments on “Experience Is Not Enough. You Must Do the Work.”

  • Hello Lynn,

    I totally agree with your post and the utmost importance of preparation. For a one hour presentation, it could take me more than 15 hours to prepare: plan, find the content, prepare the charts, get the slide’s title right, rearrange the order of the slides to find the right flow, find the take away and then rehearse out-loud to refine all the bridges between the slides. You can’t waste the time of your audience.

  • Lynn, one of the problems I see here is as much an ability to deliver a speech as anything else. Before joining Toastmasters I would often give speeches that would end up uninspiring and out of tune with the needs of the audience. I would be caught out by seemingly being unprepared, because I didn’t know how to put my experience into a speech. Today I am more confident giving speeches because of what I learned in Toastmasters.

  • Unfortunately, even speakers who are prepared with Powerpoint and handouts sometimes rely too much on their experiences with other audiences and fail to put themselves in the shoes of those they are addressing.

    At the opening meeting for a past academic year at our college, a very pleasant professional was contracted to speak to us about teamwork. Evidently, she was not informed about the fact that everyone from janitor to faculty to secretary to administrator was required to attend. Her focus was directed strictly to a business setting, rather than an academic setting, and it was obvious that she was trying to fill in the time–two 1.5-hour segments. The repetition was almost unbearable, the slides were wordy, and we were a captive audience, struggling to find portions of the presentation to which we could relate our work experience. The speaker, however, seemed oblivious to our woes and continued to stretch out the speech. Years later, we still talk about “the worst opening presentation in our history.”

    I learned from this that I should always seek information about my audience, rather than assuming that my presentation would interest any given group, and broaden my presentation to reach their worlds.

  • Am I correct in recalling that you had almost decided to stop this blog a little while back? Either I made that up and have nothing to fear OR I’m really glad that you didn’t stop. You offer great advice, clear instruction and useful topics. Thanks for another great post!

  • Hi Keri,

    Thanks for your kind words. You are probably remembering that I stopped writing my monthly newsletter late last summer. I’m going to relaunch it as a quarterly newsletter later this summer.


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