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The Cost of Bad Writing

The Blogs of Dave Murphy: The Cost of Bad Writing

From the dawn of human commerce the livelihood of marketing professionals has been built on clear communication, and with the growing importance of electronic messaging the need for effective writing skills has never been greater. Technology driven industries, including Biopharma and Medical Device, are particularly reliant on clear, concise writing because of the complex nature of the information being communicated. Yet many industry executives and students of organizational communication lament the reality that writing proficiency is in decline.

In a recent survey published by Harvard Business Review, 81% of business people who spend more than 20 hours per week reading for their job said that poor writing skills cause a significant amount of wasted time for them, and over half said that what they read is frequently ineffective because it is too long, poorly organized, unclear or filled with jargon. Employees get little training in how to write in a brief, clear manner and the result is a profound lack of impact in what they are trying to communicate. And the problem is not just in junior level cubicle dwellers – senior managers struggle to communicate exactly what they want within the subject line / title and first few sentences of what they write. As the HBR story points out, when executives are clear and direct in their business writing they will develop a reputation for candor and truthfulness, and employees will get to work accomplishing the goals that are set out for them.

In the context of the marketing profession, the need for effective writing is not confined to customer engagements or promotional material. The long term planning process, built in part on reporting the “voice of the customer,” is driven by clear, concise communication of strategies that are based on extensive analyses and in some cases massive amounts of data. The magic happens when a marketer can identify patterns in customer’s voices and articulate them clearly in written form. A Vice President of Marketing at a high-growth surgical instrument company told me that one of the most important drivers of their success is the ability of upstream marketing personnel to bring clarity to product development needs. The success of his organization, like most companies operating in a dynamic, fast-paced environment, depends on efficiency in the written word.

So why does this matter in the world of filling jobs and obtaining jobs?

On the employee side of the table it’s more important than ever to be clear and concise when writing a resume, a cover note that describes motivation, and the follow-up correspondence after interviews. Managers place a premium on finding candidates who can write efficiently, communicating the most important points in as few words as possible. Hiring authorities are most impressed by resumes that begin with a maximum of two to three sentences of “overview” statements describing key attributes and qualifications. They want to get to the point about where someone has worked, the kind of problems they were asked to solve, and the results of their efforts.

From the employers’ perspective, it’s time to take a hard look at what’s being written in job descriptions and online job postings. It’s remarkable to me that some of the largest, most prestigious organizations in the world create job descriptions that fail to convey the specifics of what an employee will do on the job. Here is some language from two job descriptions different clients of mine have written for current marketing openings:

“Responsible for the development of specific marketing plans and activities for specific product(s)/project(s)/product line(s) to establish, enhance or distinguish placement within the competitive arena. Activities may include tactics, tools, logistics, campaigns, basic messaging and positioning. Leads cross-functional teams/groups, (i.e., launch teams); to develop new products or enhance existing product(s) or product line(s). Understands business environment and relates extensive knowledge of internal and external activities to trends. Interfaces with a variety of management levels on significant matters, often requiring the coordination of activity across organizational units.”

“Responsible for the design, development, implementation and coordination of marketing plans for specific product, product line or product areas. Design, develop and implement deliverables such as product specifications, branding and launch strategies per New Product Development procedures and Launch Excellence guidelines.
• Core team representation as commercial and customer VOC on internal product development teams, also responsible for launch planning.
• Commercial Integration – partnering cross-regionally to identify best commercial practices to accelerate penetration.
• Executes marketing plans and programs, both short and long range, to ensure profitable growth and expansion of company products and/or services
• Researches, analyzes, and monitors financial, technological, and demographic factors so that market opportunities may be capitalized on and the effects of competitive activity may be minimized”

The problem with this unclear, subjective style of writing is that it not only fails to inspire talented prospects to want to pursue a job opportunity, it also leaves the description wide open for unqualified individuals to assume they can perform various functions because of lack of clarity that they cannot. I can’t complain too much about this problem, however, because candidates rely on me to explain what the job actually entails.

It’s clear that bad writing leads to wasted time and ineffectiveness in the corporate world. It’s possible that texting has led to a dumbing-down of writing skills in all forms, but I think the cause is more complicated than that. It’s incumbent upon senior leadership to insist on improvement in employee and candidate writing, and as a start they should work to enhance their own skills, setting a high bar for others to follow. As always, I welcome any comments or questions.

A Twist on Reference Checks

One of the most important steps in the hiring process is one of the most over-looked—the Reference Check. Checking references is usually done in haste in order to get an offer out to a candidate as quickly as possible. If you take the time to conduct a well-conceived reference check earlier in the process you’ll benefit in several ways:
1. 5-10% of the time red flags about the candidate will pop up in a reference check conversation – not necessarily huge problems, but enough of a concern to potentially give an edge to another candidate. It is far better to have this information early in the process so you can effectively recruit the “back-up” candidate(s).
2. You can gather important information by going beyond the standard questions that ask the reference to rate the candidate on a variety of parameters. Instead of asking “would you rehire the person?” or “what are his/her strengths and weaknesses?” consider the following: “you’ve mentioned a number of real strengths and attributes that he/she offers, what about areas for development that for him/her?” Most references are reluctant to discuss overt “weaknesses,” but they recognize that we all have areas for development.
3. Although it takes some time, you can use a reference check call to a peer or colleague of the candidate as an effective recruiting opportunity for future openings you may have that could be a fit for that person. For that matter, if the reference is a senior level executive you can use the reference check call to build a relationship with a potential hiring manager for yourself in the future.
As a recruiter, I jump at the chance to do reference checks mainly for the reasons outlined above. So, I’m not trying to get you to do my job for me. Even if your recruiter performs the reference checks, I still recommend the hiring manager call with a few questions. The reason for that is because so much about what is said is how it is said. Typed notes can only tell you so much.
I also recommend that if you’re going to have your recruiter do reference checks, have them done before the final interview if possible. Now, this isn’t always feasible, especially if you have a large pool of finalists or if the candidate only has references from their current employer. If it is possible, doing them before the final interview can help you craft your questions and can help you identify areas of concern that you want to further vet.
I hope these tips help strengthen your hiring process, and if you want to discuss these ideas in more depth, I’d be more than happy to carve out some time.
Dave Murphy
The Alpine Group
dave@alpinesearch.net

Resume Tips

I’ve reviewed tens of thousands of resumes over the past 14 years in Executive
Search and can safely say that some are better than others – much better. Here
are a few tips about resume formatting that will help capture the reader’s
interest:

– Introductory comments: Limit “Executive Summary” and “Career
Overview” comments. Readers want to get to the point and know where you’ve
worked and what you’ve done. Searchable keywords about hard-to-find skills are good here, rather than subjective qualities like “hard working” and “attention to detail.”

– Reverse chronological order of positions held: They expect and want this.

– White space: Too much of it is bad. Readers want substance and details about
what you’ve done, including narrow margins if necessary. Be specific about the expectations in your assignments, including the products / markets / technology.

– Accomplishments: Many resumes are exclusively focused on duties and responsibilities,
and are very light on accomplishments. It’s great to know what you were asked
to do, but how well did you do it? Provide numbers whenever possible, about cost savings, revenue generation, timeliness, or anything else that is a matter of fact rather than opinion.

– Finally, if you have had more than three employer changes within a five year time period that may be cause for concern for the reader. Consider including a brief, one-sentence explanation in italics as to why you changed positions, inserted right after the title and date information. For examples “Left after acquisition of ABC Company by XYZ and subsequent downsizing.” Without the explanation the reader is left to assume that you quit or were terminated.

Selecting Your References

One of the services I provide for my clients is checking references for candidates I represent. The hiring managers are looking for a list of at least 3-4 professional references – people who have worked closely with the candidate and know them well. The list must include at least one direct supervisor – someone who managed the candidate directly and did their performance reviews. You would optimally have more than one direct supervisor on your list, particularly if you’re in an active job search or unemployed.

In the interest of preserving confidentiality no hiring manager expects you to list references from your current employer. But they do expect the candidate to consider their viewpoint – “if you were me, trying to make an important hiring decision, who would you expect to see on a reference list?” Other good references can include dotted-line supervisors, your bosses boss, peers that worked with you directly for more than two years, and even customers who know you well. But there’s really no substitute for the words of a former supervisor.

Who you select as your references is just as important as what they say, particularly since the hiring managers expect the references to give a glowing, favorable report of your work. Personal and character references are not important in pre-employment reference checking. Often hiring managers will simply look at the list of references, consider their titles and how they have worked with the candidate, and make a general impression about candidate credibility based on who they listed. So work hard to keep in touch with former employers and have a quality list of references. Like the old adage says, “you’re going to have a reputation – so you might as well make sure that it’s a good one.”