Director of Customer Support

Business

Director of Customer Support

32:20

 

Q: So would you please state your job title and where you currently work?

 

A: Okay. My job title is I’m director of customer service, or customer support, and the name of the company that I work for is called Global Phone or GPhone.

Q: Great, and could you tell us just a little bit about what the company does?

 

A: We provide a business phone service, as well as calling cards.

 

Q: Excellent, okay. And how long has it been since you graduated from college?

 

A: I graduated in 1975, so over 40 years.

 

Q: Okay, great. And how long have you worked in your current field?

 

A: In the current field, I’ve been in this company since 2002. Previous companies I’ve been involved probably in customer support, also in a telecom type of environment, probably since, the maybe late ‘80’s/early ‘90’s. And just to go back to one of the questions, so my undergraduate degree was 1975, but my master’s degree was late ‘80’s, or early ‘90’s, I think. See, I can’t even remember at this point, but–

 

Q: That’s okay.

 

A: It’s been that long, long ago.

 

Q: That’s useful though. Okay, okay. And could you just provide sort of a brief description of your primary job functions?

 

A: I would say that it is to manage a small team of individuals or reps who also deal with customers, usually over the phone or over an email, as well as working with coworkers in trying to support the customer.

 

Q: Excellent, and could you estimate in an average week, what percentage of your job requires writing?

 

A: It’s probably maybe 30 percent, I’m going to say that most of my work is over the phone, you know, definitely communication is a large part of the role, but with the internet and emails, I’m starting to see less people necessarily just calling us. They will often send an email and we will communicate via email.

 

Q: Interesting, okay. And in addition to email, are there other types of documents that you write?

 

A: Hmm. I want to say, you know, at one point, definitely writing let’s say teaching documents, or learning manuals for people who are new on the job, but I would say most are– it’s primarily emails. But sometimes, as I say, training tools for coworkers.

 

Q: Okay. And if we just sort of think about the emails specifically, who are the primary audiences typically?

 

A: I want to say it’s the end user, so a customer.

 

Q: Perfect, okay. And what are the primary purposes most often of those types of emails?

 

A: It’s, I want to say, to update them on any information regarding troubleshooting with problems that they’re having, whether it’s a technical problem, or if it’s let’s say more accounting or business-related type of problem, so, and as well as, “Hey, how do you use the services?” So a lot of my job, at least I try to sort of use the email as an opportunity to teach the end user how to best use our services. And so–

 

Q: Gotcha, that’s really interesting, yeah. So could you walk us through the process of maybe a recent writing task? So even just an email – sort of start to finish, if you think about like one specific correspondence recently, how you began, if there’s any preparation or steps you take prior to writing, what that writing process looks like, and if there’s any sort of revision or editing that happens?

 

A: Umm, hmm, let me think. From beginning to end, I’m just trying to think of a scenario that would best describe it. So, I don’t know if we can skip to the next question, or if you want me to think about this for a couple of minutes?

 

Q: Sure, we can absolutely skip ahead. And if something comes to you and you want to go back to it, that’s great, yeah, totally fine.

 

A: Sure, okay.

 

Q: So how did you learn how to perform these types of writing that you do in your work?

 

A: I want to say here probably repetition was a big factor. So it’s, you know, I think a lot of it too is, “Hey, I have something written up already,” and I know what I need to communicate to the end user such that, “Oh, I have it already written, let me cut and paste, and let me edit the documents or the email such that it is customer-specific, or issue-specific.” But I would say that, generally speaking, you know a lot of times, a lot of the information is in fact something I’ve used before. And I just, you know, copy and paste it.

 

Q: That makes sense, yeah. Has there ever been a time in your career where you felt unprepared as a writer?

 

A: Hmm. I’m going to say that any time that there is an issue that is, let’s say more technical in nature, I will often either get somebody else to assist me, or really sort of assign it to, “Hey, this is the best person to respond.” So we have, let’s say IT type of people here, or engineers, who are better equipped to address those questions that are more technical in nature, especially if the recipient of that email is also somebody of a technical nature. So I would say in those instances, I don’t feel equipped, where I feel challenged in answering or writing something. So I want to say anything that’s highly technical, I–

 

Q: And you said, oh sorry–

 

A: N, go ahead.

 

Q: Oh I was just going to say, so you said, either you assign it, but sometimes you get help with it. What does that look like, if you ask for assistance with something like that?

 

A: I would say a lot of times, they will sort of write something out and again, I will cut and paste, and edit. So the content of anything technical probably originated with somebody else.

 

Q: Got it, that makes sense. And are there any other strategies or things that you did maybe when you were new to the job to get acquainted with this kind of writing, and to learn how to perform it?

 

A: Well, I think a lot of it too was it, there’s, you know, in terms of dealing with a customer, there’s often almost like a formula involved, in terms of, you know there’s a greeting and a closing at least. And so it’s, you know, that was always pretty standard, and it’s still standard to this day, where, “Hey, we receive an email.” I always, you know, “Dear so-and-so, thank you for the email.” And always try to close the email in terms of, “Hey, is there anything else we could do?” You know, getting that confirmation back from them, “Hey everything is closed, everything is done.” But, you know, trying to sort of almost look at what they’re asking about, and sort of, “Hey, let’s answer those questions that you have,” as sort of the body of my response. So, I mean, there are times when I’m, you know, when I see an email from somebody and it’s let’s say in a paragraph format. A lot of times I will break it out in terms of, here’s the question, and put “Q1: Here is the question from your verbiage, and here’s my answer to you, A1. And Q2.” So it’s easier I think for them to read, easier for them to understand, because it’s not in that paragraph format. So sometimes I do that, and it’s also a way for me to make sure, “Do I understand what the customer is asking about?” So it’s a way of rephrasing what they’re saying in a simple type of question, and then trying to respond in a, “Here is your question,” even if it’s, “Hey how much does this cost? That’s your question. A: This is how much it’s going to cost you, and stuff. What are the steps? Hey, I need to make a phone call, how do I dial? How do I use your service?” And try to outline it for them, step by step. Sometimes I’ll cut, you know– a lot of our customers there’s, you know, will go into our portals and try to do things, and I try to encourage that, because it allows them not to always rely on me. And I will sort of do a lot of cut and paste, and sort of embed pictures within my response back to them, and try to put things highlighted and, you know, circle it red, so they know this is where you need to focus. And you know, thinking, “Hey, not everybody is a learner by reading, there are some people who are learners by pictures.” And it also leaves them with that document again, so they can in fact do it themselves, if that opportunity comes up again. So it’s sort of definitely looking, whether it is an email or a phone call, as an opportunity to sort of, let me learn something about the caller or the person emailing me, and what is it that I can teach them? What information can I share with them such that, they use our service, and use it more than maybe they had used it before, as well as, making sure that they’re always calling, they’re not always emailing, because I’ve provided them some degree of tools to be able to fix their problems or utilize our services better.

 

Q: That makes a lot of sense, yeah, that’s really interesting. The next question is, does anyone oversee your writing?

 

A: Not really. Generally speaking, no. So I mean, there may have been times when I’ve asked somebody else to look at something, especially if it’s you know, more of their, “Hey somebody has issued a complaint or something and I need to respond to that.” But I’m going to say, generally speaking at this point, I don’t have somebody looking at my writing, both in terms of content and style or anything like that.

 

Q: Okay. How long would you say you typically have to complete a writing project. So if a request or an inquiry comes in over email, how long do you typically have to respond?

 

A: I usually like to respond same day, if at all possible. So either same day or 24 hours. So if it’s going to take me longer, I will often let them know I may need more time. But [chuckle], generally speaking, within 24 hours. I like to have at least one touch.

 

Q: Gotcha, gotcha. So now, the next couple questions asks you to look back a little bit. So thinking back to your undergraduate days, what kind of writing do you remember being asked to create as a student?

 

A: I would say for the most part, it involved reading something and reporting on it, or having some sort of general topic and reporting on it. I’m trying to think in terms of my undergraduate, and to a lesser extent, in grad school in business, where you know, it was definitely much less writing-involved, for the most part, except in a couple of management classes. But you know, I think I tended to have a very, almost formulaic outline approach to writing, and it’s sort of, “Hey, what are my general topics?” You know, one, two, three, and four. And then looking at those topics, and sort of, having some sort of sub-information, a A and a B and a C. I used to do a lot of outlining prior to writing something, and you know, have an introductory paragraph that somehow refers to those issues that I’m going to be discussing in greater detail, and then again, it was my conclusion, reviewing what I discussed, you know, summarizing what I had said before. So I would say that I would just sort of sit down and start with an outline, and try to build that outline, and then, it’s trying to find the evidence to support the points that I wanted to make, and cite them, if need be.

 

Q: Okay. In what ways do you think your college writing experiences prepared you, or not, for the kind of writing that you do now?

 

A: Well, I definitely feel I’m prepared, I mean I don’t think that the writing that I do now is as challenging as what I did as an undergraduate or as a graduate student. I mean I think it’s overall at a lower level, for the most part. I mean it’s much more day-to-day types of conversations, rather than items that require, you know, a lot of reading and researching, in contrast to what I did in college, so.

 

Q: That makes sense, okay. This is sort of a broader question, but what would you say is at stake in your writing?

 

A: Okay, say that again? I’m not sure I understand the question.

 

Q: Sure, yeah. So the phrasing might be odd. So what is at stake in your writing? And what I mean by that is really, why does the writing you do at work matter, and what would be the consequence if you didn’t do a good job with that writing?

 

A: You know, I think what’s at stake is making sure that whether it’s the company brand or my own personal brand, you know, sort of comes through in how I communicate with people. And, “Hey, I’m in customer support, I’m in customer service.” And I definitely want to have that mindset coming across to whoever’s receiving that email that, “Hey, I’m trying to help you,” versus, “I’m just trying to get through an email,” sort of thing. So in general, I would say that to me, that’s what’s at stake, is that it reinforces whatever brand that it is that I think we should be displaying to our customers on a day to day basis. You know, they sort of go, “Hey, this person really is interested that I have good service.” And you know, in terms of consequences, you know, I would imagine [chuckle] that one is, I would say the consequence would probably be some sort of retraining, trying to emphasize that point more so than, “Hey, you’re out.” But in general, I think it’s more of, “Hey, let’s retrain on this and what it is that you need to do to be a better communicator, and a communicator of that brand.”

 

Q: Right, right. What would you say is the most challenging thing about writing in your specific position?

 

A: I think sometimes it’s, can I state the information in a simple enough manner such that it’s easily understood by the customer? I mean, I see this, I do this a lot, and it’s sort of second nature to me, but– so sometimes, some of the words have a lot of meaning to me don’t always carry that meaning towards the customer, and you know, example, “Hey, we’re going to change how we terminate the call.” And so, you know, what does that mean? And it’s a matter of, do I go into that level of detail, or do I simply say, “Hey, we’ve made some changes that we think we’ll help with the call connection, can you please try again?” So sometimes, you know, it’s things that, as I say, carry meaning for me and I understand because I’m in this world, often don’t carry the same sort of meaning to someone who is even less technical than I am. And making sure that they understand this and can learn from it as well, and you know, sort of, “Hey, let’s not get frightened by it, this is an easy thing to do, we can fix it.” So I would say that might be at times a challenge.

 

Q: That’s great, that makes a lot of sense, it sort of goes back to what you had mentioned earlier about this idea that like, in a lot of ways, you’re sort of the technical translator, to taking–

 

A: True.

 

Q: –trying to figure out how much information they need, and you know, how to parse that into terms that someone who doesn’t have all that background has.

 

A: Mhmm.

 

Q: Has anyone helped you with your writing, formally or informally?

 

A: In the immediate run, maybe not, maybe sometimes, you know, I’ve written something, and I’ve had my kids, sort of, “Hey, can you review this or make it better?” But in terms of my work overall, not a lot. I do remember having you know, somebody asked me to write, I belong to an organization called the American Association of University Women. So I joined a few years ago, and we have a newsletter, and it was, “Hey, can you write something up about yourself?” So it’s like, you know it’s one of those things, you know, that’s tough for me to do, and you think, “Oh, what do I say?” So I wrote a few things that I think Colleen sort of reviewed it and sort of punched it up a little bit and go, “That works, it’s done.” It’s sort of the hardest interview question in the world is, “Tell me about yourself.” Which I’m sure we have all heard and, so it’s a similar thing, and you know again, it’s brief, it’s just a few things that you should mention that are unique about yourself, but it was sort of hard and I know I ran it by the kids and stuff, so–

 

Q: Right, no that makes sense. That’s great. How do you believe you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the course of your career?

 

A: I’m not sure I have, to be honest. You know, in some ways I don’t think I’m as strong as a writer as I was 10, 20 years ago, to be honest, and–

 

Q: And does that go back to this idea that– sorry, go ahead, I didn’t mean to interrupt you.

 

A: No, no, not at all. I just think that the type of work that I’m doing, it’s just quicker, and yeah, I’m sorry, hold on. [Silence]. Yeah, I just think in general, I think a lot of when I maybe first started here was more involved in putting documentation together well, that’s sort of done. I, you know, haven’t done as much of that as I did before. Or there’s less reading involved, you know, intense reading, than maybe I had before. So, yeah, I’m not sure I’m as, I think I was a better writer 20 or 30 years ago, I think it was easier for me in terms of more challenging writing. But you know, on the other hand, I think I have a great understanding of who my customers are, and I think, you know, I’m relatively good at trying to explain things to them. So you know, a lot of our customer base, while they’re very, you know, very intelligent, very well-educated, you know English may not be their first language, so I want to make sure I’m understood, in a pretty general way.

 

Q: Right, right, that’s interesting, yeah. So I have just a couple more questions.

 

A: Sure.

 

Q: To what extent do you think writing is valued in your organization?

 

A: I don’t know. I think it’s valued, I’m not sure it’s, I think some of the softer– you know, “Hey, this is a pretty technical type of company,” and so I think those who have technical skills and maybe more valued than if they had great writing skills. So I don’t know, that’s at least my humble opinion. So you know, but, on the other hand, you know, I think being able to communicate’s pretty important [chuckle]. So I think it’s important, I think it is important, and I know when I first started here, before I first started here, as part of my interview process, I had to take a test. And there was one part of the test was, “Here’s a paragraph, edit the paragraph.” And we’ve moved away from that, and I think there was value in doing that. I’m not sure I thought that to be the case when I was being interviewed [chuckle], but in hindsight, I think it was probably a good way to screen candidates, because it did assess a certain writing ability. So, you know, we definitely have moved away from that, but you know, I think it’s much more of, to me, “Hey, can you write?” may be a good indicator of, “Hey, what kind of employee are you, or will be? Are you, again, reinforcing the brand that we want to have in this organization?” Can I put you on hold on the phone, hold on one, oh, nevermind, they got it, they are gone.

 

Q: Okay.

 

A: So yep, so but yes, it’s I think it’s– clearly they thought, “Hey, it is important.” And maybe we’ve moved away– to me, it’s important based  upon, “Hey what sort of employees, what kind of team do you have within the organization?” and all, so.

 

Q: Right, that makes a lot of sense.

 

A: I don’t know, I’m not sure I’m answering your question–

 

Q: No, you are!

 

A: –but I think you know, writing is valued definitely, but I think it’s value is perhaps is not as obvious as having technical skills. So and I think that’s sort of what I’m making so it’s, on the surface, I’m going to say it’s considered less valuable than being technical, but I think when you think about it, it’s I’m sure everybody would say, “Hey, it is very important.”

 

Q: Right, right. Excellent. And my last couple of questions here: first, how would you have defined successful writing as a student, versus successful writing now?

 

A: [Silence]. I think in both cases, I would say that successful writing means, “Have I effectively communicated the point that I wanted to make?” So and I think that is true, whether I was a college student, or working after 30, 40 years since graduating as an undergrad. I would say it’s different in that I definitely think I was exercised more when I was in college than I am now. So, you know, I think it took a lot more effort, the writing muscle definitely needed to be exercised a lot more. The expectations were probably higher as well, in terms of communicating my point.

 

Q: That makes a lot of sense. And would you say that you are a successful workplace writer?

 

A: I’m going to say yes, for what it is that I need to write. So if somebody said, “Hey, Aída [sp?], do some sort of ad.” Maybe a little bit more challenging, you know, versus, you know there are, “Hey, reread our website.” Which, maybe perhaps I’ve done, you know, and “Hey, I read and let’s say caught errors,” that maybe somebody else would not have caught. But in terms of creating it in the first place, that may be more difficult for me today than maybe it would have been 20, 30 years ago.

 

Q: That makes a lot of sense, yeah.

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Director of Business Development

Business

Director of Business Development

54:18

 

Q: Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you’ve graduated from college?

 

A: Yes. So my job title is Director of Business Development; I work at Flourish agency, we’re a full service, creative agency that really specializes in the direct-to-consumer space, and I graduated from undergrad in 2009 with a degree in political science and business.

Q: Great. And how long have you been in your current field? Since 2009, or?

 

A: No, I transitioned from the corporate/private banking world at JP Morgan in 2016 to the ad agency world. This is now my second agency in the last two and a half/three years, and yeah, that’s it.

 

Q: Great, okay excellent. Can you provide just a brief description of your primary job functions?

 

A: I lead and manage all agency new business and organic growth initiatives company-wide. So any opportunity to grow organically with our current client base is a small portion of what I do, but my primary focus is prospecting, developing relationships, and ultimately, earning business from brands that we want to be in business with.


Q: Okay, okay. How frequently are you required to write? So maybe, if you could estimate even in an average week, what percent of your job actually requires writing?

 

A: I would say I send upwards of 40 to 50 varied types of written messages every single day, that’s across social media, so LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, as well as emails. And another portion of my day is, obviously with any active opportunities that we have that we’re currently working to pitch or develop a stronger relationship with, we write pretty long and sophisticated presentations of which I probably am responsible for like, somewhere around 25 percent of. So I’d say most of my day is, maybe 30 to 40 percent of my day, maybe even more on some days, is probably focused on actual writing.

 

Q: Great, okay. And obviously it will vary from project to project, but typically how long do you have to complete a writing project?

 

A: It’s very quick turnaround. So, when prospecting or reaching out to current prospects or clients, minutes, you know, probably no more than 15 minutes are spent. With presentations, it probably ranges from, you know, we have such a large bank and I have a lot of experience to pull from it, the stuff that I’m writing is usually just modified in some ways or customized to the approach that we’re taking with that opportunity. But probably a couple hours, maybe two, three hours at most. And then usually, I kind of take over the reigns near the end once everyone’s contributed, and make sure that things are formatted and grammatically correct and consistent across each presentation.

 

Q: Okay. That makes a lot of sense. My next question you’ve sort of answered, but just to clarify – could you sort of list off the forms or types of documents that you most often complete? So you mentioned sort of prospecting emails, social media, these presentations – anything else that you write often?

 

A: Um, no, outside of like actual managing social media accounts, the things that I listed, you know, outward prospecting efforts and in presentations, it’s pretty consistently that, sometimes some internal communications. But no, I would say my role is pretty focused on those things.

 

Q: Okay, that makes sense. And who are the primary audiences and what are the primary purposes of those communications?

 

A: So, the primary purposes are to create relationships and ultimately move them through a funnel over a long period of time. So most of my sales cycles are between 16 and 18 months, sometimes longer. And the goal is to really create a consistent touchpoint throughout that journey. Obviously if I have never spoken to someone and they, you know, are consistently being reached out to by dozens of people like me, my goal is really to create innovative ways to get through to them. So, while writing is a piece of that, I obviously do a lot of things that aren’t writing based. And categorically, most agencies have like maybe three to four wheelhouses that they specialize in. Currently, for me, the prospects that we’re actively working are mid to large size universities, very health-focused consumer brands, like health foods to a little bit more of like the pharmacological products that are maybe sold for infants, or certain, you know, health issues that’s still readily available over the counter to you as a consumer, very focused cause-related work – so we work with, in northeast Ohio alone, probably 15 of the largest nonprofits, but also actively seek that out nationally. And then, those are the last spaces is our prospects in brand that obviously look and feel and map to our experience in the brands that we actively work with or have worked with, in like the hardware and home improvement space, so everything from [6:35 inaudible] brands, to raw materials, to other products that would be readily accessible at like a Home Depot or Lowes.

 

Q: Oh that’s really interesting, okay. Yeah, that’s really, really useful. And so when you are writing to these prospects, your audience is almost always a prospect I assume?

 

A: Um, yes. Or a former client, or a connection of a former client. So clearly the best way in is to have someone, you know, not just in trying to apply and earn a job, but also in the sales world, is to have someone to actually personally introduce you or make a connection. So I’d say a lot of my time is doing that, versus trying to just establish a cold relationship. But an equal amount of time spent obviously just proactively prospecting on my own.

 

Q: That’s useful. Okay, that makes a lot of sense. How did you know how to perform the types of writing that you’re actually performing?

 

A: I think I have a pretty natural skill set of communicating in writing the way that I communicate when I speak, and I think in the worlds that I’ve operated in, at least since I came out of the banking world – which is obviously a lot more formal, there’s a lot more regulation, and to be honest, the writing that we did was only internal, they didn’t allot a lot of external communications being written in email – and in the agency world, there’s so much jargon, there’s so many acronyms, there’s just so much fluff, and I feel like being concise, direct, and speaking to people the exact same way I would speak to them in person, you know, succinctly, I think is important. And leading with value I think is a key in sales overall, but really, you know, if I’m one of 40 people that have reached out to this really influential person at an organization that day or that week, the only way I’m going to cut through is either saying or doing something that’s a little bit out of the ordinary that they happen to see at the right moment, or they have to be in the phase where they’re actively looking to buy, or we already have to have an established relationship or connection and I’m simply following up at that point. So it really just trying to cut through the clutter and be as direct and concise and as personable as possible.

 

Q: That makes a lot of sense. It’s interesting, because you’ve only been doing this a few years, so I feel like it’s useful that it’s so fresh to you, and I’m wondering, was there a time early on in this sort of world that you’re in that you felt unprepared as a writer at work?

 

A: Yeah, my comfort level of knowing exactly what to say– everything is trial and error in sales. If you’re not getting traction, everything’s trial and error. So you have to try new things until you realize what works, and then even when you find out what works, you have to constantly evolve the way you do it, and try to constantly be ahead of the rest of the crowd. And while I’m new to this space, the core skills that have made me successful throughout my career in technology, private banking, and the agency world are all very similar. So, what I did when I transitioned to the agency world, one, it was a very methodical transition, but two, I had a very strong foundation to bring with me that most people in the agency world do not possess, and for me to learn the lingo and the types of things that are important to my prospects and internally was really the only thing that I had to learn at that time, and then just constantly evolve the way that I communicate. So it probably took six months before my comfort level was like kind of churning, but here’s the thing, you know, I’m lucky to be in a position where, if something doesn’t work out and no one responds, no harm is done and there are so many other countless prospects in each category that I can put my energy into that you try not to spend too much time beating yourself up for what could have been, instead of just focusing on the now. And at a year, I mastered is probably the wrong word, but feel like I can run with the best of my peers in the category and in the industry.

 

Q: That’s great, yeah that makes a lot of sense. When you were trying to overcome those early challenges, and you know, it sounds like most of that was really just learning the language, learning sort of the way things are done here, not the actual act of communicating well, right – were there certain things that you did to get yourself acclimated in that six month period?

 

A: Like a high volume of internal meetings and interviews with just my team. So I was at a 150 [inaudible 11:33] agency, and just getting as much as a downlook from them constantly knowing that I was probably only digesting ten percent or twenty percent each time we spoke, but over [11:43 inaudible] pulse for one, their view of the position and what they would like to see, and obviously take what you can and then kind of come up with what you think is the best step, and a lot of times it’s very aligned to the overall goals of the organization, and a incredible amount of podcasts and just everything I could listen to audio-wise to get my hands wrapped around it, and then over time it’s really being a part of–  you know, I’m actively managing, am the quarterback of every external relationship, that doesn’t mean that I am the reason they’re doing business with us, but I’m the opener and definitely a closer, and in this world, collaboration’s everything, like, it’s not selling a product. It might take months to strategize and come up with a formal recommendation to present to someone, and I had a very small, you know, maybe twenty percent input on that, and the subject matter experts are really the ones guiding that, and I’m just constantly focused on the story arc, and the way that we communicate, and what we communicate, and just the gut feeling of whether this is something that will earn us business. And I think the higher volume of meetings and conversations and sales opportunities and pitch opportunities I have, in my role, you just, you learn to add those conversations to your arsenal, and my knowledge is a mile wide, versus their knowledge being a mile deep, and I think what makes a successful salesperson is being competent in how you deliver things, even if you’re not confident that you are the subject matter expert in that situation. So at least being able to talk the talk enough to continue the engagement.

 

Q: That’s really interesting, yeah. I wanted to go back to one thing you said there – when you were talking about writing those presentations or having some input on those, the pitch, a formal pitch to a potential client, you talked about story arc – can you tell me a little bit more about what you mean by that?

 

A: Yeah, we’ve all seen awful presentations, right? And in the agency world, they are truly a piece of art. It’s not something that can be in Keynote or Powerpoint, it’s a fully designed presentation through InDesign, you know, we have a foundational deck that I created and our team created when I came on which we call our capabilities deck, which is really the foundation for any early stage conversation. It’s the makeup of who we are, some of our personality, obviously the aesthetic and the design is there, like very high design across, case studies, just additional thinking and high level strategic flies that we can drop in and out based on the type of opportunity or the position of the person we’re speaking to, or something they may have said early on that they want to learn more about of how we approach that. Pitches are that plus a very custom approach, but the look and feel and the tone of how we communicate is consistent. So it looks the same, obviously the flies have different content, but at that point what we’re really focused on is it’s not solely about us, but it’s our thinking and it’s creating an overall story arc that allows them to see that one, obviously we’re the right caliber and have the right experience, two, we understand the challenge that they have laid out or the challenges of the industry, and kind of bringing them through that as we’re discussing the challenges, really putting our frameworks, our processes in place, and telling them along the way how we would approach this and why we would approach this and in some cases, taking it to the extent of doing a speculative creative that shows them the caliber of the work or early stage ideation, which is kind of a BS thing in the world because essentially they are getting free work from, I don’t know, four or five agencies or more, and it’s just laying it out in a way that is insightful, energizing, obviously intellectual and factual-based, but with a ton of energy. And the presentation in a pitch is obviously something that we’re narrating and we’re presenting, so the dynamics are much different, but you always have to be cognizant that the things that you’re sending and putting them after the presentation if you provide them with a copy – it has to live on its own, because the real decision takes place when you’re not in the room – and so it’s a fine balance between making sure that it’s not word soup, and it’s not logo or diagram soup, or process soup, but also there’s enough there that someone could draw the same assumption that we call back during the presentation when they’re meeting with their team or other team members or a board at some point. And understand the rationale on their own as well.

 

Q: That’s really, really interesting. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense but it’s something I’ve not experienced and not thought too much about in the past. I’m wondering, I mean that feels like such a specific way of thinking and way of crafting, was that something that was new to you? Or have you worked in sort of genres like that before you got to the agency? Have you done work like that before?

 

A: Yeah, I think being a natural and effective communicator in presentations are obviously, has always been a sweet spot, whether I was actively doing those right before I transitioned I don’t think is relevant. But I know what’s relevant and energizing to people, and in sales, you win because you have a natural ability to size up a situation, read body language, read between the lines, and obviously not just cater to them but understand what’s important for you to address. And I think you instinctively see what has been presented in the past, so I got there and clearly, they’ve been pitching for 70 years so they know what it looks like, and I did a full assessment of where they were at, and they just weren’t, you know– we started foundationally with revamping our capabilities deck because it’s the foundation for every deck we create after, and we were not effectively communicating us, it was very scattered. And most agencies, while they create these beautiful brand strategies and messaging and content strategies for others that are usually very concise and straightforward, agencies fall to the same issues that their clients do in they don’t focus on themselves. And so the first step is to do that, and then the second step is, you roll out that iteration to the specific customized presentations, and I know what they look like, and I know what they should feel like, and I know what information is relevant and what information’s not relevant, based on what I’ve seen, you know, based on what I see when I’m reading it as an unbiased person. And also when I’m in the room practicing and presenting with our team, it really gives you an opportunity to be very critical, and because I’m only making up probably 10 or 15 percent, you know, maybe the opening and a strong close near the end, my goal is really to provide active feedback to the team, and help them self discover to a certain extent what is necessary and what’s not, and I think once people have seen it once or twice, it becomes very easy to replicate it. So we finally had an opportunity after let’s say ten months at my first agency to do it the way that we wanted and push the wrong people out of the situation and really just managed it closely, and it went so phenomenal, and it was a huge swing out of their weight class and we won a substantial piece of work, and so from then on, we had a pulse for what that looks like and feels like, and you just try to replicate it in different scenarios moving forward.

 

Q: That’s fascinating. Yeah, that’s really, really helpful. Thank you. Is there someone who oversees your writing at the agency, or no?

 

A: So it’s a little unique. So at my first agency, 150 people, we had a whole team of copywriters, right? Junior level, senior level, and then creative directors that came from either the art director or design background, or came from the copywriting. Usually it’s a 50/50 mix, because you need both. At that agency, we also had a proofreader. So while it was a first swing by each of us kind of contributing our piece, and then probably a partner overseeing the overall and giving their very direct input throughout the process and managing it very closely with me, ultimately the copywriters and the creative directors would take it and bring it back to us for rounds of revisions, and would really have, they had their entire hand in writing it the way that is on our brand and tone. At my current agency, we have two creative directors, one that comes from the copywriting and once comes from design, and even when the one from the copywriting background isn’t involved in one specific opportunity, she’s has a heavy hand in helping us revise it. And there’s a lot of us that I’d say in the grand scheme of the world, were probably B+ writers, but [21:20 inaudible]  salesman,  and so when we get it that far down the field with the content, it’s usually one or two people that have a hand in helping us revise it before it’s finalized.

 

Q: That’s great. That makes a lot of sense, yeah. The next question is about process, and I’m wondering if you could pick, maybe you could actually speak to the social media writing that you do for the agency, and talk just a little bit about, you know, how maybe one recent example, how that looks start to finish. Like how do you decide what’s going on there? How is it crafted? Is there revision? How does that work sort of start to finish?

 

A: Yeah, and this is probably not the best example because one, we’re small and two, social media in a perfect world, and I believe in the power of it, and I would even say that we should invest 100 times more in it than we do, but at this point, it’s meant to be like a fact checker, kind of like a check box. One, it’s just meant to show a little personality. If someone we’re already in conversation with us or in the early stages of vetting and they happen to likes Instagram and uses it heavily, if they were to check us out it’s visually engaging, it shows some personality, it’s consistently showing our brand, like we, it’s consistently designed, all which I do in an app in about five minutes a day. We show our culture a little bit, and it’s meant to be more smart sarcasm and wit, is kind of the energy and vibe that we give off outwardly, I don’t know if that’s necessarily like the type of people we are, but it’s usually energizing, it has a little bit of a wit to it. And when I’m writing, it’s pretty plain, you know, we’re leveraging some type of quotes, or writing about a client and keeping it short and sweet, and just really trying to boost people’s awareness in our active community of what that is, and then I think over time, it could lead to more organic reach. But it’s pretty straightforward, it doesn’t, I don’t have a ton of input, I think I’ve, we all know what social media looks like, and we know what the popular people on social media post and the copy they write, and you just try to mimic something that looks and feels authentic to you, and is still obviously, you know, lighthearted.

 

Q: Sure, that makes a lot of sense. That’s useful. Let’s talk then maybe about the process for, you had mentioned that it’s still just sort of a matter of 15 minutes sometimes, but maybe a first or second pass at reaching out to a potential client – what does the process like that look like? Does someone give you contact information, is that someone you seek out? Like how does that process start and where does it go from there?

 

A: Yeah, so it’s as simple as early stage assessing the case– so we take a look at what we’ve done, that’s number one. Okay, we’ve done this. And you start kind of bucketing them, and I think we ended up in those categories that I mentioned, right? And it’s just a gut thing. If I were to call someone today in a certain category and you pick one, do I, is there something that relates to them strongly that they would want to have a conversation? Not to say that you need to have direct category experience, but it’s a massive piece of, you gain an upper hand if and when you have that. So the goal is start categorically, and then really start finding brands. So that’s a pure collaborative effort. I would say I’m responsible for 95 percent of it, and I take some input from members that have ideas occasionally, but at end of the day I’m the one that’s driving it fully, and my previous agency I managed a smaller team where I was the head and they were responsible for kind of like executing some of that, and then it came to me, and I was really the one that was still prospecting. And then, once you determine the brand, you have a list, you know, you dig into them a little bit more. You kind of learn more about their brand, sometimes maybe it takes you seven or eight minutes, and whether they are someone that has worked with an agency or currently works with an agency because that’s a great indicator that they would work with you as an agency at some point, whether today or a year from now. And then it’s kind of navigating the hierarchy of the position, so like, literally using everything. Using Google to search for the different types of agencies or any type of press releases or anything that would give way to new decision makers or organizational changes or work that they’ve done historically or recently, LinkedIn to really navigate the complexities of who, you know– some organizations have 20,000 employees and I’m trying to find the right one, it’s based on title, and over time you really learn what you’re looking for based on the size of the organization and the type, and sometimes you’re reaching out to the CEO and sometimes you’re reaching out to like, mid level brand manager as a first point, and sometimes both. And from there, then obviously there are a lot of paid databases that give you contact info, but that stuff is the basics. Once you decide you’re going to reach out, understanding the right cadences, and understanding kind of how to hack through to that. So I think when I talked about constantly evolving what I do, I rarely send a cold written email any longer, outside of maybe a [26:49 inaudible], I record videos on a thumbnail of me, literally saying and articulating the exact things that I would say in an email, except they see an attachment, very straightforward language about trying to cut through the clutter of their inbox, and would love the chance to connect at some point. And then they see a video, and if they open it, my response rate’s through the roof. The same thing goes for, obviously at some point I do write lengthy emails, especially to people that I’ve already been in conversations with. Calling is still a major piece, right? So calling them, trying to cut through and get through gatekeepers when possible, you get them out of office when they’re on vacation and they happen to put their cell phone in there, you immediately gain an upper hand, like there are all very small field tactics, but then leveraging Instagram and Linkedin and Twitter, like DM’s. Like those are the most, you know, Linkedin has become what I would consider email used to be in the professional world, right, and people are almost at this point kind of becoming numb to it, right? Email replaced mail, and cold calling kind of always is in there as relevant if you’re using it the right way, and LinkedIn has kind of replaced email at this point in some ways, and now you have this beautiful thing called Instagram, and obviously have to be very cautious with what you say and how you say things, because you are reaching out to people on their personal profiles, after you [28.25 inaudible]. But the response rates in the digital age, especially with any of us that are like, a little bit older millennials or gen-Z or even people that are just actively involved in the tech space Gen-X, if you position it correctly, even though they may be a little hesitant, or may even make a joke about you reaching out, obviously I would call that out, “I understand I’m reaching out on your personal profile, trying to the clutter, would love the opportunity, here’s a little bit,” and usually when they respond, it gives you a direct opportunity to speak with someone and the same thing with Twitter. Sometimes LinkedIn brings the same type of result, but it’s a combination of all those things, and even mail in those cases kind of cutting through the clutter of like, sending them something like very high design, well [29:22 inaudible]. They’re all pieces and writing plays a factor and it’s across the board, whether you have to be very very detailed and articulate, whether you have to be very high level and playful, you really have to adapt what you’re saying and when you’re saying it depending on where you’re at in the process with them.

 

Q: That makes a lot of sense. That’s super useful and really, really interesting, Josh, thank you. The next question is a little bit more broad and it’s what is at stake with your writing?

 

A: What is at at stake? Can you clarify what you mean by that?

 

Q: Yeah, I mean, what happens if your writing succeeds or fails? And obviously we have sort of this idea of the financial stake that is really obvious in sales, right? So I would imagine that’s the primary thing that’s at stake in your writing, but are there other things that you feel come from that writing in a sense, like, are there other consequences of your writing?

 

A: Sure, yeah. So the obvious that you noted, so like in a presentation, right, just making sure that things are grammatically correct and punctual, you know, spelled, and the right punctuation, I actually have a rule of thumb that people in the agency world spend like a ridiculous amount of hours just going through every minute detail to make sure that there’s not one grammatical error. And my thought is, if someone doesn’t want to do business with us – clearly put your time in and try to create a strong product – but if someone doesn’t want to do business with us because of a missed period or comma or one misspelled word, then like, we don’t want to do business with– like pardon my language, fuck them. Like, they’re not the right fit, clearly like, they’re missing the overall point. But as far as like, the day to day contacts, it’s a really sensitive balance. You never know if you’re actually getting through when someone hasn’t had an active relationship with you. But if they have– clearly I document literally every piece of outreach and conversation ever, going back, every small email, everything is in a CRM, chronologically updated in Salesforce, and I have a very meticulous follow up schedule according to when the next touchpoint makes sense, whether they’re in the funnel and I’m trying to convert them, whether I’ve never talked to them, it’s always detailed. But you are aware of brands that are very well suited for you, and you really feel passionate that if you were just able to get through, it would make sense. Sometimes you don’t know if the points of contact, even if I believe that there’s right cadences and know they are, you never know how they’re perceived on the other end. And you’re just always conscious of being seen as generic, or creating a barrier of them just literally blindly deleting or avoiding you because of the things you’ve done and said. You know, you must balance that as a salesperson with, there’s so many opportunities out there that you can’t dwell on every opportunity, and it’s like an internal struggle that you physically feel even though you would never say it outwardly to your team, you just know that everything you do is going to be interpreted somehow, and obviously you move on and you try not to dwell. But also, from a personal perspective, the world’s very connected, and I’m not representing only my agency, if anything I think in the digital era, especially using those other mediums besides email, you’re representing yourself, and clearly want to be as articulate and sound as smart as you possibly can and know that the people that you’re potentially connecting with are connections of your connections, you constantly have to be aware of what you say and respecting that relationship without bastardizing it. And also, you never know who you’re going to come in contact with, or who knows who, and their point of view or feelings about the things you’re saying, so you just, through trial and error and through being able to read people on each medium and understanding the complexities, you just have to be constantly aware. And I would say especially on Twitter, and especially on Instagram, with different gender dynamics, clearly I am a white male that is a tenacious human being, and it’s not likely the first time I’ve reached out, and so I have to be very compassionate and understand the situation that I’m putting them in by reaching out to them. They have the opportunity to ignore it, but still, there’s still an emotional and professional reaction that takes place if they do read it and when they do read it, because everyone checks their Instagrams DMs. So just constantly aware of the things that I’m putting out in the world, and how I’m portraying myself, and obviously my company and my organization as well, but, it’s much more personal. It’s knowing that, you know, clearly you have influence but, you don’t want to obviously be perceived negatively or as if you’re intruding on their own personal space.

 

Q: Absolutely, yeah that’s a really interesting answer. And this sort of might lead into this next question, and that’s what’s the most difficult thing about writing in your specific position?

 

A: Umm, avoiding redundancy in the wrong ways. So like, the hardest part is if someone doesn’t respond three or four times, and then you, you know, it’s days or weeks or even a month before you’ve maybe touched them two or three times, and it could be longer, because you really have to play your cards right and understand the season, and understand the timing, and understand like the history of who they’ve selected as an agency and where they’re at on potential projects. And, I think the hardest part is, most people, let’s say 90 plus percent people have no recall of me reaching out at all. Ever. And so allude to previous points of contact in some cases, sometimes I just play the cold card again, because today might be the day that they’ve spent five minutes on their email, or on their phone. And it’s just making sure that the story of first contacts through when they decide to reply or decide to, even if they say no, you know, a reply is a great understanding ‘cause it allows you to know how much effort you’re going to put into something. So it’s just really avoiding generic outreach and putting us in a light that won’t allow us to kind of deliberate, you don’t want to ever, in any situation, make it seem like I mass-customized a piece of outreach, and I don’t. Even though I have a lot of similar emails that are being sent, they’re very customized in the sense that like, I’ve just become very good at and efficient at changing the things that need to be changed, but that’s years and years, dating back to the beginning of my career, knowing how to do that. But to them, it seems like a very focused email. Avoiding that redundancy is huge, especially because sometimes, in most cases, I could reach out for ten straight months. Most of my big wins I’ve reached out for ten months, nine months a year, and then after that period of time, they finally respond, “Josh, I really appreciate your persistence in reach out. I’ve been meaning to get out to you. I’d love to talk tomorrow.” So like, for a year, they weren’t in a buying position. They weren’t in the state that they were ready to talk to someone. But the day that they were, my email happened to come through around that time, and they remembered me somehow. Or I seemed like someone that they wanted to talk to even if they don’t recall anything. And that’s the opportunity. So just knowing that there’s a fine balance between continuing to repeat the same things because they’re your value propositions, but not churning and burning emails with the same type of copy or messages with the same type of copy. Everyone has email history, like, in one second they could see all your Twitter DMs, all your Instagram DMs, your Linkedin messages, so if I send six in a row, like clearly that conveys a message. And if they’re all the same, that looks even worse.

 

Q: Absolutely, right, okay that makes a lot of sense, yeah. This is more about sort of your development as a writer. Has anyone helped you in the workplace formally or informally develop as a writer?


A: I am someone that just picks up things from other people, so I think I was, like I said, like a B– compared to you, Brian, and my wife, I’m a C writer. Compared to the rest of the world, I’m a B+, right? So in the grand scheme of things like I say, we jokingling, but like, truly there’s a upper echelon of people that are so incredible and it’s an art, and it’s a subject matter; they’re subject matter experts. And clearly I wouldn’t presume that I could be immediately be as great as them. I think I’m an effective communicator, but those are things that I’ve picked up over time, that I’ve picked up from subject matter experts or other people, but, also just being with Sarah– I’m really focused on transitioning careers at this point into something that has been on my mind for years, and just going through a cover letter and a resume with her, the bulk of the things that I wanted to communicate were there, but like, what she did and what she helped me with while working through those things, it’s an art. And the end product is significantly greater than where I would have ended. So I think, just organically picking things up from people and knowing, at least how to translate my spoken word into writing format, and then also, obviously collaborating and being around people that are very strong writers.

 

Q: Great, okay, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Do you remember–

 

A: And I went to a very, very good high school, so like, the number one ranked public school in Ohio for like, I don’t know, ten out of fifteen years. And that’s not like a [40:09 inaudible] point, but I remember my high school teachers saying – I was like a, I think that I was really a B or B+ student consistently through high school – and they said that like, “Our C students, you’re going to go to college and the majority of you will be in the upper echelon of writing students because of the education that you’ve received.” And it was true. I went to a small school, I was planning on going to the naval academy, but ended up at a small school, and this B+ writer was an A+ writer among other people, except maybe the top tier of actual writers, because I received such a stellar education. And from there, it was just, you know, I don’t know how much I’ve evolved, but I think I’ve just learned how to communicate a little differently.

 

Q: That’s great, yeah, that’s really, really interesting. Do you remember or either in highschool, but I guess more specifically in college, what kinds of writing were you asked to do?

 

A: I was in political science and was pre law, and just like, not going to the naval academy like a month before, and deciding to back out, I decided to back out of attending law school, like a [41:13 inaudible] and got my MBA instead, and everything worked out great. But in college, I had like two or three professors that were, like one was the former head of the entire political science program at Xavier, one was a Harvard law grad and worked on the federal circuit, and they were extremely influential. And the writing that we did for those courses, in liberal arts you have a lot of gen ed classes and bs stuff, but it’s pretty bland, and if you just do your work, you’ll get through it. But in those classes, your writing was everything. You know, you might only have one or two papers a semester, and two four hour long, handwritten or typed exams, with a plethora, like a crazy amount of case histories, and really taking a current case and dissecting it based on the things that are already in law at this point. And I really honed my ability for rational thinking and strategic thinking at that point, I think it took me from someone that thought he was a pretty good writer at communicating simply and concisely to, here are these things that have already taken place, and I had to rationally connect the dots between the two of them, and I think my writing skills probably doubled during about six different classes [42:41 inaudible] over my junior and senior year.

 

Q: Oh, that’s great. Yeah, that’s wonderful. Do you think that those experiences prepared you to write in the workplace?

 

A: I think in some way. Transitioning right from that and being like law-focused to going to the MBA world, where I still was in a lot of business classes and it was a focus in college, during my MBA, I think the same type of strategic thinking and writing was critical. So, here’s our recommendation, here’s why historically, here’s the rationale behind it, and then, you know, kind of being succinct in summarizing the recommendation again, and it’s very similar to what I did: here’s the idea and here’s the answer, here’s the historical and rational context behind it, and leading it ultimately to your final points. And I think they’re very similar in a lot of ways, and I think that’s almost identical to how we operate in the agency world of, you know, here’s us, here’s the recommendation, we’re going to walk you through a long version of why, we’re going to show you how we’ve done it ourselves, and then here it is, very, very straightforward on one or two slides. Here’s the whole picture of what we want to do and why we’re going to do it.

 

Q: Hmm, yeah I can see the mirror there, yeah. Are there things that would’ve been useful for you as a college student that you didn’t get that would’ve better prepared you?

 

A: I don’t think a lot of college courses focus on careers. I think they focus on academia, like the academic version of what subject matter these students are studying versus how that translates to an entire industry or job function. And while it’s difficult obviously to focus specifically on a role, I think it’s much easier to focus it on an industry, and push people to– you know, what I loved about my two law professors were, they were literally pushing us and running the course as if we were at a top tier law school. It was an identical [44:58 inaudible], and now that maybe doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the real world, but it prepared us for the next logical step in our lives. All of us were very serious prelaw students. I had a lot of marketing classes, and I had one where we did do a pitch and worked through things, but I don’t think, at least at a small liberal arts school like ours, there wasn’t a ton of– it was an expectation, some professors probably were much more critical than others around the actual grammar and in writing skills overall, and some were less and more focused on the answers, and the thinking. And I just think equipping students to sell themselves and understanding how to communicate ideas, recommendations, values that they believe in, values that they bring to a certain subject or field, I think all of those things are really important, and I wish that someone would’ve spent more time maybe pushing us to do that. Especially, I would say like of all the things I’m an expert at, is networking and interviewing, like jokingly. But I love that the most in this world, and I’m phenomenal at creating a story arc of me personally and professionally and kind of combined. And I honestly think that if some students– like most people suck at selling themselves. They’re more focused on responsibilities than values they’ve delivered and results, and I think that that’s the case in a lot of business writing at least, is a lot of people spend too much time on the details versus communicating the value and the overall idea, and I think students probably, especially as they’re headed in the real world, not resume writing, but like, communicating the specifics of why in their story arc, and having a story to tell, I think that’s always important. And it starts on a piece of paper as an outline, and then you tell it enough that you kind of grow it and evolve it over time, and feel more confident in it.

 

Q: That’s great, yeah.

 

A: I’m all over the place, I apologize.

 

Q: No, no, that’s super interesting! And again, it’s sort of not something that we think about that often I think in the classroom, that’s great. I actually have a few more questions, they’re relatively short, I want to be conscious of your time. How do you think you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the course of your career?

 

A: Less fluff, much more succinct, I think is number one. I’ve learned how to communicate way more specifically and effectively. I’ve learned how to take my personal spoken style and the way I am as a human being, the way I just naturally communicate with others in any medium, and translate that to what I’m doing professionally in writing. Depends on the medium, but like, I think if you were to see the things that I write, small, big, across the board, wide range, banking, technology, agency world, you would say that that’s, it’s pretty consistently Josh. That’s my tone, my language, and I think I’ve learned over time how to do it more effectively. So I don’t think I’ve always been that great, but I think, you know, even after working through the resume and cover letter, like, Sarah clearly has input on things, and I just know instinctively that that doesn’t sound like me, or that’s not a way that I would articulate something. I think that’s just how I am, I believe that you just have to be yourself when doing those things.

 

Q: Great, okay. To what extent do you think writing is valued in your agency and in the sort of field as a whole?

 

A: In the field it’s maybe the most critical piece. It’s how everything is communicated. So clearly, pitches and different things, like you’re articulating an idea, not just spoken, but also written, and actually written first, and then you adapt how you speak about it. Every brief, every simple operation, from changing a logo or creating a new logo, which isn’t as simple as it sounds, to a full brand new brand strategy or messaging strategy, there could be ten pages of just showing them and creating a guide for how this brand will communicate with the outward world and internally. There are briefs and emails exchanged before those projects are kicked off, there are const and communications that are taking place with prospects and clients throughout the process, the actual work that you deliver oftentimes outside of like a pure design piece is written. And even in that case, it’s written so that there’s context to the entire situation. So, every nuance of advertising, the written word is the most important in so many ways. And specifically at my agency, I believe, everyone believes in the power of it. But it’s kind of siloed, where we all take our pieces and understand that we’re all pretty good writers and hopefully it comes together well in the end and we’re all pretty critical of it, but unfortunately we don’t have the time to value it as much. At my first agency, you have brilliant copywriters that you literally give them a pile of garbage and they come back and give you like the most beautiful piece of art in the world and you have no idea that something could be communicated that way. And when you do read those things and the things that actually make it to the client, versus things that are internal, it could solidify the value that you deliver and them wanting to do business with you. So I think it’s just dependent on the team and the agency. I think it’s always valued, but some places it’s like an unspoken expectation, and other places it’s an art.

 

Q: That’s great. That’s great, yeah. And our last question actually – how would you have defined successful writing as a student versus being a successful workplace writer now, and would you say that you are a successful workplace writer?

 

A: I would say I’m a successful workplace writer, and I would say that it’s something that every single day I’m focused on evolving. Like I walk into work every single day knowing that I have to evolve in even one sentence, or half a sentence, or one piece of communication has to evolve in order to continue kind of optimizing the way that I communicate. And the results that it brings – in college, you know, there are just so many different types of writing. One, I wish I understood, someone maybe was able to articulate and walk you through the spectrum of the different types of writing that they could encounter, right? You have your literature classes, and you have your law classes, and you have your business classes, and they all require a lot of different things, and they all focus on writing dependent on the professor, but I think to be able to summarize where they fall on the spectrum on what’s important, I don’t know if I ever had a professor tell me in a non writing-focused class what they’re looking for specifically in the writing, outside of like a specific idea or missed idea in a lot of cases. I also think that understanding the mediums as to which people are going to be writing in this new age, helping them understand that. Everyone has their own interpretation of what’s important, right? Like the things that Sarah says are really important are platforms that I rarely use, or use completely differently, and the way I communicate is completely differently, and I think just having an appreciation and understanding of that, and allowing people to understand like the full range of technology and the way people communicate on those platforms, and if the professors are not subject matter experts, not acting like they are [chuckle], and really people to obviously give them guidance on what that looks like, and I think understanding that whole range in that space I think would’ve been really awesome for me to know, you know. And I think it could have potentially guided me out of law. Had I known in college what a lawyer from a writing perspective, and the volume of documents they write and format and change every single day, I’m pretty sure I probably would have pivoted a little bit earlier.

  

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Realtor (Realtor 2) Washington, DC

Business

Realtor (Realtor 2) Washington, DC

Date of Interview: March 31st, 2017

Transcript:

Q: Okay, so would please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?

A: Yeah. So my current job title is a realtor at the Bediz Group, under the Keller Williams Capital Properties banner, I guess, so to speak. I’ve been working in this field, in residential real estate, as a realtor for about five years. And I graduated college from RIT in Rochester, New York back in 2000, I believe, if I remember correctly [chuckles].

Q: And you had mentioned before we started the interview that you’ve worked in a few previous industries before this job – do you mind telling me a little bit about those, for some context?

A: Sure, sure. So again, my concentration in college was advertising photography, with a minor in psychology. So I got out of school doing a lot of different work, essentially, in the Washington, D.C. area, doing graphics, working as a production assistant on small-budget films, working as a production assistant on other people’s advertising jobs in photography, doing my own advertising, and doing my own photography. So basically, pretty much anything I could do to pay the bills [chuckles].

Q: Right. That’s great. And then, do you mind me asking how you got into realty?

A: I got into real estate actually through my photography. In my previous job to this one, just prior to this one, I wound up working in commercial real estate for about five years until I just decided I had to go. It wasn’t necessarily I was looking for a career shift, but I just didn’t want to stay with the company I was at.

Q: Gotcha, okay, great, thanks. Could you tell me a little bit about your primary job functions?

A: So my primary job function now essentially involves a lot of lead generation, in terms of networking with people. And then in terms of kind of like management, in terms of managing the process from – I’m a little overcaffeinated – managing the process from beginning to end in terms of – I’m spacing on the right phrase of how best to put that – but in terms of like project management, essentially. So once I take on a listing, in terms of scheduling all the contractors I’ve involved, and everything else that would be involved in terms of getting the property ready for the market, and then making sure we execute everything on time, as well as also have everything else set up properly, and all contracts and legal documents are signed off on and we’re clear to go, so that the property is fully marketable. And then once we are under contract, make sure that we clear through everything well enough to be able to execute the settlement on time and walk away with a happy client on both ends so that I can continue to get referrals from my current clients. So there’s that, and then on the other side, there’s also the office side where I’m dealing with staff in terms of trying to make sure that things are working on time, working with my graphics person to make sure that we’re getting adverts out in time, and effectively reaching people. I would say as I’ve gotten older, I probably fail more at– it takes me a while to communicate effectively to people. I sit down and I spend a lot of time making sure that my emails are clear and concise as best I can when I’m communicating to clients.

Q: Okay, great, great. How frequently are you required to write, if maybe in a given week, is it possible for you to give me a percentage of what, what percentage of your job requires writing?

A: Most of my writing is simply just emails. A lot of the contracts that we do are already kind of pre-filled out, and it’s a matter of just plugging in the right data and knowing what data– and also understanding the verbage. You know, they revise a lot of our contracts on a yearly basis, but they’re very small tweaks usually. So just understanding the verbiage and how we might want to tweak it if we need to, given a situation. Actually it’s really hard for me a lot of time to actually handwrite things, because I don’t spend much time handwriting, so when I do have to handwrite, it’s a little trickier for me. It’s weird, it’s a motor skill that has somewhat disappeared. I definitely can’t write legibly for the most part, I have to struggle to, if I’m trying to communicate and write someone a nice note card, it’s a struggle.

Q: I understand that, as someone who writes on the board periodically in class, I’ve found over the years as I handwrite less and less, that handwriting has gotten less and less legible for my students. Okay, that’s great. So what forms or types of writing or kinds of documents do you most often complete? So you talked about sort of contracts and emails, are there any other written documents that you work with?

A: A lot of texting, a lot of calls, so that’s not really writing, obviously. We do craft of adverts, I usually leave that to my graphics guy, when we’re creating new brochures or new handouts or any type of materials like that. And as I’ve painfully learned the other day, we still make mistakes, because I sent adverts out to Del Ray, and apparently we spelled Del Ray wrong [laughter], which is kind of embarrassing when you’re marketing to a specific market, and you’re saying, “Hi, hello Del Ray, and I own this area,” and then you apparently can’t spell it right. That doesn’t speak very well, professionally. To be honest, a lot of what I do is kind of already preformatted, so when I literally am doing long communications with people that’s very detailed, I usually will cut and paste from an old email or communication that I’ve had, in terms of if I’ve written a letter, or something like that. I literally just cut and paste sometimes, because it makes my job a lot faster and easier, and then just kind of tailor what I need to say specifically from that. So I’ve gotten quite lazy in that way, to do that. And I found myself doing that when I worked in commercial real estate – once I’d gone through the pain of making certain communications that I’ve needed to do that I’m going to be repetitive in, I’ve, literally, you just start copying and pasting and then kind of refiguring out how to retool your messaging through what you’ve already got as a basic outline, essentially.

Q: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. When you find that you’re sort of retooling those things, is it tone, or style, or just the details that you find yourself adjusting most often?

A: It’s just the use of the details. Sometimes it will be the tone, in terms of if I need to tailor it to a much more specific audience, in terms of who I’m trying to communicate, so they do feel like that this is a personalized communication. And I have had made a few mistakes I think, on rare occasions, if I’ve been trying to do an all-nighter, or something like that, sometimes in the busy season, where I will wind up not putting the correct name somewhere, or something that’s very obvious, where people are like, “Well, who’s that?” Oh, yeah. Like they’re like, “I’m not Charlie,” and I’m like, “Yeah, you’re definitely not Charlie, I got that. Thank you for pointing that out to me,” [laughter].

Q: That sort of leads nicely into the next question – so could you describe the primary audiences to which you’re usually writing, and the primary purposes?

A: I mean literally most of my communication is to other agents where we’re vying to secure, in a competitive situation, an offer. Essentially to secure the property that my clients would like to secure. So I draft up everything in terms of the documents and the offer, which include a little bit a cover letter for me where I have to personalize the sales pitch, and then I send that to my clients for them to review and sign off on everything, and then they also are included in the final communication, bcc’d, essentially, on the offer. So they see all of that communication a lot of times. So that’s a good bulk of what I’m doing. And then the negotiating factors – I like to get most of the negotiations done in writing so that we have a good record of things. And [inaudible 9:15] to the process, in terms of being under contract, if we’re still negotiating with various items, I still like to keep that in writing in terms of emails, essentially, to be able to keep a written record of where we’ve come, which has been helpful. I do that a lot because I’ve been in a couple of court cases over the years as well from various businesses where it’s kind of like, you learn that it’s best to have a written trail of your conversation and where things have led to.

Q: Interesting. Yeah, I would imagine your field that becomes really essential.

A: Yeah, yeah.

Q: Could you tell me a little bit about your writing process? So is there any sort of preparation or brainstorming that goes into a typical writing project? Or do you just sort of sit down? I imagine most of your work is pretty time-sensitive, so–

A: Yeah, if I have to craft up something that’s going to be a little bit more creative, and I’m going to sit down with my designer, I try and think, “What’s the message?” Because I know that I’m not very good at this, I do a lot of kind of repetitive, where I’m going back and, “Did I actually convey the message that I’m trying to convey as concisely as I can and there won’t be any confusion?” And that’s a problem I feel like with a lot of communication, from texting to emails – everyone’s in a hurry and we’re doing it quickly, and there’s a lot of room for error in terms of clarity, in terms of the communication. So there’s a lot of the ambiguity and vagueness I feel like in today’s communication, and in my business, the more I can eliminate any ambiguity and lack of clarity, the better off I am in terms of making sure that we get the end results. Where I’ve had other agents sometimes where they’re like, “Oh, well I thought it was this,” and I was like, “Actually, if you go back and read the verbiage, and if we ever had to take it to court, it’s very clearly stated what our intent is and what the expectation for the end result would be.” So, it’s to my benefit to be as clear and concise as I can to get the results that I want.

Q: Absolutely. Right, right, and it’s interesting because you’re writing to this immediate audience, and then the audience that’s bcc’d, but you’re also sort of thinking about that potential worst case scenario audience of like a legal situation.

A: Exactly.
Q: Yeah, that’s really interesting.

A: Because a lot of what I do relies on kind of a lot of faith in reputation, and so when you, I don’t know, it just relies on that. So when that’s not happening, then you have to revert back to it in a worst case scenario, what do we have, and we have this written communication, and how clear and concise was everything laid out in that, which ultimately, if I ever had to go to court, and I guess that’s kind of the way I always look at it is, if I ever had to go to court, this is exactly where we had, you know, battle out between two attorneys, this is where we would land essentially.

Q: Right. Yeah, that’s really interesting. Do your documents go through multiple drafts or multiple revisions, or is it usually just a sort of, one shot and it’s done?

A: Since most of what I’m doing is kind of cut and paste in terms of cover letters or– so when we do get under contract, and then my clients find a whole bunch of issues with the property that they want to have resolved before they feel like they can move forward, I make the verbiage very clear and concise and kind of go back and I have to research sometimes products, and understanding the process of what it would take to get something done, so that I can understand how to clearly communicate what we want done, and how it should be done, and what the final expectation is. So sometimes I have to kind of go back and review and like, “Does that make sense? Is that actually what it’s called? Is that the process?” Yeah. I don’t know if that helped. Did that answer your question?

Q: It does, it does, perfectly, yeah. And this obviously will vary from writing to writing project, but how long do you typically have to complete an average writing project?

A: Most of what I do is very time-sensitive, and so I don’t usually have a whole lot of time to get anything done, so that’s also probably why I wind up reverting to just cutting and pasting [inaudible 14:15], because I can more effectively piece things together, better than if I had to sit think there and think what do I want to say from beginning to end, and how do I want to have the conversation flow in terms of what I’m writing. When I’m making an offer, like an hour to two hours, maybe? But a lot of that’s filling in contracts and making sure I have all the pieces of the contract that I need. So I don’t know, yeah.

Q: That’s fine, that’s useful, that’s really useful. What is at stake in your writing? You’ve talked a little bit about repercussions, but could you describe what’s at stake in an average writing project?

A: Well, I mean, the end result could be my job or my reputation [chuckles], in the sense that if I leave any liability for my clients in the end of the day, they could be financially liable, which could come back on me, which would result in likely, eventually ruining my reputation in the business, which I don’t want to do [laughter]. So it’s not quite as serious, you know, I think of all my friends who are attorneys, it’s not quite as serious as that, but it certainly is because this is a large investment that people are making, and there’s no room for error in timing and/or expense. I mean, who wants to pay for someone else’s mistake? And I do know somebody in the business who, they actually had to buy a house because they left their clients liable and to make up for the mistake, they literally bought the house, which put them in a huge financial bind.

Q: Wow. I can imagine [laughter]. Wow!

A: And I think that was a way probably to avoid getting charges filed against them.

Q: Oh, interesting. Okay. Does anyone oversee your writing?

A: We do have a legal compliance department within our brokerage, and their job is to make sure that we’re all buttoned up in terms of being legally liable. So make sure that we have all the correct forms, that we have all of our initials and signatures where we need them, that everything’s flowing in terms of the contracts and that we’ve completed. And even down to the point where it looks like we’re facing a potential court case with somebody who has not done what they’re supposed to do, and I need to button up everything and make sure we’ve got our ass covered, essentially, in that manner. And the same thing in my previous job, when I worked in commercial real estate for a major corporation, I would always work with HR and legal to make sure that everything I was doing was in compliance, my messages were very clear and concise, and that we were following all the procedures needed to make sure that we were not putting ourselves at risk in terms of being sued or liable for something. Because I oversaw about 20 people, essentially, in my previous position where I had to make sure, whether it’s an HR issue or something else we were doing was clear. And then even prior to that, I managed a health club for five years as well, an executive health club, so overseeing a staff of about 50 people.

Q: Okay, that’s so interesting. So, especially because you’ve had sort of a pretty varied career in the past 15, 20 years, have you had any training or education specific to writing since you graduated from college?

A: No, and I consider myself a horrible writer, actually [laughter]. So that’s why I probably spend more time at it. I think if I ever got back into a more corporate, professional environment, I think I would definitely struggle with that for a while. But it’s fine, I think it’s like the same as when I got there to my last job. I would spend a good amount of time making sure I was fully prepared for the things I needed to be prepared for, whether it was a court case or whether it was a meeting, or a presentation. So I would probably spend more time than maybe some people would, because I don’t think I had the background that I needed. I had the tendency to put off classes and lessons that I didn’t think were pertinent to me at the time, so starting as early as probably middle school when we were supposed to learn how to type, I was like, “Why do I ever need to learn how to type? I’ll have a secretary that’s supposed to do that for me,” [laughter] – that was probably the worst idea I ever had, that was probably a dumb idea – that was a dumb idea. Because here I am in college, trying to basically peck at the keyboard trying to figure out how to type up these long papers and I’m like, “I don’t know really how to do this,” and even to this day, it’s finally come to me in the last probably 10 years of my life, me now being 40, where I can actually literally type, probably not as efficiently as need to if I was having to, I definitely am horrible at dictation if I have to read my writing or hear what someone’s saying and then type it, it’s not happening.

Q: That’s really interesting. So you’re sort of talking about this already, but the next question is what challenges did you face when you were entering the workplace? And that doesn’t need to be in this job, right, this can be right out of college. But I’m curious about what the writing challenges were, and what steps you took to try to overcome those early writing challenges.

A: I’m trying to think. So I know my last position I did spend a good amount of time looking at resources to try and figure out how do I do what. I even brought up the CEO of the company, just happenstance before I even knew he was the CEO of the company, that we needed better resources at the company, and they did try and link us to kind of like an online library of resources for classes and educational purposes, which is something that HR eventually took on to do where they wanted to help us learn more. And they did start teaching us and doing classes that was helpful, because I did a lot of stuff in my last two positions where I was having to recruit people into the company as well as then hire and train them, and then manage them. Actually there’s a great class at Keller Williams – they’re heavy on classes, and so was my previous position – we would take a lot of classes that the company would offer that I thought was very helpful in terms of– which doesn’t necessarily pertain to writing, but it certainly, I think that continuing education through your employer is very helpful, because I don’t think, had I had to do it on my own, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I mean basic books in terms of idiot guides to like how do you write– and even now, I would struggle if I would have to write a resume, I haven’t had to do it in 10 years, so I don’t know how [inaudible 22:12] [laughter]. It’s kind of like as idiotic as how long it took me to figure out how to do this Skype [laughter].

Q: No, no. Yeah, once you’re out of practice in those things, there is a big learning curve coming back to any sort of new writing, for sure.

A: Yeah. Did I answer your question? I can’t remember what it was–

Q: You did, you did, yeah. And what were the sort of strategies you undertook, and you said you went to the CEO and sort of embraced these classes and things like that. Are you able to identify a change in your writing between college and now?

A: Well I don’t write essays, so there’s that. I know a lot of times people tell me– I think I would struggle if I had to– like I was talking about my friend who’s an attorney who does a lot of work for manufacturers, I would definitely struggle. But then watching him do what he does, he tells me he kind of does a lot of what I do, you basically look for previous evidence of what you’re trying to do, and then you copy essentially that, and then reformat it to the specific needs of what you have at hand. I kind of feel like that’s kind of the era that we live in, where people are doing a lot of probably cutting and pasting, and it’s like okay, this works for what I need, and then I can just kind of fine-tune it down to what the purpose is.

Q: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, I would say 90 percent of the interviews we’ve done, people have talked about some form of that strategy, in some cases I think people feel very adept in adapting that text and making it feel personal, like we were talking about, and then other folks have voiced a struggle to maintain consistent style or tone, but that they sort of have to rely on that because of time constraints, as you were mentioning, which is interesting.

A: Yeah, but I definitely understand that. I don’t have a good baseline in terms of my educational upbringing, just in the sense that I was never interested in doing anything that I didn’t think was to my benefit at the time, which led to me not paying attention to a lot of classes or even attending classes that I probably should have attended. Just as basic as having a good understanding of proper grammar in a lot of contexts, in terms of, you know I sometimes sit and listen to my friends talk about some of this stuff, and it’s quite embarrassing. I’m like, “Wow, I really should have paid more attention,” and even today, but I have no, it’s like I don’t know what I would do to correct it at this point because it’s kind of like, “Alright, well,” and that’s probably maybe also why I spend more time on some of my communication than maybe I should be doing, just because I’m trying to make sure that it’s clear, concise. And God forbid, I have to actually handwrite a note to somebody, because then I have to think about the correct spelling of things, which I don’t do half the time. I love how our computers can just guess things most of the time.

Q: Yeah. So when you think back, you’ve talked about how you were really not especially interested in things that didn’t seem to have an immediate use for you in college, but were there writing skills that you did learn in college, that you found prepared you for writing in the workplace?

A: Technical writing was an interesting exercise, and I wish that– I mean I think what I got out of that is essentially that you have to remember, you know, it was kind of fun, you had to remember that if you didn’t write clearly and concisely in a very thorough manner, then someone could miss a step. I mean, technical writing is as simple as, you know, part of it’s like the instructions that people have like when you go to Ikea and you buy piece of furniture and you have to put it together, and you have to remember you’re not going to be there to help them do it, so those instructions have to be very clear, concise, and thorough from beginning to end, and how do you get there? And so that’s kind of a lot of times like my writing now – I’m starting off trying to figure out how to flatter somebody, lay out what the problem is, and then how do we want to get that resolved in the end, but being very friendly in my tone, but stern in the sense that there is an expected end result, and sometimes even consequential in terms of what would be the result if we didn’t have that. So you have to kind of flow that conversation in your writing in terms of figuring out how to keep that.

Q: Right. Can we go back to, you just said the first part of that was, was it flatter the reader? Can you tell me a little bit about that?

A: Yeah, I mean you want to– you have a goal of what you’re trying to achieve, and you want to grease the wheels, you want to keep things going. What are you looking for, or what more–?

Q: I just, I think that’s just one of those things that we all do but don’t articulate very often, so it’s interesting to hear you say that that’s like a conscious step that you’re taking. Does that make sense?

A: Yeah, so I learned in college from a friend of mine who was actually very manipulative that there is, you can kind of joke and go back to Star Wars force. If you’re very purposeful in your life on a continuous basis, which takes a lot of energy and time, you can almost always get what you want in the end, but you just have to be very purposeful about your message and your end result. Whether it’s communicating verbally in a situation, or in writing, but more so, he taught me more in the verbal sense of that. And it worked – I would watch him and it was like 99.9 percent of the time, it worked. So I kind of went with that. So that’s kind of what the use of the flattery is, you know? And at the end of the day, we all have to work together. I have to work with that person again, so I want to make sure that we’re keeping things friendly.

Q: Yeah, absolutely. That’s interesting, thanks.

A: I don’t know if that helped at all [laughter].

Q: It totally helps! Yeah, no, it’s just an interesting, you know, as I said, I think we all do some form of that, trying to establish a relationship as you are working with folks, but we don’t often articulate that that’s part of the goal of the communication because we’re usually more focused on the deliverable or whatever the decision is, right? So it’s sort of interesting to think about that as a secondary purpose, but something that’s always kind of underlying in those emails, in most industries, probably.

A: So managing people for years now, most of my life actually, I’ve learned that you have to do that, even in my verbal communication with employees, and I’ll admit I learned this probably later in my career, that you have to remember that people have feelings. Because I think I was always kind of very stern in my management style, not in terms of the sense that we’re– we’ve all I think had, unfortunately, the boss or the leader in our lives who, because they had pain in getting to their position in life, they want to make your life as painful as possible too, to get to your next step in life. I’ve always very mindful of that, I never did anything like that because I don’t enjoy being treated like crap, and I want to make sure people feel respected and understood. But at the same time, I guess I was also very like, “This is the task at hand, these are our goals, get it done.” And it would come down to, even on a daily routine and basis, my communication with employees and staff about stuff. And it wasn’t until later in my career, I remember one of my employees said to me, “Listen, you seem really very stern all the time.” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m not looking to be your best friend. We work together as a team, and I happen to be leading this team, and these are our goals.” And she’s like, “Well, it doesn’t feel good sometimes, the way you come off to us.” And I was like, “Oh, alright. Well that wasn’t the intention.” So I had to kind of reformulate, and I actually had private meetings with all of my staff to ask them what they wanted, what they were looking for. And they just wanted to have more friendly communication in terms of like, “Hey, how’s your wife? How’s the husband? How’s the kids? How’s your day? How’s the weather?” you know, that kind of stuff. And I was like, “Oh, okay,” [laughter], “I can try that. You want small talk, okay, fine.” So I learned to pepper that into my daily communication with people, and kind of let loose a little bit more, loosen up, I guess, more in the workplace. And I’ve actually done that, even in real estate I was very kind of rigid in the beginning of my career with the borderline of client expectations and then their client– you know, I’ve been hired to do a job, I’m doing something, I’m working and they’re my client, I’ve kind of softened that a lot, so we become friends. And that’s actually the most effective way to do my job actually, in terms of long term business. You want your clients to be your friend in the end of the day, if they can, or close acquaintances at some point, so that they feel comfortable to eventually want to pass your services on to their friends and family and colleagues and stay within their sphere of influence and circle of friends, to stay top-of-mind so that you can keep your business moving forward. Which is how I’ve kind of gotten to know Patrick, they hired to buy a house– they wanted to buy a house in Virginia, and it turned out that it was Old Town, but we’ve since become friends, so yeah.

Q: Right, right, that’s super interesting, especially this sort of conversation that an employee had with you and how lasting that impact can be after years. That’s really interesting. So, just a few more questions. In what ways would you say would you say you were unprepared as a writer, coming out of college into the workforce?

A: Again, kind of having a baseline of maybe how to clearly communicate. I mean there was a lot of creative writing in highschool and college, I wrote a lot of my papers spontaneously at the very last minute. It’s weird, the way I work, I don’t know if it’s– it’s changed a little bit, but the way I’ve worked for most of my life in terms of being able to write extensive communication, long, several-page essays, or reports, papers, was to absorb all of the information for a long period of time, and then just spit it back out in a large paper all at once as fast as possible. And then kind of go back and tweak it, and then done. I don’t think I could ever do what you’re doing in terms of being a PhD student [laughter]. Because I’ve known several people who’ve worked on their PhDs and stuff like that, and I have to say I don’t think I could stomach doing all that. So yeah, I think that, just even the baseline, but that really comes down to that being my own fault. The tools were there, I just didn’t take advantage of them. And I got called out by my professors. One of my favorite professors, she actually gave me an “F”, and that was the first time that I think I ever remember anyone saying, “Listen, you can’t just do what you want. This is exactly what I asked for, and you didn’t give it to me. You can smile and tweak it, paint it all different colors, but it’s still not what we asked for. So in the end of the day, you’ve achieved an F.” And I was like, “Wow.” And it was funny because even my classmates were like, “Well he did an amazing job.” And she was like, “Yeah, he did. But it’s not what I asked for so you [inaudible 36:08]”. And I was like, “Wow. That’s a first. Thank you very much,” [laughter].

Q: That’s interesting. So this next question, you kind of answered it earlier. Would you say you’re a successful workplace writer? You said you don’t consider yourself a good writer – could you tell me a little bit about whether you think that you’re ultimately successful though?

A: I’m successful in the sense that I get the results that I’m looking for most of the time, but I’d say the majority of the time, but I am not successful in the sense that, because of my struggles, I’m just horrible at time management sometimes. So that probably adds to my time management crisis or crunch sometimes, in terms of having to write.

Q: Okay. And last question – what skills would you say are must central to writing in your specific job?

A: What skills – I think this is more of a skill of life, it’s– in my career in photography, I had the opportunity to meet– and actually my upbringing is I guess kind of varied in that sense as well. I grew up very average, kind of on the lower scale of middle class, but had a interesting peppered life of adventure, and kind of being all over the place. So having the chance to connect with a lot of people that I may not connect with, or meet people – I shouldn’t say connect like we form long term relationships – but meet people. So I guess as more of a clear example to help out here, in photography, I would meet the president, I would meet CEOs of corporations, I would meet a lot of famous socialites, so sports stars, and usually had to hang out with them sometimes for an entire day. Which it’s funny, because I don’t think I do this well in some aspects, but to be able to just really connect with people is a core life skill that you need to have and a lot of times I think that people, we all have our insecurities and I think that that’s one thing that kind of gets in the way. Not to say I don’t have a whole stack of insecurities [laughter], like I hate to speak in front of people unless I know exactly what I’m talking about and I have a clear, concise path in terms of where I’m taking everyone in that conversation. But if I have to do a spontaneous, quick speech, sure, I’m happy to. Especially if I have to demand something of people in a large group, I tend to do that well for some reason. But I guess just keeping it short, connecting with people and creating an open environment and understanding I think is something that I do well and also goes into written communication as well because I– you know it’s funny, I think there’s always, I know at least working at an office when I used to work in an office, the culture of people would write these nasty emails and then you’d run into them in the hallways, and they’re like, “Oh, hi.” And it’s just kind of like, “Why would you do that? Why are you communicating this way? It’s not going to be conducive to what you’re trying to achieve in the end, you’re making everyone’s life more painful in the process.” So connecting with people is a huge life skill that should be applied in any kind of written communication as well.

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Vice President, Human Resources

Business

Vice President, Human Resources, Mortgage Company

Date of Interview: February 25th, 2017

Transcript:

Q: Okay, so would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?

A: Executive vice president of First Guaranty Mortgage Corporation, and I graduated in 1993.

Q: Okay, could you please provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

A: I oversee the human resources department, all facilities, corporate administration, and customer engagement.

Q: Gotcha. And how big is the organization?

A: We are 850 employees right now.

Q: Ah, okay. How frequently are you required to write? If it’s possible, maybe you can estimate in an average week what percentage of your job requires writing?
A: I would say, especially from email, it’s going to be about 70 to 80 percent of my job.

Q: Okay. What forms or types of writing or what kinds of documents are most typical for you?

A: So typically either policies and procedures, or emails – formal emails and informal emails.

Q: Could you make the distinction between the two, sort of describe what each might look like?
A: So I guess for me, informal emails are usually reactionary, I’m responding to someone else, whereas most of my formal emails are going to be where I’m trying to communicate to a group, either with my peer executives or to the entire company to make a specific point.

Q: Gotcha. Okay. So you kind of answered this a little bit–

A: I’m sorry.

Q: No, no, that’s great. But so the primary audiences – employees always? Or not necessarily?

A: So primarily internal, so yes, employees, but then different levels of employees. So sometimes it’s going to be other executives – what we have is an executive management team – other times it’s going to be directors, senior directors, and then just the entire employee population as a whole.

Q: I see. Okay. Could you name some of the purposes of those writing – what you’re going to accomplish in those types of– ?

A: Usually they’re directional. So it’s, “This is a new policy to the organization,” or “It’s now time for performance reviews, you need to do this, in order,” you know, “It’s now becoming open enrollment for benefits, you need to do this.” So it’s usually directional.

Q: Okay, perfect. Were you familiar with the kinds of writing you’re doing now when you were a college student?

A: No, I think for two reasons: one, I’m actually old enough that email wasn’t a big deal back then [laughter], it wasn’t a big deal. And then also two, I never had to do– I don’t feel like I always had to write as often about persuasion. I didn’t– having to persuade somebody. I feel like I’m doing that a lot more now than I am [inaudible 2:50].

Q: Interesting. What are the contexts in which you are trying to persuade people these days?

A: So, typically with executives, it’s going to be– we’re a consensus group, so we try to make decisions by consensus, but when it’s my area of expertise, I’m saying, “Here’s the basic information, here’s what I think we should do.” And then I kind of persuade you that that’s the way you should go, rather than, I don’t like to say, “Hey, this is my department, I made a decision, everybody get on board.”

Q: That makes sense, okay. Could you describe your writing process? The question asks how writing tasks come to you, but presumably there, you are initiating them. But maybe any preparation you take before you start writing, and/or what that process looks like from start to finish. And maybe we can think about a typical formal policy piece of writing, rather than an email.

A: Right, okay, so yeah, so policy or even a longer email, I would usually create an outline, just to get my thoughts together, sort of here are my major points, you know, some sort of bullet point, and then fill in the blanks – okay, this is what I need to talk about at that bullet point, and then I would transfer it into an email.

Q: Gotcha, okay. And do you do any revision after you’ve written a full draft of it?

A: Yes. Typically I do my own revisions, I share it with people in my team when it’s their area of expertise to get input on those revisions.

Q: Excellent. And is that input, it’s usually content-based rather than sentence-level style?

A: No, right, it’s content.

Q: Okay, great. And when you’re making revisions on multiple drafts, are there any particular strategies or approaches that you take to improving a piece of writing?

A: I guess really just time. I usually tend to try to walk away from something and come back later on just to get a new context and to look at it from a different eye, a different viewpoint.

Q: Great, great. How long do you typically take to complete a writing project, if it’s something sort of substantial like that that’s official?

A: I would usually say a day. If it’s the end of one day, it’s going to be the end of the next day before I put it out. So 24 hours.

Q: Perfect, okay. Because you’re at the vice president level, the executive level, I’m assuming there’s no one who oversees your writing, is that–?

A: Yeah.

Q: Right, okay. But you said if someone has an area of expertise in the department, you might run it by them?

A: Right, exactly.

Q: Beautiful, okay. And are those, they’re usually director-level folks?

A: Yes.

Q: Got it. And how would you say the success or quality of your writing is judged, either by other people or by yourself?

A: You mean, whether they judge it to be decent writing?

Q: Yeah, yeah.

A: I mean I usually get quite a few compliments on my writing, that it’s persuasive, it’s succinct, it’s to-the-point, which is a big deal in business [laughter].

Q: Great. Yeah, absolutely. Have you had any writing training or education in writing since you graduated from college?

A: I can’t really say that I have, I may have taken, you know years ago I may have taken some sort of writing class just to help persuasive writing, but I would say that was probably ten years ago. So not really.

Q: Gotcha, okay. Do you remember facing any challenges as a writer when you entered the workforce?

A: Yeah, I mean I think early on I figured out that I wasn’t necessarily understanding my audience very well, maybe was too emotional in emails. What I call emotion in the sense that, too many adjectives, sort of almost a slang, almost how I would talk, I was writing, so that was a — luckily for me I think I got over it. I identified it relatively early in my career and got over it. [inaudible 6:48], relatively.

Q: That’s interesting. How did you identify first that you felt that it was not–?

A: Because of reactions I got from people. So, especially in human resources, you are in many cases trying to pacify a situation, you’re trying to calm things down, and I would find that sometimes when people would read my writing, it made it worse. So I would be like, “Okay, that was not my intent [laughter], clearly I need to repeat that,” and that’s where it was– maybe I had too many, sort of, where it felt personal to people. So many times I would be writing to correct a situation, to say, “Your performance isn’t great, this is how we need to fix it” and maybe it came across as personal, like I was personally attacking, so it wasn’t received well.

Q: Absolutely, yeah. And when you tried to remedy that, were there specific approaches you took to sort of change your writing in that way?

A: I think the main point for me, which seems simple but wasn’t simple until you figured it out, was to simply try be in the other person’s shoes. Say, “I’m the person who’s going to read this, am I going to take it the right way?”

Q: Yeah, right, gotcha. Other than what you just talked about, are you able to identify any changes in your writing between college and now, and if so, are there certain positions or things that have happened that you might attribute that shift to?

A: I think my vocabulary’s grown, simply by the nature of my work – HR terms and things that I use more often – I think it’s gotten a lot better. But I also think just from viewing other people’s work, my grammar’s better than it was when I was in college. I think my sentence structure is better. You know, like I say, I think it was more just from seeing it in other’s writing rather than in a class or something like that.

Q: Absolutely, yeah. That makes sense. Out of curiosity, what did you study in college?

A: U.S. History.

Q: Okay, alright. In what ways do you think the writing you did in college prepared you or not for writing in the workplace?

A: I think it gave me the sort of the basic structure of it. Through highschool and college, it’s understanding how to write it structurally. But honestly I think a lot of it I’ve learned since college, it was sort of on-the-fly. Most of the things that I would say I’m good at in writing I’ve learned on my own.

Q: Gotcha, okay. That’s interesting, yeah. And presumably you did a lot of writing as a history major?

A: Yes, yes.

Q: Although a very different kind of writing.

A: Right, right.

Q: Okay. Would you say that you’re a successful workplace writer? Other than sort of getting compliments, are there things that–?

A: Yeah, I do think so, because again, I feel like I persuade my audience, even when it’s employees. I consider it successful because I don’t get a lot of pushback. So it may be a policy that I know people aren’t going to like, and when I don’t hear a lot of negatives, I feel like I was persuasive.

Q: Yeah, absolutely. Are there still lingering writing challenges? Are there ever projects that you’re working on, a piece of writing, that still feel like a real challenge, or do you feel like you’ve really mastered all the genres, the types of writing that you’re doing at this stage?

A: I will say actually to this day, some pieces of grammar are still a challenge for me, commas and semicolons [laughter], some of those simple things are still difficult for me. If something is an emotionally charged interaction– even, so the writing is supposed to be emotionally charged, I’m still not very good at that, because I do come across– it’s almost like I’ve overcompensated, I’m very factual in my writing. I don’t really allow a lot of emotion into my writing, so sometimes that can be a problem.

Q: Could you give me an example of a situation that you think should be more emotionally charged?

A: Probably just expressing sympathy to one of my employees in a loss, or trying to show understanding when somebody– sometimes you would go back and forth in a persuasive argument, and something you may say at the end, “I’m fine with this. I don’t love the idea but I’m fine with it,” and I’m probably not coming across maybe as magnanimous or as feeling as I could, because I still have that sort of–

Q: You’ve really perfected that very specific tone [laughter] for everything else.

A: Right, right. Exactly.
Q: That’s really interesting, okay.

A: That is something I have to work on, and remember that there’s a change in audience. Sometimes I still forget to recognize the change in audience and not word– this person I’m not trying to persuade in that same way.

Q: Yeah, right, that makes sense. And the last question – what skills would you say are most central to writing in your very specific role?

A: I do think it’s about keeping to facts, you know, don’t allow a lot of extraneous information – succinct. I work with an executive who, you write more than three or four paragraphs, you’ve lost him and he’s gone. So it’s fact, fact, boom, boom, boom, loves bullet points. And I think all of the executives, as we communicate with each other, are the same way. You’ve got to be very succinct.

Q: Excellent, thank you.

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Senior Supply Chain Manager

Business, Government & Military

Senior Supply Chain Manager, Consulting Organization for Government

Date of Interview: February 25th, 2017

Transcript:

Q: Alright. Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college.

A: Sure. I’m a senior manager in advisory services in the government and public sector at Ernst & Young, and it’s been 12 years since I graduated from college.


Q: Perfect. Can you provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

A: Sure. I predominately provide consulting services, more around – I’m in supply chain management – it’s around performance improvement, so how can we enhance a particular agency’s internal supply chain. We’ll go in and maybe do a current state assessment, and identify what are they doing today, and then looking at leading practices, and help them to get to a future desired state.

Q: And are all the clients government agencies?

A: Predominately yes. My focus is on the federal government. I can also work on the commercial sector, more if there’s any downtime, but there hasn’t been at this point.

Q: Okay. How frequently are you required to write, and if possible, maybe you can estimate sort of in a given week, what percentage of your time is spent writing?

A: Sure. So definitely write on a daily basis. We’re always working on a particular– there’s always a document or some end product that we’re working towards, and it’s a process of writing to get to that, whether it be through interviews, or drafting different documentation and materials. So it’s not always that I’m physically actually actively writing, but probably anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of the time that we’re actually pretty much writing.

Q: Got it. What forms or types of writing or kinds of documents do you most often complete? What are sort of the typical genres of writing that– ?

A: Sure. So we have informal, where I’m writing emails, and that might just be on a daily basis, whether it be to a client, or it could be internal to team members. I work on draft work products for a client as well. Then we have more formal-type products that we work on – one’s external-focused, so with a client focus. We have final deliverables that we’re always working towards. I also write white papers, which is more around thought leadership in a particular topic or area, highlighting case studies. And then I do proposals or responses to requests for information from the federal government, and then–

Q: Are those, sorry to clarify, are those two different things?

A: Yeah. The government issues a request for a proposal, which is the second half. The first half is a request for information. Government doesn’t always issue a request for information, it’s more if they’re trying to find out from industry what’s possible. What are the current service offerings? How would you go about doing a particular strategy? They might want something in particular with supply chain and to look at, maybe it’s a holistic end-to-end supply chain transformational project. A lot of the times the government’s trying to identify what small businesses can perform the work. But as a large business, either we work with a small business to respond to them, or we try and articulate why it’s important to have a much larger business perspective, because we have the reachback support across– I mean, Ernst & Young has 210,000 employees, so we have reachback support across the entire world, and we can leverage other leading practices, other experiences at federal governments that smaller businesses might not have. So that’s the first piece, and then once the agency identifies really what do they exactly want, then they issue a request for a proposal, and that’s the formal documentation that they are intending to award a contract with real dollars tied to it. And then that is our formal response as to how we would actually go about doing the work. We put in– typically you’ll have resumes, past performances, where have we done something like this before. Then we also build up a whole entire pricing volume, where we’ll say based on what individuals, what labor categories, what’s the price for that labor category, how many hours, and you really build that whole entire cost proposal out.

Q: Excellent. And does that complete the sort of different types of genres, or are there anything else that you– ?

A: Yes, the other key one is formal documentation, it’s around internal doing performance reviews. It’s every six months and then at the end of the year we have formal, documented performance reviews. I’ll also put in there that I do and develop training documentation for both clients, but also internal to the firm, so that’s another major, major work product.

Q: And are those, they’re documents that the trainees are using, as well as lesson plans that you’re using?

A: Yes. So it’s the training content as well as the trainer guide materials. Yep.
Q: Perfect, okay, great. Some of these are obvious from what you’ve said, but could you describe sort of the primary audiences that you usually write to, and what the primary purposes are of your sort of most typical kinds of writing?

A: Sure. So, take it from the client side – it’s more around the service delivery. So we’re on contract for x particular service, and so we’re always looking at, okay, what are our methodologies and approaches that we’re using in order to develop that work product? We might be doing and performing research, and also providing with the client with guidance and advice on a day-to-day basis. We look at it from an internal standpoint, so I typically have a team of individuals that I’m overseeing and guiding. So I’m providing daily guidance, whether it be written through email, we use a lot of Skype or Sametime, sometimes it’s even text messaging, in order to communicate to the team as to – or through phone as well – what are the key activities that we’re working on, provide direction, provide written feedback to every team member who’s working on a team. It’s required by the firm that if you work on a project for more than I think it’s 40 hours a week, that you’re required to have written, documented feedback. And then, I’d say the other area is around coaching and mentorship, which is more informal. But if you gel well with an individual and kind of respect them and look up to them or they look up to you, take them under your wing or you take– basically providing that advice and guidance throughout their career.

Q: Great, okay. Were you familiar with the typical writing genres that you work in now when you were a student?

A: I would say the main one that I was familiar with was like a work product development. I went to Lehigh University, and specifically majored in supply chain. The supply chain department was very heavily focused on case studies, and that really I think helped us to get acclimated to what to expect from doing our research, from presenting materials, from developing a final potential work product. Granted, those work products differ based on whatever project that you’re working on. I would say the other things, no. So back to, even in a client work product, at Ernst & Young I learned that there are what we deem as “bad words” that pose the risk to the firm that I wouldn’t have thought of before, either through academia or even in my past life where I worked for the Boeing Company for seven years. You can’t use the words like “ensure”, like, “we’ll ensure that we will do this.” Well, legally, anybody could come back to you and say, “Well if you ensure, like you absolutely will do this, and how can you ensure it?” or “We will provide the best resources available.” Well, you think that it might be the best, but somebody could always say that, well in a firm of 210,000 employees, they could always say, “Well, this person technically might be better than Matthew is, so why did you have him and not this other person?” That I would have never thought of.

Q: Do you think that that’s internal to Ernst & Young, or is that supply chain on a larger scale?

A: I think it’s on the Big Four accounting firms. It wasn’t the case at Boeing. Now, not to say that it hasn’t evolved, now that is a broader topic, but that was new to me coming in. And it makes sense once I hear the legal ramifications of it, but the firm is very risk averse, and that helps to also justify it a little bit more. And I would say that academia didn’t prepare me for giving performance reviews or feedback, because really it’s more project-focused, versus you work with other individuals on teams but you’re never, because you’re peers, you’re not giving them feedback and critiquing somebody. So I understand why that doesn’t happen, but that I wasn’t prepared for either. But that is an evolution of, as you make it up into a career, I mean you go from the worker bee to managing and overseeing, and that’s the natural progression of any manager or leader is developing those skillsets.

Q: And are there – I’m jumping ahead a little bit here – but are there specific things early in your career when you were more at that sort of worker bee level, strategies that you used specifically for the kinds of, we’ll talk about overall strategies in a minute, but strategies for adapting to genres of writing that were new to you?

A: Yeah, I think from proposal development, I mean when that was new, it was more let’s start to look at previous proposals, really you don’t want to reinvent the wheel. Or where you know that you did something really well, let’s leverage that. At least at Boeing, and even at Ernst & Young, you get scored on your proposals by the client, and therefore you can look back and say, “Okay, these areas were technically compliant,” or “They really liked how we laid this out.” You get to know a particular client.

Q: That’s really interesting, I didn’t realize that. So is that only if you win the– ?

A: No, everybody gets scored on their proposals.

Q: Oh, interesting, okay.

A: And then you can request a debrief. Now, when I was at Boeing, your proposals are, I mean the one was 40 billion dollars, so there’s of course, you are spending a year of your life just going into a proposal development when you’re looking at selling hundreds of aircraft, it’s a lot more at stake than – I mean not to say that what we do is not important as well – but when it’s a million dollars or a few million dollars, it’s not as big of a loss whereas, there are so many clients out there who are going to buy a Chinook or an F-22 or something like that, that we can sell to [laughter] as America.

Q: Yeah, okay, alright, that makes sense, yeah. Could you tell me a little bit about your writing process, both how tasks or assignments sort of come to you, and how you prepare and the steps you take from the beginning of a project to the end? And if it’s useful, you can pick just any typical writing project that you think might be a good example.

A: Sure. Usually it’s a work product of some sort with a client, is the typical type now. The challenge is that that varies from project to project. But usually there is a more standard process and methodology to it. We would, if we use an example like I talked about earlier, where we go in and maybe we’re doing a current state assessment of an organization’s supply chain and trying to help them to get to what their desired future state is, we don’t have any foregone conclusions when we’re going into it. So it’s trying to figure out, okay, first, you want to perform research on the topic and really know the key areas that are important to the client. Usually it’s in your statement of work, so you know what’s in scope, but you still reconfirm that with the client, and making sure that these are the targeted areas that they want to focus on. And then from that, developing an outline, as to okay, here’s our plan of attack, here are the key components that we’re going to focus on. From there, I would meet with my internal leadership to make sure that they are in alignment and that they can provide guidance and editorial process, even say, “No, let’s not focus on this particular area, let’s tweak this area.” Meeting back with the client, making sure that they’re on the same page – because the earlier you can meet and define what your deliverable is going to start to look like in that shell, and you can help to shape it, the more time that you save on the back end. The earlier that you can lock down yes, we want to work on or focus on these particular areas, then increase less rework potentially. From there, then really it’s going through and developing that first draft, so to speak. My style is more overly verbose, I don’t think as much about like, let me just do a brain dump on these key areas and do research and pull in information. Some of that research may be from client interviews as well, in order to understand their current state. And then from there, it is just going through the editing process. I go back through my whole entire document and redline it, and really figure out where do I need to focus on streamlining and consolidating and being articulate. And then that goes through a final editing process back up through my boss for comments, and then we will work with the client to see the final draft, they’ll provide any comments, and then we’ll deliver the final, final–

Q: So the client actually will give you feedback before they see the official final version?

A: Yes, that’s our best practice, because otherwise if you just throw it over the fence and they’re not happy with it, then usually there are very strict timelines as well incorporated into the contract as to how much time they have to review it, how much time we have after they review it. Sometimes we might only have two days, and if they completely say, “This is not what I wanted or what I was looking for,” – I don’t want to be up for 48 hours straight working on something [laughter]. So yes, to the extent possible, we work with them and share the near final draft.

Q: Great. And you talked a little bit about this when you talked about redlining your own work and getting feedback from above you, but are there specific approaches in revision – in that stage when you have a draft but you’re trying to improve it – are there specific strategies or approaches that you take during that time?

A: My strategy’s more I review the document from start to finish, and I will just go through and figure out, I mean I’ll go through the rewriting process from line one. With that said, I will usually not write the executive summary, I’ll save that until the full document is written, and then let the document kind of materialize those key findings, and then pull that out and make sure that that’s up in your executive summary. If there are certain areas where I’m struggling with as to it’s taking me too much time to rewrite or to really the words just aren’t flowing, then I’ll flag it and come back to that paragraph or section. That’s more my process, was there anything else that you– ?

Q: No, that’s great, that’s great. So you talked about how sometimes the deadline will be really tight, based on the client’s responses, but for a typical writing project, say like a medium-sized proposal, how long do you typically have for something like that?

A: Unfortunately with the federal government, things are sometimes very quick timelines. You can as little as five days to turn around a proposal, which is really then all hands on deck, and you job for the most part everything you can. Not as realistic, usually it’s closer to sometimes two weeks to three weeks, which still isn’t a lot. Now, this might be going to much into the business side of it, but usually then if we see something that comes out and it’s a request for a proposal and we only have x number of days as a shorter window for it, as a business, we take a step back and say, “Okay, has somebody else been shaving this? Is somebody else in the marketplace having these conversations, trying to shave that work? Or is this really that they don’t know, they haven’t had conversations before?” – not to say that it’s wired for anybody, but if it’s more of a, does anybody else have a competitive advantage in this, and what’s our probability of winning it by not having the context? Do we know who’s the buyer? Have we been in their office? Do we understand what they do, some of their paying points so we can resonate with them? And if we know what the other competition is, we might not bid on it at that point. So we try to focus more on building those relationships and anticipating these proposals, so that we’re already aware of their paying points and have had conversations with them and to help to kind of talk to them about some of the things that we’re seeing in the marketplace, and really things that they might want to consider as a potential solution.

Q: Excellent. This is another point of clarification for me – so when you talked about the sort of first stage, pre call for proposals, the request for information – does that go out to specific organizations, or to anybody who might be in the market to pitch a proposal?

A: That’s a good question. It depends. Sometimes it can just be up to if a potential client has no idea of what’s even in the market space, that could just be full and open to anybody. They may, because the federal government has small business targets for their contracting, they may just be putting it out there to really focus on small business first, just to see if– and at that point, if it goes small business, we wouldn’t even see it because we’re a large business. And then there are even further subsets of that – there’s an 8(a), there’s woman-owned, there’s small disadvantaged woman-owned businesses, there’s a whole slew of different levels that they can specifically reach out to.

Q: I see. And so when you mentioned maybe a call for proposals with a very tight turnaround, and as a business you would look at it to say, “Has it been shaped by an organization that is likely to win that business?” – is that a product of a request for information? Or not necessarily?

A: No, a request for an information point, no. We make the decision on – if we find out that it did go to small business, a request for information – we can, if we obtain that piece of information, we could still reply back to them to try and shape it and to say, “Have you really thought about it this way?” or “We think of it in this context, and it’s much bigger than, we would recommend you’re focusing on this lever, but really in clients with similar problems we also see that they have these other areas that you’d want to focus on.”

Q: That’s great, okay. What is at stake in your writing?

A: Reputation [laughter], credibility in the space – my credibility as a supply chain professional in the federal government space is probably the biggest thing that’s at stake for sure. The other thing is, even internally with my writing focusing on performance reviews, is just really building that relationship with individuals and being fair, open, honest to them.
Q: And that’s a big part of the culture at Ernst & Young, is that a fair– ?

A: Yep, no that’s fair. People is our number one focus, because if you do not have happy employees, and you don’t treat each other nice and well, then they’re not going to want to continue to work for you. And if they’re not empowered, then they’re not going to be doing as good of a job as they could be. So it’s really heavily focused on people.

Q: Excellent. Who oversees your writing? Could you give me a brief description of their title and their role in the organization? It’s probably not the same person every time, but–

A: It’s not always, but there is always somebody more senior. Now that I’m a senior manager, it would be the next level up is a partner, principal executive director. Therefore anything that I write that is a true deliverable needs to be reviewed by them at certain points if– based on the dollar threshold of the work that we’re performing, we also have a quality executive that is assigned to the project and any deliverables. When I say the word deliverable, it is specifically written in the contract that you are contractually required to deliver this particular work product, this particular document, whatever that end product is. And that quality assurance executive has to review it and make sure that we are in alignment with the firm’s quality standards. So there’s a whole other level of review on major, major work products.

Q: Interesting, yeah. And that quality executive in particular, but also your person who’s above you, a partner that would review it – are they looking at writing style? Or are they looking at more content-based– ? I’m trying to, that’s not–

A: The person who’s above me is looking at style as well as the content. It should be that look on, okay, is this technically sound, and does it make sense? Or does it sound like a second grader wrote it? But yeah, they’re looking at it from that lense, because I’ll get feedback that, “Okay, these paragraphs really need to be either tightened up,” or “It’s not just that carte blanche (23:06?),” like, “Yeah, it looks good, it passes the test.” But the quality executive is more looking for, it’s more of like a legal compliance on again, some of those bad words, more of like the style and are we hitting the key points on the executive summary, and do we have enough detail that resonates with the client to support our theories or our results? So it’s a higher level, but from a different angle on it, which is good. And that quality executive is usually somebody outside of, for me, it’s outside of supply chain. So it’s a good different perspective that they bring to the document.

Q: Wonderful, okay. And how do you think they judge – either the quality executive or a partner – the success or the quality of the writing?

A: If I don’t have to rewrite everything [laughter]. I think that it’s, if we’re able to articulate what are kind of like the key paying points or our key findings, and the key next steps, I think that that is something that they’re looking for. Does it flow well? Does it read nice? Do we think that it’s just going to be shelved? I mean if you’re creating a 40-page document, and it is only text-based and single-spaced font, guaranteed that thing is going to get shelved. And therefore, at least your executive summary has got to be very succinct and concise. Sometimes it’s, can you completely reshape and redesign it so that it becomes something that the client reaches back to and grabs on? And I’ve worked on a few things on revising how we change a– it used to be, not joking, over a 100-page document with all of the logic and methodology and it just got shelved. It’s like, this isn’t what we want, we need the client to be coming back to this and really relying on this on a regular basis. We completely scrapped the whole process and redesigned it, based on what we thought that would work really well and would be tangible with different graphs and charts. So it’s a different style of writing and communicating, and they clenched onto it, and basically they use that type of a work product on a regular basis now.

Q: That’s really interesting. So when you talk about that redesign, if I’m understanding you right, you’re talking both about the physical look of it, and the way the information’s presented.

A: The physical look and the way that the information is presented, yep. The one thing – we changed from a Word document to a Powerpoint presentation. There was a Powerpoint presentation that was in the format of a book, so you could flip through and it kind of tells the story, and you focus on the key areas of interest and key pieces of information that are relevant for specific areas.

Q: Gotcha. So you sort of changed it, is it fair to say that you in a sense changed its purpose? Rather than just being this thing that someone slogs through once, you want it to be a reference guide in some way?

A: Yeah, initially it was still meant to be like a reference guide, but you kind of take a step back and realize people aren’t using– we definitely scrapped a bunch of the information because there was so much on the logic and the methodology behind it they were like, “Just give me the results. What can I see?” And then put that stuff maybe at the very end, if they really still care about it, or put it in the appendix. And if the appendix gets shelved, that doesn’t matter, because at least they have the content that you need them to be focusing on. It’s more of – I don’t even know what to call it – you have the executive summary, but then it’s all your key work products or key documents up front before you get behind all of the background and the minutia that is important behind the process and really validating how you got to all of this goodness, but if you put all of that up front, the reader just starts to fall asleep, essentially. They don’t even get to the important stuff because they don’t know to look that far in advance.

Q: That’s really interesting, that’s great. Have you had any writing training or education since graduating from college, specific training to writing?
A: I don’t think it’s really been specific for a formal writing training course. There have been things on effective client encounters and some proposal training, and even giving feedback, but it wasn’t like you write down and then somebody analyzes your writing and provides you feedback on how could you better articulate yourself. There wasn’t really anything that I’ve had like that.

Q: Okay. What challenges did you face when you entered the workforce for the first time as a writer?

A: Some of it was really not knowing where to start. You come in from academia and it’s all more, it’s technical based, but it’s conceptual, as to what’s art of the possible, what can you– you’re just learning methodologies. But yet, you come into a company or a firm, and you now have to learn what’s their style, what’s important to them, and then how do you even start to– like proposal – if you’re in college, you’re not introduced to what does it mean to write a proposal? What are the key components of it? How do I write it? Or what’s the flow of it? What’s the right length? What’s the right amount of area on the technical content versus the upfront introduction, versus your bios, all that stuff. So I think it was really just, I had no idea, you don’t know where to start, what to do. It’s more reaching back on either your boss or other subject matter experts in that area to help you and to look at past documents that you can leverage, and say, “Okay, this is kind of this company’s style” – which, everybody has different writing styles, right – but at least from an outline standpoint, you get a better understanding of what is expected of you.

Q: Great, great. Are you able to identify a change in your writing between college and now? If so, what are the things that you most attribute to that shift?

A: Yeah, there definitely was a change. I think it’s more of like, once you have the real world experience, that starts to shape your perspective on your writing, as well as better just understanding the technical jargon, or you better understand the big picture. When you’re in school, you focus on, for me I was focusing on supply chain, but not all of the other components that could be impacted by supply chain. At Ernst & Young, we have tons of just different competencies that we also cowork directly with that I would have never thought, coming right out of school, that, oh, what happens in IT advisory, or cyber security? Or what’s the impact on, okay, we now have cyber security and supply chain, and looking at what’s the risk of, I don’t know, somebody hacking into a tier 3, tier 4 supplier? And can they control that supplier and basically cripple your whole entire supply chain? So now it’s more who else could i work with? How else could that affect a solution, have you, in the proposal? Because I may have just only written from supply chain, but now I know that there are these other components that you might want to lead into a better solution. But I also just think being on the ground and working in industry definitely gives you that better understanding. I was fortunate that in college I had three internships and a coop in supply chain. So for me, I found even when I was in school, that those internships, that work experience, I could relate better to the academia. I could ask more informed questions and I could even challenge the professor, not necessarily challenging a professor, but more thinking about it from a different angle. Example would be in supply chain, it’s very big on Walmart as a case study, where it’s more near-time or just almost just-in-time, where their suppliers push their inventory to them. They’re monitoring on the shelves when they have a low stock. So basically Walmart requires that as soon as they’re low in stock, that they are resupplied with it, so there never is a shortage. Well that’s great, but when you’re at Boeing, and titanium has a three year lead time, and then to manufacture a blade for the propeller, how are you forecasting two and a half, three and a half years out? It’s not the same concepts that you would think about, and it’s not talked about in school because it’s much, much, much more complicated, and you can’t forecast down to, you can’t do just-in-time when it comes to that. I think those perspectives have really helped to shape just my writing and better knowledge around what’s realistic in that particular industry and not just putting out there like, “We’ll be best in class, and we’ll ensure and do xyz,” when it’s not actually executable.
Q: That makes a lot of sense, okay. So when you think about what you were able – my next question is about the ways in which your academic background prepared you or not to write in the workplace – and it seems like those internships and the coop were pretty central actually to the academic work.

A: Yeah, they were huge to the academic work. Trying to think anything else that would– I would say the case studies that we went through as well in school really helped just to give you different perspectives. It was almost like a role play in some instances, where we had negotiations class, and you would be given a I don’t know, I’m a supplier from China and you’re a company in America that’s trying to source this product, and you’ve got to come– here we have our own objectives going into it on a piece of paper, and then we’d negotiate and come back and debrief to the class as to what happened. And it was what are the negotiation strategies? Is there a common element of a win-win versus a win-lose or a lose-lose? So those types of things really helped to just think about the dynamics of interacting with other stakeholders. But yeah, and definitely the internships and the coops really helped me to again, just think about supply chain differently. I worked at different levels in the supply chain, I’m probably going too detailed in the specifics– but it was even working at a warehouse, I was a forklift driver. So understanding logistics, and from a warehousing and inventory management and product placement on the side of the warehouse, and how do you load a truck? And what’s the best way? Or that there would actually be different ways of staging product inside of a truck. And oh, by the way, there are weight limits in the truck, and so you’ve got to be cognizant of how large, how much your freight weighs, and you have to stage it in a certain way so that it doesn’t overbalance on the back end and the front end.

Q: That’s so interesting. Do you think the internships at that level where you’re really understanding how the work gets done, is that typical of supply chain managers?

A: No, I was definitely, I think I was one of the only people at my school that had that much experience. I remember going into the resume writing shops, and they were basically like, “If everyone had this experience, this would be much easier to place everyone.” And I don’t know what it was, but I think I was just right time, right place, or part of it was also that I was able to, spend isn’t the right word, but most people are like, “I don’t want to work in a warehouse, I don’t want to drive a forklift.” Not that I really wanted to do it, but I understood that that’s a part of supply chain, and better to understand what you don’t want to do now, or at least understand that that grunt work, and having a better understanding of it early in your career, and being able to apply it to, okay, understanding that there are implications and impacts in these areas, was important. So I didn’t care that you made $8 an hour or $10 an hour, because I was always went into the mindset of, this is preparing me for the workforce, and I’m learning part of the supply chain. I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life, but at least I understand more about logistics and what it actually means.

Q: Gotcha, that’s great. In what ways do you think you were unprepared as a writer as you entered the workforce?

A: Again, like in performance reviews, but that wasn’t more until later in the career, until I’m actually managing somebody else. Proposal writing, we had nothing, no experience on. I feel like those were the big areas. Last year I wrote my first white paper thought leadership piece, which was new, I wasn’t prepared for that. But that was more, I’m more senior in my career now, and I understand these methodologies and this particularly around implementing a category management program in the federal government and doing it best in practice, where I’ve been helping an agency to transform their entire procurement shop around this concept of category management. It’s a huge focus on the federal government lately. The challenge there was you’re writing this document, but it can’t be 10, 20 pages long. You’ve got to be short, sweet, get the reader’s attention, not that, “Yep, okay, we’ve heard these concepts – oh, you’ve actually done this before and you’ve achieved results and here are those results, that’s pretty cool. And oh, we want to call you and contact you and try to get you in.” So there are all different angles that you are trying to hit at, but you don’t want it to come off as “I’m just selling here,” it’s, “Hey, we’ve done this before, we know what we’re doing. This does work.” So that was really interesting writing process. Any external facing publicly available documents, so a client’s work product isn’t publicly available, it just stays with that client. But in this instance, a thought leadership piece had to go through our whole entire score process. So supply chain has an operating reference, I believe, I could be completely wrong with that. But basically it’s a very, very prescriptive – there were well over seven to ten additional people who reviewed and scrutinized every single word in that document.

Q: And are those communications folks? Or are they– ?

A: We coordinated it through communications, so I believe it was a branch of– because any externally communicated messages had to go through them. But that’s a whole other level of quality assurance as well.

Q: And is that the kind of writing that, now that you’ve done it once, it’s something that will come up and you’ll presumably do it again in the future at some point?

A: Yeah, I would definitely do it in the future. The challenge with the thought leadership is, it’s not just whip it out, you’ve got to really have a concrete perspective. It is more challenging to come up with that, but absolutely, I would definitely.

Q: Out of curiosity, is that something that you pitch? Or someone says, “Hey, you did this and it went great for you. Do you want to write something like this?”

A: I pitched this. This was a goal of mine was to write this, and we actually, I had additional burning platforms to really promote writing this.

Q: What does that mean, burning platforms?

A: For example, we won a spot on another vehicle, on a contract, and this was a multi-award contract, and we wanted to promote our services under that. So this was one way to get out there to say, “Hey, this is a big thing in the federal government space. And oh by the way, we really know what we’re doing here,” and credentialize ourselves – that’s more what I mean by kind of a burning platform, is something else that is driving the need for, or the business case have you, behind doing this.

Q: So two more questions: would you say that you are a successful workplace writer, why or why not?

A: I’m more of a pessimist when it comes to myself, but I would say since, now that I’m successfully been promoted and made into senior manager at a Big Four firm, to that extent I would say yes. I haven’t had major or really any feedback on, “You need to modify how you write and your style and skill needs to be drastic changes.” And I’ve been able to successfully deliver client work products and reshape work products so that, like we were talking about before, the whole the purpose, not the purposes doesn’t change, but kind of how the client uses it to move forward, make that more successful, and that is attributed to the writing process. It always trying to enhance that process and not just become complacent in what you do. So I think from those perspectives, I would definitely say yes, I’ve been lucky and successful in writing.

Q: And finally, what skills would you say are most central to writing in your specific role?

A: So one I see that people struggle with is more thinking of what’s the art of the possible? When we go into a client, we don’t always know specifically what that end work product is going to look like. Certain times you do, but a lot of it can be just on a discovery basis, and sometimes it’s hard for individuals to not have that very prescriptive, concrete, okay here are all the steps I need to take and here’s what my outcome is going to be. So I would say that that’s the biggest thing in our role as a consultant, is that your job is always changing, what you’re working on is different every single time, or at least in my case it’s different every time. And so really just being able to think outside of the box, and constantly doing other research and improving yourself and seeing where’s the industry leading. And be able to articulate and incorporate that into your work products to provide the client with the best advice and guidance and how they can transform in some instances their future state of supply chain.

Q: Thank you.

A: Sure.

Click here to read full transcript

Marketing Director

Business, Education

Marketing Director, Educational Software Company

Date of Interview: February 24th, 2017

Transcript:

Q: Alright. Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?

A: I am the senior field marketing manager for analytics and student success initiatives at Blackboard, and I graduated seventeen years ago [laughter].

Q: Okay. Can you provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

A: My primary job functions include setting up campaign management for all outbound marketing campaigns around our analytics and student success products at Blackboard. So that is developing strategy, go-to-market strategy for those products, lead generation, demand generation, awareness campaigns, event management, there’s some writing involved, there is some contractor management involved as well.

Q: Great. How frequently are you required to write, and if you could maybe estimate in an average week, what percentage of your job requires writing?

A: I would say 20 to 30 percent of my job requires writing. We don’t have copywriters in house on staff. We do utilize them for larger projects that require a lot of writing, pages and pages and pages. Normally what I’m doing is writing either campaign briefs, or strategy documents, or powerpoint presentations. But then also I’m responsible for some of our outbound copy, as well, that you would see appearing in marketing emails, as well as smaller brochures or flyers that might appear at a trade show or that a salesperson might leave behind at a sales presentation.

Q: Great. And that 20 to 30 percent that you mentioned, does that include email communication or no?

A: Yes.

Q: Great, perfect. What forms or types of writing or what kinds of documents do you most often complete? You mentioned a few of them there.

A: A lot of my time is spent writing internal communication. Explaining what types of campaigns are going on, explaining strategy, those types of just internal business types of documents. But a lot of my writing also involves that outbound communication that our prospects and clients are seeing, and that’s primarily in the form of marketing email communication. There’s some writing that occurs or you’ll see on what we call data sheets, or a marketing flyer, a sales slick, that sort of thing. More often than not, I tend to prefer to let a professional writer handle some of that, but if I need something quickly and cheaply, I’ll do it myself.

Q: Could you describe the primary audiences that these types of writing are most often reaching and the primary purposes of these types of documents?

A: Sure. The audiences range from technical positions, or persona as we call it, within higher education institutions, primarily open enrollment style institutions, community colleges, state school systems. Also then more higher level persona within those institutions: presidents, provosts, senior directors, and vice presidents usually involved in enrollment, student success, student retention, sometimes academic affairs as well.

Q: And the purposes of those documents are primarily sales oriented?

A: Sales and marketing oriented. Either making someone aware of a product or a solution or an offering, making them aware of a change or an enhancement if they’re already a client or a user of that product and solution, or just general awareness of what Blackboard is doing in a particular area, particularly around student success or student retention.

Q: Were you familiar with these types of writing when you were a student? And if so, how did that affect your approach to them in the workplace?

A: Not in that particular type of writing. I never imagined, especially when I was a student, that I would be writing to that particular audience. And funny enough, now that I think about it, I don’t know exactly what audience I was planning on writing to. I know I was given the impression that I’d be writing to a business audience, but at that time I didn’t know exactly what that meant and who those people were. I found throughout my career that as the audiences change, you have to adapt to those audiences and sometimes change your tone and sometimes change the way things are presented, depending on what the audience is.

Q: And you mentioned as a student, sort of what you were imagining as– did you study marketing and business as a student?

A: I studied journalism and public relations. So there was a little bit of a connection there. At the time I thought I was going to be in public relations, even though I didn’t really know what that meant. I got into marketing because I was advised that that is one of the easier ways to get into public relations. Nobody got into public relations right after college, especially from someone who was going to a small college in the countryside of Pennsylvania. So to find myself in marketing with then what would gradually evolve into a role of public relations, and 17 years later I’m still in marketing [laughter]. It still hasn’t happened. So there was a lot of instruction around crisis management, more journalistic style of writing, more about just sort of corporate overviews or how a corporation might be doing something well for the environment, and how you would position it for the press, you know, those types of things. I never really really took any courses or study around marketing writing or even how to write internally within business, regardless of what business that would be.

Q: Okay. Could you describe your writing process, including how tasks or assignments are given to you, or sort of appear in your life, any preparation you take before writing, and the steps from the start of the project to a final version of a piece of writing? And if it’s useful, you can choose one specific kind of–

A: Well so I’m involved heavily in my own strategy, so I do a lot of planning, and I’m aware of what’s coming up in terms of my output over the next, let’s say 90 days. I know when I’ve got a brochure coming up, I know when I have an email campaign, I know when we have a big event coming up that we’re going to need collateral for, and so I plan that way and I look at what’s coming up and what I’m able to do myself, and what I’m going to need help doing. I do a lot of research in terms of what has been written before for these audiences. I take a lot of time and I go back, and I look at things that have done well. So we have resources here and members of the team who are able to catalog those best practices. Whether it’s an email that it performed well, or a digital ad that performed well, or flyer that is really hot and everybody loves to receive it and there’s some action taking off of that. So I’ll look at those things, and I’ll study how our people are positioning the communication toward that particular audience, because I’m not a member of the higher education community, and I’ve never been a member of the audiences that I’ve written to, so I have to immerse myself in that world and try to understand that person. And then you sort of take a look at exactly what is the instance, not every bit of communication’s going to be the same – an email doesn’t sound the same as a flyer, doesn’t sound the same as a boilerplate company description, doesn’t sound the same as something that you would put in a powerpoint presentation – so you got to think a little bit about what the occasion is and what you are trying to get across. Then also there’s the instances where I am trying to drive somebody to do something, whether it’s fill out a form, or give me their contact information, or download a study or a white paper, or sign up to attend a webinar, or if I’m just telling them that Blackboard is going to be at an event and you should come and visit us and it’ll be really great. So there’s all these little nuances to that that you have to think about and you have to plan through because it’s not all the same. But then keeping that common thread of this is how you talk to a president or a provost at a higher education institution who’s running a state school system, that sort of thing, you’ve got to keep that in the back of your mind of course.

Q: Absolutely. And then in terms of, if your documents go through revisions or multiple drafts, how do you approach making those changes or improving from one draft to the next?

A: I’m really open to it because it’s a lot of trial by error for me. Regardless of what industry I’ve been working in, that’s the way I learn what works best. I am by no means an expert and I am by no means a copywriter, and I’ve found over the years that as resources have become more and more limited– where when I started after college, every business I worked at had a team of business copywriters who were trained to do what a lot of us marketers are doing today. So you would rely on them and not really even deal with revisions or, you know, there might be some stylistic changes. I’m more than happy to have somebody look at my work, especially somebody who’s more keenly familiar with who I’m trying to communicate with, and give me feedback, because otherwise I’m just sort of making it up as I go and hoping for the best, and that’s not what I really want to do.

Q: Gotcha. So those comments that you’re often seeking, they tend to be about audience?

A: Audience, yeah absolutely. I mean surely, if I’m working on something long enough, I will miss a word that I misspelled, or some grammar, or something like that that I wasn’t familiar with, and that’s always helpful as well. But a lot of times, the revisions are more audience related. Like, “Oh, this would be more effective, or this is not what we say, and this is–” because what I’ll try to do, I think I tend in my writing, particularly to this audience, which has been new to me for about a year now, I’ll overcompensate a little bit. So I’m talking to somebody in the academic community, so I’ll try to make myself sound smarter than I am, and so the writing comes across fake and phoney. A president of a university is a person too, and they’re going to respond differently to something that sounds fake and phoney than something that’s a little bit more organic. So people will tone it down a little bit, and you know, “Back off of that a little bit, or maybe you rephrase this, and you don’t have to sound so stuffy about this particular research study, it’s not that big of a deal,” and so that’s been interesting as well. And I think that applies to any of the industries that I’ve worked in before. I think I would tend to overcompensate to try to make it sound a little bit more professional. But I’ve learned over time, these are people too, and they respond just like any other human responds to something, and there’s a time and a place for that too. But there’s also a time and a place to sound like a normal person and communicate like a normal person, so try to put that into the writing.

Q: That’s really interesting. Do you mind telling me briefly about the previous industries that you’ve worked in?

A: Sure, oh wow, there’s been a few. So previous to my current role, I was writing to lobbyists and lawyers and very senior officials at government contracting offices. So there’s, again, a whole other level of pretension that I felt like I had to deal with, and I needed to sound like they– and I needed to talk like a lawyer, and I needed to sound like a lawyer, and that’s just wasn’t necessarily the case as well. They also were human beings, and they respond to things like a normal human being does and you have to keep that in mind. But I also had to make sure that things were professional and very streamlined. These are people who are very busy, and they have their busy, busy day, and you have to consider that as well in terms of what you’re putting in front of them. Are they really going to read the whole thing? And how to get the most important points in front of them quickly. I think I learned that the most in that role. And prior to that, I was working in the wholesale capital asset and commercial goods industry, which is a whole other beast altogether. And all those people have a whole other style that you have to sort of get in line with. These are people who go to flea markets and swap meets and buy bulk truckloads of merchandise to resell on ebay. So that was a different style and a different tone and I had to learn how those people communicated with one another. I relied on people in the industry or people that I was working with to help me do that.

Q: Great, that’s really helpful. How long do you typically have to complete a writing project, one of the more formal writing projects?

A: Well, we’re just all so busy all the time that I would like more time to do what I do. I probably spend a lot less time than I should on some things. Particularly if it’s just an outbound marketing email communication, I’ll probably write it the day or two before it’s supposed to go out, which I don’t advise anyone to do, but that’s just sort of the nature of the game sometimes because there’s so much going on. So with something like that, I feel comfortable enough that I can do that, have somebody look at it, have somebody from the email marketing team say, “Hey, maybe you should make it only one paragraph, not two paragraphs, that works better for us in terms of email performance. It should have more than three links in it, or it needs a better call to action.” And we can get that done quickly. If it is a series of emails or if I’m writing landing pages for a webinar series or promotion or something like that, I will take additional time and I’ll build in the time to have other people look at it, and spend time with me, and test it out, and try it out, knowing that there probably will be a good bit of revisions going back and forth. But the funny thing is there that people that are reviewing it aren’t necessarily the official reviewers of that copy, you kind of have to make do and you have to say, “Hey, can you look at this, I know that you’ve done something around this topic before. Can you take a look at it? Or do you think this would work?” So you’re just sharing it with colleagues, you’re sharing it with other members of the marketing team, sometimes you’re sharing it with salespeople who are more of the subject matter experts. There’s no real official copy reviewer here, and I haven’t had that in years and years, I’d say. You make do and you try to work it out the best you can, and get the help that you can, until you get to the point where you feel comfortable enough releasing it to the public.

Q: That’s super interesting. Do you feel like it’s a better system?

A: No, no. I loved having a team of copywriters who I knew were trained and who were able to adapt their writing style and their writing skill to any industry and any audience, because that’s what they were brought in to do. I do miss that, I miss that a lot, because there’s sort of that level of comfort there that’s gone now. I’ve had things go out with spelling errors, and I’ve had hell to pay for some of that because you work at some of these organizations and you’re basically embarrassing the entire organization if you send even an email communication out to 300 presidents of a university and it has a spelling error in it and you’re supposed to be working in higher education – it’s ridiculous. It happens now because there’s no one who is officially assigned to making sure that that doesn’t happen. You just have to do the best you can, but there’s so much going on all the time that stuff like that gets missed. I don’t think stuff like that got missed when there was a team of writers who was responsible for making sure that that didn’t happen. And I do miss that.

Q: Interesting, okay, yeah. Can you tell me a little bit about what is at stake in your writing?
A: Reputation, for one. You are the voice of an organization always, you’re representing an organization always, and it goes back to what I was just saying – if you make a mistake or something doesn’t come out right, or you’re saying something wrong, it’s really the organization’s reputation is at stake. Nobody knows who I am or where that email came from. A lot of times, I’m writing as a ghostwriter for somebody. I’m writing as the vice president of so and so, and their name is on the email, my name’s not on the email. So you’ve got to think about that always and that’s when it gets really tough if there’s a mistake. And there’s mistakes a lot of the time now because I’m not a professional writer, we don’t have professional writers. And then there’s also the transactional business aspect of it – I’m trying to get somebody to buy something at the end of the day. And so what I’m writing has to be informative enough, impactful enough, interesting enough to get somebody to do that, because that what I’m getting paid to do at the end of the day.

Q: How would you say – I know there’s no one specifically designated to oversee the quality of your writing – but how would you say that, if not your boss and the people around you in the organization, judge the success or quality of your writing?

A: Well, we look at performance metrics really. At the end of the day that’s all that matters to a business, I think. Outside of reputation, they’re going to be looking at the hard numbers. Did an activity that required writing result in new leads being brought in, and new business being brought in? That’s what we look at it. And then we look at, okay, what worked and what didn’t work? And then you sort of filter it back down to the writing. We look at a campaign in a holistic view when something does really well, and then it sort of filters back down later. That’s when I go back and I look at the things that did work, and I’m like, well, “How did I word this? Why did this work? Was this call to action really effective? And I should try to use that again.” But at the end of the day, the business is looking at did it bring in leads that convert to a sale.
Q: Have you had any writing training or education since graduating from college?

A: No. No, I mean, informally I’ve worked with some really, really smart people, and again, I think the review process is a training in itself. But no, definitely all informal and nothing that I had had the ability to even– and I never even considered going out and seeking that out. That might be a good idea [laughter].

Q: What challenges did you face when you entered the workplace as a writer in those sort of early years right out of college?
A: I think the fact that there’s so many different styles that you need to consider. The way you write an email or a memo to a CEO is not the same as the way you would write a letter or an email to a coworker or a colleague or a counterpart. Then an email communication is different from an online web communication, and that wasn’t laid out for me. I hear a lot about students today, who are especially in the workforce – people are seeing that students are having those same challenges, that their writing style is almost the same across the board, no matter who they’re writing to, and no matter who’s reading it. And I do remember that being a challenge, and I remember having a tough time pivoting from the way you wrote your assignments in school to writing business communication. It wasn’t the same at all and nobody made that distinction for me at the end of school as I was preparing to graduate and set out for a career. It was more verbal communication that we spent a lot of time on: “This is how you interview, this is how you answer these types of questions, this is how you talk to your boss, this is the proper way to talk to your colleagues,” and things to avoid and pitfalls and things like that. But never really prepared to, “Here’s how you write an email–”. You know, I was thrust into the world of email marketing at 22 or 23, and never had written a business email before or back then, we had fax marketing as well, so I didn’t know how to write a fax marketing that was effective. And then having to present information about how those things did to your boss, that’s also a different communication style. So I think the different styles of written business communication was something that was left out in my education.

Q: That’s really interesting. Can you think of practical steps that you took in those first few years to acquire those skills, or to shift those skills?

A: It was a lot of trial by fire, it was a lot of mistakes that I’ve made. Again, that was a time where I was working with really smart people whose job was to support writing efforts, and working with those people and learning from them, and learning from my colleagues as well. There was people who had been there for a long time, my bosses at the time just say, “No, that’s not how you do this,” or “No, this is what an effective call to action is.” I didn’t know what a call to action was when I graduated college. So learning as I went on the job, on the job training I guess.

Q: Are you able to identify, and you sort of talked about this already, but are you able to identify specific changes in your writing between college and now? And if so, what do you attribute this shift to?

A: Practice. The practice – doing it again and again and again – and I think the more I do it, the better I get. I am by no means a very, very good business writer, but I know enough to be dangerous, as they say, and enough that I can get an email out and get some people to register for a webinar if I need to. At the end of the day, no one’s going to be asking me to write a white paper or an extensive study on something, nor do I want to, because that’s not what I’m good at and I recognize that. One of the positives of not having a team of writers to rely on is that I do get to flex that muscle a little bit, and learn a little bit, and keep at it, so that I don’t lose that skillset when I need it. So just doing it myself and learning as I go, and making those mistakes, is the thing that keeps me active with my writing. And then it keeps me interested in writing outside of business as well. Now and again I’ll find myself doing a little bit of writing outside of the business world just for my own enjoyment, and kind of break away from that sort of stodgy, very structured business tone that you have to have sometimes.

Q: We talked a little bit about ways in which your academic background did not prepare you to write in the workplace. Are there, on the other hand, things from your academic life that you felt did prepare you for writing in the workplace?

A: No, I think it was a lot more preparation to get into the workplace. I go back to– they taught us how to write a resume, they taught us how to write a cover letter, they taught us how to write a thank you note, all the things that people did back then when they were looking to get into the workplace. I don’t know if that’s happening today. I think it was a lot of effort spent on making sure we got you out of here, and got you a job after you graduated, and then you’re on your own after that. And that’s the way I truly feel. A lot of my training was in speech communication. I took speech classes, I didn’t take writing classes. Which, now thinking back as a journalism student, I think I took the standard English and things like that, but there wasn’t, from what I can remember, a specific course of writing that I took to help me prepare, definitely not business-focused writing. I wasn’t in a business school at all. And there’s things I would do differently for sure. Oh gosh, if I went back, the things I would do differently, in terms of my education and what I’d prepare myself for, but I am grateful for the instruction that I got because it got me a job two weeks after graduation. I don’t know if students are doing that these days. But that’s what I feel the emphasis was on. The emphasis was on we will prepare you to do whatever it takes to get you a career outside of this institution when it is time for you to leave.
Q: Interesting. We’ve mostly answered this question, but in what ways were you unprepared as a writer as you entered the workforce. Is there anything that you’d add that you haven’t touched on here?

A: Again, I go back to business writing, how to speak to a certain– I didn’t spend time learning different audiences that different industries might be marketing to or selling to. My first job out of school was working at a publishing company that specialized in executive-level newsletters to companies in the Fortune 500 and that sort of thing. Nothing in school prepared me how to write a communication for that type of person, nor the next type of audience that I worked with. Again, I wish I had a little bit more of an understanding of the different types of business audiences that are out there that are receptive to different types of marketing and selling, because it does change. And then knowing the industry that you’re in and what you’re trying to sell. At that time I was trying to sell newsletters about wireless communication and the gaming industry and the cable industry. I knew nothing about those things and you’d have to pick that stuff up because you have to sound like you know what you’re talking about. There was never any preparation for anything like that. And again, it was all just sort of learning about it as I went.

Q: Two more questions. Would you say that you’re a successful workplace writer?

A: I could be better, I could be better. Sometimes during revisions and proofing and things that I get back from people who’ve looked at my work, I’ll go, “Oh geez, I should’ve known that,” or “Geez, why did I do it that way?” or “Oh, that makes so much sense.” I don’t feel like I do it enough to really, really, really, really, excel at it – I do it just enough to get by. Again, like I said, nobody’s hiring me to write a report a white paper, but I’m deadly with an email [laughter].

Q: And what skills would you say are most central to writing in your specific role?

A: Understanding the audience. Understanding what are they looking at all day long? What are the things that are effective in terms of communication for them? What are the things that bring them in that are interesting to them? What is their day to day struggle like? What does their day look like? What do they have to deal with all day long? So understanding the best way to communicate with them that is a way that doesn’t get lost in all the other clutter and the things they’re looking at all day long, whether it’s on the internet, or whether it’s on their own internal communications, or other marketing that they’re getting, or sales messages that they’re getting. You have to understand how to stick out in the fray of all of that, and that it takes a little while to understand that. And again, it’s trial by error. Luckily, when you’re in a marketing organization, you’re constantly being judged in terms of was your output or your activity effective? And so we’re looking at that all the time and we’re making changes based on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of certain types of communication. So I get instant feedback in terms of how something did that I was responsible for writing, and then we take the time, as much as we can, to understand what went right and what went wrong, and then how to make changes for the next time. And I like that, it’s a fun part of the job actually.

Q: Great, thank you so much.

A: You’re welcome.

Click here to read full transcript

Business Analyst

Business

Business Analyst, Mortgage Company

Date of Interview: February 23rd, 2017

Transcript:

Q: Okay. Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you’ve graduated from college?

A: So I currently work at a company called First Guarantee Mortgage Corporation, and my current job title is business analyst, human resources and corporate enterprise services, and it has been about nine years since I graduated college, and then I did a master’s degree, which it has been two years.

Q: Perfect. Can you provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

A: Primary job function would be developing financial models and analysis that connect all our different departments together. I also do some forecasting with the budget and our main revenue driver, which is loans.

Q: Perfect, okay.

A: What was the rest?

Q: Oh, just primary job functions. Does that cover it?

A: Okay, yeah yeah.

Q: Perfect. Okay, that’s great. How frequently are you required to write? If possible, could you sort of estimate what percentage of a given week might be taken up by writing?

A: I would say probably 20 percent. And that would be a) fielding emails and then b) making bullet points on finance models that I develop to say, “From year 15 to year 16 we had a 16.4 percent increase in revenue,” or  “Our loan profitability went up in these different sectors.” So I make little bullet points underneath the Excel models that I develop and they’re short, concise, mainly numbers with just little finance terms thrown in there, but it’s really small writing. Then the other portion would be writing emails.

Q: Perfect. And just to clarify, like in these models you’re building in Excel, is it all numbers?

A: It’s mainly all numbers, and some of them don’t have little, cute bullet points underneath it. I just do that so it’s a quick look-in for someone like our CFO who I forward them to, so he could just look and see that, from year 2015 to year 2016 our revenue went up by a margin of x amount of dollars or x amount of percent. So it’s not a whole lot of writing, but it’s very concise, to-the-point writing.

Q: Right, okay. So you mentioned a CFO, are there other primary audiences that you’re typically writing to, or primary purposes that you’re writing to?

A: My other primary audience would be my boss, who’s the VP of HR. I write some emails and stuff to him and correspondence, and then models will also go to him, and then go to the CFO or CEO. I try to make sure that they’re clean and buttoned up before they get to that point, but, yeah, that’s my main audience. I also work with other outside consultants – right now we’re working with the company Corporate Executive Board, and then we’re working with Gala, and I’ve worked hand in hand with those consultants on developing metrics and looking at different portions of our company. So I write a lot of emails, reaching out, asking for clarity on little tidbits of information with different templates that I’m filling out. So that would be another area where I write actual sentences [laughter] would be in these models, templates, which is different than a model created from scratch. A template would be, say, I work with a company called McLagan, and we basically benchmark our company against the whole mortgage industry. So I have to write a little brief synopsis on what I entered in and what I think about the data. But it’s not real long writing, it’s just kind of a couple sentences about changes or things that I’ve noticed.

Q: And what’s the purpose of that? Is it to be persuasive or just informative?

A: It’s mainly an informative one- our company and things that I’ve noticed over the months, or related to the template that I’m filling out. Then they use that to actually write white paper pegging us against all other companies in the mortgage industry to see where job title correlates with salary, and see where– and it changes demographically, so they do all different companies and all different areas, and then they’ll do analysis comparing all of, let’s say an accountant in DC would make $60,000 whereas in Florida they might make $40,000.

Q: Great, okay. Were you familiar with these very specific writing types when you were a student?

A: Can you clarify that?
Q: Sure. I was going to go by age but that doesn’t really work – like as a student, were you familiar with the genre of a professional email? Probably. But were you familiar with the sort of writing that you do in these models when you were a student?

A: I think– that’s a good question. The thing that I had to make a big change with with the models was being short and concise, because no one wants long, flowery, literature-type questions. I started out as an English major, so at the infancy of my writing in college, it was based around trying to be a little bit more, not persuasive, but descriptive and, not flowery, but now with the business analysis it’s more short, concise, to-the-point. I have to do that in emails too.

Q: Could you describe your writing process, as in, how do writing tasks or assignments sort of land on your desk, how do you prepare, and what steps do you take from the start to completion?

A: So I’ll usually write something and then I’ll kick it off to like a director of something and ask for feedback, and just see if that makes sense. Then I’ll ultimately get it back, or they will make changes to it. It basically goes through one revision, and then it’s off to the CEO or CFO or VP of HR.
Q: Got it. And is that sort of an informal, “Hey, tell me if this makes sense, give me a little feedback,” or it a more formal, sort of mandatory review process?

A: It’s informal but we’re also– I’m collaborating with the directors on these projects so we kind of both work on it together. It’s not so much– it’s both of our work and we’re both collaborating and putting different pieces together that make up the whole thing. So we kind of revise each other’s work.

Q: Perfect, that makes sense, great. If your documents go through revisions or multiple drafts, and you’ve said really only one revision, is there a specific approach that you take to improving it from that first draft to the final version?

A: Yeah, I look at what ultimately makes intuitive sense, and then make sure its kind of grammar as best as I can, and that’s about it. I don’t really have any other source or person to tap on to review it, unfortunately.

Q: Okay, great. How long, and I’m sure this varies project to project, but how long do you typically have to complete a writing project? And I know that’s different in email to the writing that goes along with these models, but–

A: Yeah, some of the templates I’ll usually have about a month or two, and the reason for that is it takes many weeks to synthesize all the data and collect it, and collaborate it, and basically make heads and tails out of it. So the writing really comes at the end of that portion – I don’t know what I’m writing about until I actually aggregate all the data and aggregate all the spreadsheets to see what it looks like and maybe do a graph or a separate model out of it, and then I write from that. So I’m writing what the input saw.

Q: Got it, interesting. What is at stake in your writing?

A: What’s at stake would be not clearly addressing what our true numbers are at the company. So I have to really be diligent and clear and concise on saying our revenues went up, because everyone wants to get paid every week [laughter]. So we have to make sure that those are accurate numbers to the best of our ability and, you know, upholding our fiduciary responsibility to the clients and stakeholders.

Q: Perfect, okay. You sort of spoke about this, but who oversees your writing? You said the CFO eventually and also your VP of HR? Does that sort of– ?

A: Yeah, that’s kind of the overseeing. A lot of times I do projects for separate directors and different people within the company, that they don’t even see my work. So it’s not– for instance, I don’t really bounce the majority of my work off of my boss, the VP of HR, because I’m writing for the director of compensation and benefits or training and organization or customer engagement, so all these different audiences. So I really don’t have any– I kind of am my own revision, revise my own work, which can be scary because it’s always nice to have a separate set of eyes on it.

Q: That makes a lot of sense though.

A: But I’ll often do a revision or two myself, and maybe sleep on it a day or two, and then come back and revisit it and do other work, just to see if it makes sense and see if that’s what I really want to get to before I send it. Now if it’s a deadline, then guess what? It’s going out, that’s just the way it is [laughter].

Q: How would you say the success or quality of your writing is judged?

A: I would say it’s judged by a) if it initially looks kind of neat and clean. Other than that, a lot of the people have finance backgrounds so they’re not really astute on all the commas and periods and stuff. If it makes sense and you’re getting good points across, that’s the main thing. So they’re the ones that really judge it.

Q: Yeah, okay. Have you had any writing training or education since finishing your undergraduate degree? You mentioned your, is it MBA?

A: Yeah, MBA. So I did a lot of writing for that, for my master’s. I hired a tutor to really read over the papers. She was a professional writer, so I kind of hired her to revise all my papers before I sent it, but it was varying. You had some difficult professors and then some easier professors, but I think my writing there– you go through so many different statistics. I had to write a 34-page paper on statistics and a lot of it was Excel sheets and graphs that I had to plug into it, but then you had to do a explanation of all of what everything means. Statistics – is it correlated? Is there positive correlation? Negative correlation? And really spell it out. The nice thing with statistics is, they have a basic format, like a scientific format that you can use and refer to online, so there’s a way of clearly expressing the correlation of different statistical data points, which is nice. Because you kind of use that as like a rough template.

Q: Got it. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Are there other things that you’ve felt you learned as a writer as a graduate student?

A: I learned that it’s better to be short and concise and not as flowerly and literaturian is the best I could relate it to. But I think that if you make sense and you’re to-the-point, a lot of professors appreciate that rather than kind of rambling on. Oftentimes we’d have a paper that had to be 15 pages and you’re thinking, “Well, how do not ramble on just to fill this up?” and a lot of professors would say, “Hey, if you’re a page or two below that, I’d rather quality not quantity,” is what they would say. So that was nice to kind of abide by that rule. But you have to make sure it’s good writing, too [laughter].

Q: What challenges did you face when you first entered the workforce as a writer, and what practical steps did you take to overcome those challenges?

A: I would say some challenges would be I ask a lot of complex questions, and sometimes I have to really consider my wording with emails with my fellow coworkers. Especially when I first started, I had to reach out to a lot of C-level people because I was working on an org chart of the company. I would send our chief revenue officer, who’s been there for like 20 years, and say, “Hey how many people report to you?” and everything, and you’re a little nervous because they don’t know you from Adam and you’re new, so you really want to make sure that you address it quick and to-the-point. I found it was difficult to not ramble on and, you know, well, “Here’s a little intro about me,” or something. “Why are you asking me these questions?” [laughter]. “What’s your business?” So that was my thing, is trying to be to the point but also address what you want answered.

Q: Are you able to identify a change in your writing from say, college to now? And if so, what do you attribute that shift to?

A: I would attribute that shift to reading a lot more. I’ve read different types of scientific books and some literature-oriented books, so I think I’ve synthesized a little bit of those writing styles and genres into my everyday work. So I think my writing has gotten better because of looking at these different sources and trying to read a lot.

Q: Would you classify your writing as– it seems in many ways like it is scientific writing to a certain extent, is that a fair assessment?

A: It is. It is scientific, and then I do, you know, regular emails and regular writing. Some of the scientific portion I try to be – I don’t want to say clear and concise again – but I try to just state what needs to be stated, and no more, because that detracts and deludes from your main point.

Q: Yeah. Are there other ways, other than the sort of graduate school classes that we mentioned, that you think your academic background prepared you for your professional writing?
A: Prepared me for my professional writing, like my classes that I took?

Q: Yeah, yeah.

A: I would say that both undergrad and grad prepared me well in the sense that I was able to write for different audiences. So I had a marketing professor that was kind of lax and chill, and then I had a psychologist that I worked with and he was a very stickler and would never hand out any type of grades and everyone’s papers would come back red. So I would run my papers through my editor four or five times, and say, “Hey I got a B+ on my last paper. You need to up your game or you’re not getting paid [laughter]!”

Q: This was when you were in grad school?

A: Yeah.

Q: Okay, that’s funny.
A: Yeah, so I would say that writing in grad school for all these different professors that all came from different disciplines and backgrounds really– and I would talk to the professors and even talk to former students and say, “What’s this professor’s writing style?” – more or less saying, “What do they identify with?” – “Oh, professor Ed, he’s real easy, just make sure you turn something out.” And then other ones were a little bit more challenging so you really had to think twice about turning something in. But writing for all those different classes to statistics, marketing, psychology, organizational leadership, leadership classes, really developed different writing skills.

Q: When you think back to your first years out of undergrad, because there was some sort of career between that and grad school for you, right? Did you feel unprepared to write in the workplace right out of undergrad, or would you say you felt pretty prepared?

A: I felt prepared in the sense that I graduated college, but I also felt that my writing could have been maybe a little bit better than what it was and what it has become. So I would say I didn’t struggle, but had to dedicate– it took more effort and energy for me to turn something out versus now, I could maybe sit down and turn out a piece of work a little quicker.

Q: Would you say that you’re a successful workplace writer?

A: I would say successful in the sense that I’ve managed to make my writing, the little bit that I do, execute good. I’ve been able to pass along that work to our VP of HR and our CFO and CEO to make strategic decisions to drive the company forward. So we’re still driving forward, the train’s still going down the tracks, so that’s good [laughter]. I think that it’s imperative to keep making sure we’re concise and to-the-point.

Q: And the last question: what skills do you think are most central to writing in your specific role?

A: I would say not overanalyzing basic data, because it’s easy to look at things and get caught up viewing it differently, but you also have to just look at what you really want out of the data, and what your goal is. You set out a goal before doing that, and then try to achieve that. So for me, it’s maybe even just doing a little bullet outline. Outlining what you want out of a model, and then clearly going after developing those type– not developing a model to go right after what you want, but developing in the sense that it may produce or lend information that you don’t really want [laughter]. So you have to look at the good and the bad. And then be honest in your writing too, because sometimes it’s easy to manipulate with our growth, company growth, and I look at retention and do data analysis and see what our cost-per-hire is and everyone wants the cost-per-hire to be low, but sometimes it goes up. Costs for everything is going up, so you have to be real in your data.

Q: Okay, thank you.

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Tags:

Channel Marketing Manager

Business

Channel Marketing Manager, Security Organization

Date of Interview: February 23rd, 2017

Transcript:

Q: Okay. Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?

A: Okay. My job title is channel marketing manager, and I work at Alarm.com, and I graduated from college in 2003, so that would be, shit, 14 years? Sorry [laughter].

Q: That’s great.

A: Fourteen years.

Q: Can you please provide a very brief description of your primary job functions?

A: Sure. My primary job functions include creating and writing all the content for our marketing material, so this includes flyers, brochures, product summary briefs – because we’re a technology company, and we sell our products through a dealer channel – so I create all the sales materials and things that our dealers use to sell our product to their end users. So it’s B to B to C, in a way.

Q: B to B to C – business to business–

A: Business, to business, to consumer.

Q: To consumer. Okay, great.

A: So I write consumer-facing pieces that you give to a consumer if you go to their home and you leave a flyer behind about the products, and I write dealer-facing pieces that are more educational, so talking about product features, and what it can do for your business, and that sort of thing. So it runs a gamut from 12-page to 16-page brochures, to one to two page flyers, to trifold booklets, bifold booklets. I kind of determine what that piece will look like in size, and work with the product teams to create that content. Ultimately, a lot of times taking really technical pieces of writing that a engineer might have written or a product manager might written, and in a lack of a better term, dumbing it down, for consumers and for people to understand who are not technical in nature. That’s one part of my job. The other big part of my job is communications aspects, so I do all of our outbound email marketing to our dealer channel. So any emails, which can include a monthly newsletter, and any product announcements, and program announcements that we have that go out throughout the month or year. So probably anywhere from two to three emails a week to our channel. They range from, like I said, different products and features as things come out, to programs and services that we offer our dealers to help them sell – so whether that’s training materials, or marketing programs that help generate leads and help them market to their customers, and just news and updates on the company.

Q: Excellent, thanks. How frequently are you required to write in your job? If possible, could you estimate in an average week maybe what percentage of your job requires writing?

A: One hundred percent [laughter]. Maybe if I’m being honest, it’s like 95 percent, and then five percent of that is maybe like data analysis and kind of number crunching, but it’s very minimal [laughter].

Q: Okay. And we sort of answered this – what forms or types of writing do you most often complete? I feel like, unless there’s anything– great. Could you describe the primary to which you write, and the primary purposes that you’re writing?

A: Sure. So I hit on this in my previous answer, but there are two distinct audiences. It’s our consumers – so this is anyone that may or may not be interested in buying a smart home security automation system in their home. I think as a company, there are three different target audiences that we push our messages to, and it’s new homeowners, new younger families, wealthy, older individuals who many have second properties, and then highly tech-savvy kind of middle aged area. That incorporates a lot of people, but that’s our consumer base. So the writing to consumers is more I would say copywriting, where it’s very short, succinct, to-the-point, high-level, “What can our solution do to make your life easier and better?” – and putting it all in those contexts. Then we have our dealer-facing pieces, which are for our dealer channel, so this is security dealers in my profession. The security industry ranges anywhere from small mom-and-pop shops all across the country, to really large national companies, so the audiences range. We gear most of our stuff that we write kind of in the middle, because a lot of our bigger clients are familiar with everything and have one-on-one access to training and resources within the company. They don’t necessarily rely upon having the product summary or the brief there that they have to learn from, whereas our small dealers, that is their only source of getting information. I don’t know if you need like demographic-wise, but it’s US and Canada, we have a whole other international team that translates for our international dealers which range all over the world. It can range in education level, I would say that probably that most older security dealers are not college-educated, so you’ve got to keep it very simple and easy to understand. I don’t know, is there anything else? Is that good?

Q: No, it’s perfect. That’s great. Were you familiar with those types of writing when you were a student in college? And if so, how did this affect your approach to them once you got into the workplace?

A: Sure. I think in college, I was more– I was a marketing major, so I was familiar with copywriting and advertising, but doing the kind of writing that I do now is very different from actually advertising copy, which is even more niche and smaller and to-the-point. But I would say in college, probably was not super familiar with writing a brochure [laughter]. If I had to think about it, I don’t think that was something that we ever did in a class. I think we talked about things that we would provide or do, we did mock advertisements, but I can’t remember specifically ever being like, “As part of the marketing plan, we’re going to create this collateral, and these are the things that are– and here’s a mock of it. Here, I’ve written something that promotes this,” or something. So that was very much on the job training [laughter].

Q: And how did you approach it, those new genres, when you got into the workplace? How did you sort of teach yourself or– ?

A: I think just by kind of being a consumer already, you see that stuff. For me anyway, it was just kind of copying what I had seen throughout my life, and being like, “Okay, well this is what a brochure looks like, or this is what a trifold looks like.” I’ve actually never gone into a company or job situation where a previous piece hadn’t already been created, so you could kind of look at what someone else did, or what the industry standard was, or what that company was typically doing, kind of go from there. Then over time it’s evolved, like I think if we were to look at something– security dealers like to use trifolds, which are a 8.5 x 11 sheet that’s folded three ways. So those are kind of like industry standard, that’s what they like to use; if you have a security dealer come to your house, that’s what they’re going to leave you. So I think if you looked at a trifold that was created in 2011 before I got there and one that I’ve done recently, you would probably notice that there’s a lot less copy and they just get shorter and shorter, and more high-level. Whereas before I think there wasn’t necessarily a marketing team in place, it was a lot of product people doing marketing functions, so they were writing as someone who is very passionate about the product. So they put every single detail and thing that they had been working on that they thought was important, without really thinking about the end user, and what is truly important to the consumer, and also that people don’t really sit there and necessarily read everything that’s in a brochure. When you flip through a brochure, you’re probably looking at the pictures, looking at the highlighted text, looking at the big headlines, and that’s about it. So that’s where you have to focus the message. And that was all just kind of learning through time. I think throughout my professional career I’ve also taken training classes that focused on copy writing, which, not in the advertising sense, but in just the general writing for work sense. So that’s helped too, to really ingrain that, like, got to focus on the short message sort of thing.

Q: Could you describe your writing process, including how writing assignments or tasks are given to you, how you prepare, and the steps you take from the start of the project to the end? And if it’s useful, you could pick just a typical project that you do.

A: Yeah. Well I think for me, the first part is getting the information from the product team, because nine times out of ten, whatever I’m writing about is usually feature or product specific to something that we do. So a lot of times if it’s a new product or feature, I’ll need to work with the product team, they put together what they call a product brief, which will kind of outline the features, advantages, and benefits of what it is, what they perceive the dealer pitch to be, and what they perceive the consumer pitch to be. So, of course, what they think it is versus what they marketing team might think it is could be different, but nine times out of ten it’s probably right. So looking at that, and then, I don’t know, I don’t have like a real process. I just sit there, I read the product brief, and then I just kind of hit go, and just start typing. I’ve been at Alarm.com for probably a little over four years now, and I think I’ve kind of standardized on the format that we use for everything. So it’s like, if I’m sending an email about a new feature, you lead with what it’s going to do for the dealer and their business, what it does for the customer, where they can get it, when it’s available, pricing if that’s something we want to include, and call us for more details or whatever, move on. So it’s kind of like this outline in my head that I go by every time. Same with product summaries, it’s starting with, “This is the product, this is what it can do for you, this is what it can do for your customers.” And then from the consumer standpoint, you think about what it does for the customer, and what is the main purpose that this is bringing. “Ease and comfort to your life, save on energy,” – and just kind of focusing on those key headlines with quick sentences that tell what you can do. Not getting into the minutia of how you need to do it, how you need to set it up in the system, what the devices are that you need to use, it’s just this is what it is, and why you want it. So yeah, I wish I had a better process, but that’s really it [laughter].

Q: No, that’s great, that’s great. If your documents go through revisions or multiple drafts, how do you approach making those changes or improving the piece from one draft to the next?

A: So oftentimes, and I’ve worked in two different companies that I’ve done a lot of writing for, and most companies have a very different process when it comes to review and revision. The first company that I worked for previous to Alarm.com, you had your draft, you had a list of people that it needed to review, and it routed around to everyone that needed to review, and everyone marked up the same piece. Then you got them back, all the edits, and you had to go line by line and decide whose edits you’re going to take and whose edits you’re not going to take. Some made more sense, some don’t, it’s very subjective, I guess is the right word. Then ultimately you– I just remember picking sometimes or being like, “Ah, that doesn’t make sense but I’m going to go with this.” And then clean up the draft, and then it’s usually a final review for the key decision-maker, usually my boss. Alarm.com is a little different because the revision process is, I write it, and then I send it to the product team, they review it, give me their edits. Then I send it to someone else on my team to just proofread, and then I’ll make their edits. And then I’ll go back and then give the final to my boss, who will then review and sign off. But then she’ll have edits, and then make those edits, and then it’ll be final. So it’s very long and it’s a very difficult process, and sometimes you feel like what you end up is a bastardization of what you started with, but you just have to not be married to your words [laughter].

Q: How long do you typically have to complete a writing project?

A: Well, it varies. In our particular company, in a technology company, we’re constantly evolving and innovating and we have new builds every week. So a lot of times–

Q: Sorry, could you clarify what “new builds” means?

A: So a build is, when you have a engineer-based company, a build is typically what will go into your computer back end servers to push everything live. It’s fairly common jargon amongst the engineer set, I just learned what it was when I started at Alarm. So every week there’s new stuff coming out, and it’s every Monday. I meet weekly with the product team to discuss their roadmap, and where things are, and dates are constantly changing. One thing you thought was coming out next week actually isn’t coming out for another month, or something you thought wasn’t coming out for six months is suddenly coming out in two weeks. So then you’re kind of scrambling, and that literally can change within the week. It’s really quick turnaround usually, especially for the email communications. I try and do things as far out in advance as I can because the review process, like I mentioned, is cumbersome, and I don’t like to rush people for review. But sometimes you find out about something and two days later, you need to send something out. Or it could be you have a whole month to work on something. So it really just varies on what it is and what needs to happen with it [laughter].

Q: What is at stake in your writing?

A: What is at stake in my writing – I guess the perception of the products to our dealer community. Ultimately, the email communication is how our dealer channel learns about what our company is doing, and learning about the products and the solutions that help them sell and serve their customers. It really is the first line of contact with dealers on a week to week basis. Some of our bigger accounts obviously have more touch points with their sales team and their technical representatives. Because they’re more putting on more accounts, they get more attention. But there are smaller dealers that those email communications are the only thing that they see from Alarm.com, and if they don’t log in to our dealer portal, they’re not going to necessarily even know what’s happening unless they’re reading the email. Same with the consumer-facing stuff, I mean, that is really provided to our dealer channel as an added bonus. We present our marketing team to our dealer channel as a full-service marketing agency.

Q: Can I ask a clarifying question? So it’s not that you are sending emails direct to consumers, it’s that you’re providing the emails for the dealers to send?

A: Right.

Q: I missed that. Okay, great.

A: So there is those emails, but I also send directly to dealers, but then we provide things for dealers. We provide email content, we also provide all the marketing collateral that they could possibly use. We have what we call our “marketing portal” for our dealers, they can go on, select a trifold, throw their logo on it and their information, print it out, and they have a trifold brochure that they didn’t even need to do. You basically don’t need a marketing or sales person to start a security company with Alarm.com, because you can just use us. We’ll give you a website, we’ll give you email, we’ll give you collateral, we’ll give you a mobile app to go sell, and you go do it. We’re giving you all the things that you need to do to sell what we’re producing. So yeah, I don’t know if that answered the question.

Q: It does, it does, yeah. The next question you’ve half answered. The first part of it is who oversees your writing – so you mentioned your boss and the product engineers. Could you give a brief title and description of your boss’s role?

A: Yeah, so my boss is the senior director of partner marketing. She oversees our whole partner marketing team, which is solely focused on providing tools and resources for our dealer channel to go sell Alarm.com products and services.

Q: Perfect. How would you say your boss judges the success or quality of your writing?

A: [laughter] Million dollar question. I don’t know, necessarily. I don’t get reviewed on that. Her writing style and my writing style are very different. She often has a lot to say on anything that is written. So I don’t know how to answer that.

Q: That’s fine, that’s fine. Not knowing is an answer [laughter]. You mentioned earlier that you’d taken a couple of copywriting or copywriting adjacent training classes. Could you just tell me a little bit about any writing training you’ve had since graduating from college?

A: Yeah, so specifically one course that I took while I was at CEA (? 20:57), and it was called Content Writing for Marketing Managers, or something like that, I forget. It was like a two-day professional writing thing in DC. The guy was kind of cheesy but it had some good points about talking about being concise and using different words and kind of– it had been the first time I had had any education in that realm since college, so it was kind of nice to get some good tips and tricks for how to approach writing.

Q: Excellent. So what challenges did you face when you entered the workplace as a writer, and what steps did you take to overcome those early writing challenges? We talked a little bit earlier about, you said as a consumer you paid attention, and you looked at previous documents. Are there other strategies that you took to sort of orient yourself as a workplace writer?

A: Yeah. Well, I didn’t enter the workplace as a writer [laughter], I actually never considered myself a writer at all until I happened to fall into that position and became suddenly in charge of email marketing content at one of my previous companies that I worked for. It was very unsure of my abilities. So I looked a lot as a mentor to a older colleague that I had who also did– she was the contractor that did just writing and did a bunch of stuff with the website and stuff, so she would always– I would write things and she would review them, and give feedback, like constructive feedback, that I could actually learn from. It just kind of progressed from there. And I think with that, I just kind of gained more confidence over time. And then now, suddenly that’s most of my job [laughter]. Without really, I mean I do have a marketing background and I was a marketing major, but I will say that my training and schooling in marketing was not content creation heavy. At that time, this idea of content being king wasn’t truly felt and this idea of always needing to generating things on the web and for social and having all of this stuff wasn’t an idea at that point, so there wasn’t a ton of focus on it. Like I said, I was mainly in advertising and that was it.
Q: Excellent. Are you able to identify a change in your writing between college and now, and do you attribute that shift to anything beyond the feedback that you talked about and the class that you talked about?

A: Yeah, I don’t know, because obviously writing in college is so much different than writing in life [laughter]. I think maybe I’ve learned to be less wordy and I think I would probably be a little bit more long-winded probably in college, just because it seemed like that’s what you should be. Whereas now, it’s like, get to the point, I don’t need to flourish it. I even do that I noticed that in my emails to colleagues. I’ll write something and it’s like, “Well, I just wanted to say this about blah blah blah blah blah, and blah blah blah, can you do this?” And then I look at it and I’m like, “I need to cut like half of– Can you do this please?” [laughter] and you just send it, which is a skill into itself.

Q: Excellent. In what ways would you say you were unprepared as a writer entering the workforce?

A: Sure. Well I think in college I really can’t remember having a grammar intensive study in college. I went right into freshman year of school having passed through English 101 in highschool and just going straight to Literary Studies, which I don’t think had the same emphasis on grammar. I think there was like, you know, you got marked up on your papers, but you weren’t sitting there learning about different things. I don’t think I really ever took advantage of writing centers and stuff in college either, I just kind of wung it. I just said, “Okay, see what happens,” and just, I think, lucky me, by natural default, I was just able to make it work because I read a lot of books as a kid, and I honestly believe that’s the only reason why I can get through and it’s sort of grammatically correct. I’m sure I probably don’t have commas in the right places all the time, but halfway there. So I didn’t have any of that study in college, so going into the workplace, again, I kind of just write the way I speak. So for better or worse, that’s what you get [laughter].

Q: Okay, excellent. The last two questions: would you say you’re a successful workplace writer? Why or why not?

A: I would say I was successful just because I haven’t gotten fired yet [laughter].

Q: That’s one way to mark success [laughter].

A: And people come to me for writing advice and say, “You know, what do you think of this?” I feel like I must be some sort of subject matter expert at this point [laughter]. That’s probably not a great answer.

Q: That’s a perfectly fine answer. Absolutely, okay. And the last question: what skills do you think are most central to writing in your very specific role?

A: What skills – well I think having a decent sized vocabulary, and knowing how to read something that’s very technical and taking it and understanding it. And if you don’t understand it, knowing how to talk to people that do understand it and making them explain it to you in a way that you understand it, and then translating that. I think that’s a difficult skill and especially not something that is taught, because you need to have the personal communication with someone to be able to talk to them and get out of them what it is. Because sometimes engineers and marketers are two different types of people, and they think very different ways. So yeah, I think that probably helps the most.

Q: Alright, thank you so much.

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Realtor, Durham, NC

Business

Realtor, Durham, NC

Date of Interview: February 7th, 2017

Transcript:

Q: …and so now we’re recording there too, which is great.

A: Okay, great.

Q: So we’ll go ahead and get started, and if you have any questions along the way just let me know.

A: Okay.

Q: Alright, so would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?

A: My name is Steve Gardiner, I work at Fonville Morisey as a realtor, and graduated from college in December of 1990.

Q: Excellent, okay. Could you provide a brief description of your primary job functions? We don’t have to get into too much nitty-gritty, but just the sort of overview of what it is you do as a realtor.

A: Well, I am a residential realtor, so I work on buying and selling residential properties. So I have buyer clients and I have seller clients. For the sellers, I list their house and sell it; and buyers, we go looking at houses and find one and once we get it under contract, we go through the whole process with the attorney and inspections and all that stuff, and then when we’re all done, we have a closing and they go to the courthouse to record the deed, and they own the house.

Q: Excellent, okay. Great, thank you. Can you describe the primary audiences to which you write and for what purposes?

A: I have two main audiences: clients and other realtors. So when I’m having a transaction with somebody and I’m representing either the buyer or the seller, on the other side is another person who’s represented by a realtor, and that realtor and I do the talking. So that’s really the two types of people that I deal with. Are you looking– what else did you ask?

Q: What is the purpose of those kinds of written communications, most often?

A: So with the buyer, it’s helping them look for a house, getting them information, finding out about what they liked or didn’t like about certain houses and it’s all a way for me to kind of fine-tune what they want. And then when they go under contract, there’s a ton of questions like, “Do you want a survey? Do you want to get an inspector? Do you want a pest inspection? Do you know what radon is?” –  it’s all this stuff. So I’m sending them information, educating them about things, and then they need to make a decision on what they want to do. So with clients, that’s a lot of what is happening throughout the whole process. With the other realtors, sometimes it’s informational like, “Can you tell me how long the roof has been on the house?” and sometimes it’s a negotiation thing, like I say, “My client offers $200,000,” and they say, “We won’t take less than $210,” and I say, “$205,” and those type of things. The way that it works when you put an offer on a house, your initial offer you fill out an offer form, an offer letter. It’s this long legal form, made by the Real Estate Commission and the state bar association, and you fill it out and you send it in. So that’s when I say, “We’ll offer $200”. If they come back and they say, “We want $210,” or something, that part is done verbally or either on the phone or email and sometimes even texting. So I’ll talk to my client and say, “Can you do $210?” and then they say, “Yeah, that sounds good,” so I let the other realtor know, “Yeah, they can do it”. So there’s that negotiation. And once the house is under contract, when they do an inspection and they find things that need to be repaired, and we ask the seller to do it, that’s another negotiation. They can say, “yes, no, we’ll do half of it,” blah, blah, blah. So I would say kind of informational, negotiating, and kind of educating and advising people.

Q: Great, great, perfect. What forms or types of writing or kinds of documents do you most often complete? So you talked a little bit about that initial form and emails, are there any other types of writing, types of genres of documents that you work with often? Or are those pretty much limited to those?

A: Well, there are a ton of legal documents throughout the whole process. Since I’m not an attorney, I’m not allowed to write any language in those documents. I am allowed to fill them out and I’m allowed to explain them to people. So a lot of that is sitting down with this 13-page offer letter and explaining to the people, before they sign it, what it all means. So I’m not actually writing anything there, but I’m usually telling them that verbally. But, you know, if somebody’s out of the country or something, which happens sometimes, I can do some of that on email, but that can be like an hour-long conversation, so it would be rough on email. So that’s one, these legal forms. And then a bulk of my writing is just emails to and from the attorney, the listing agent or the buyer’s agent, and my clients – tends to be the bulk of it. So I’m dealing with them a lot. Sometimes we do text, sometimes we do Facebook Messenger, it really depends on whatever the client feels most comfortable with, and then I have to use that method, because that’s how they like to receive their information. So part of my job is figuring that part out, like, do they want me to have them come to the office and sit down and I talk to them and show them? Or do they just want a phone call, do they want text, do they not want any explanation, they just want to sign the thing? And then, as far as written communication outside of those people, I’m doing certain things like, when I list a house in MLS, there’s a part that says “agent remarks” and “remarks”, and that’s where I say, “Come see this beautiful two-bedroom cottage, nestled amongst the Eno River, and close to downtown shopping,” and blah, blah, blah and stuff like that. So you have that kind of thing, and sometimes that writing will get repeated in other things, like I might do a flyer for an open house and I’ll just use that paragraph again. There’s that type of stuff too. I mean, that’s the bulk of it really.

Q: Great, okay, awesome. Were you familiar with any of these types of writing when you were a student?

A: Well, email and texting didn’t exist, so no. We didn’t do anything in school with phone calls or really any type of verbal communication. I remember I took one speech class, it was like, Public Speaking 101, or something like that, and that was– I was in there for a semester, and that’s all I ever had. So everything that I’ve learned has been just through experience and on the job, just doing it for years.

Q: Okay, great. How frequently are you required to write, and if possible, could you estimate in an average week, maybe what percentage of your job requires writing?

A: I write every single day, seven days a week, could be five in the morning, could be midnight, doesn’t matter. There’s certain times that things have to be done and you just have to do them. As far as the percentage of my day spent writing, probably about a third or so, I would say. Probably about a third writing, and then a third dragging around and showing people things, and a third shuffling papers and dealing with contracts and stuff like that.

Q: Gotcha, okay. Could you describe your writing process, including how writing tasks sort of come to you, what steps you take from the start of the project to completion? And I know this will vary a little bit depending on what kind of thing you’re writing, but let’s maybe start with emails. What is the writing process like for that?

A: Well, one thing I always try to do is think about who my audience is. I’m a realtor, I want people to feel comfortable with me. So if somebody writes me and they’re a friend of one my hip friends downtown, and they’re also 25 to 30 years old, and they say, “Tell me a little bit about yourself,” then I would say, “I love Durham, I go to Motorco all the time, and Fullsteam Brewery, and Ponysaurus, and we go out to this restaurant and see live music over here,” and that’s how I kind of deal with it. If it’s a little old lady who lives in the country here, that is a, “Dear Mrs. blah, blah, blah,” and much more formal, and usually would be more likely to need a face-to-face meeting. I even dress differently for customers, because if I wear a suit to some young hipster, he’s going to think I’m a nerd [laughter], and if I wear a jeans to a little old lady’s house, she’s going to think I’m a child, or something like that. So, it’s part of the whole– writing and how I write to them and how I phrase things and all of that is just dependant on who my audience is.

Q: If your documents go through changes, how do you approach those changes? Is there a drafting process with those emails, or is it a sort of, you write it once, it’s gone?

A: Certainly with emails and texts, you write it and it’s gone. It’s important for me not to look like an idiot [laughter], it helps me in my job. So, I try not to have– I’m a pretty good speller in general, but if I see any– well, let me back up. I’m a good speller, but I do a lot of typos, and so I have to go back and make sure– I reread everything once before I send it, just to make sure it’s saying what I want it to say, because I have misspelled words in the past, and I’ve also just done dumb things, just like wrote the wrong, totally unrelated word because I was thinking about it. So it’s really a lot of proofreading, as far as that goes. I even do that with texts. I don’t use textspeak too much, I generally write in sentences. Yeah, does that answer your question?

Q: Definitely. Yeah, perfect, thank you. Does anyone oversee your writing?

A: No, except for the people who receive it [laughter], because they’re– I don’t really have a boss in this job, except for if I do something wrong, I could get sued or I could get into legal trouble, or trouble with the Real Estate Commission. So there’s that to think about. But then beyond that is how does my client receive it, and I am communicating what I need to communicate? Because if I don’t, that can come back to bite me later on. If they misunderstood something and they signed an offer letter they didn’t mean to sign, that can go down a bad road pretty quick.

Q: Yeah, that actually leads perfectly into my next question, which is, what is really at stake in your writing? So that’s certainly a big thing, are there other things at stake that you could identify?

A: Yeah, for instance, realtors have to disclose anything that they know that is majorly wrong with the house. So, let’s say I was selling a house and it was the middle of summer, and I knew the heater didn’t work. I couldn’t just not tell people – I have to tell them. I have to say, “Oh, by the way, the heater doesn’t work”. If I don’t tell them that, and they buy the house and then winter comes around and they turn on the heater and it doesn’t work, they could come back and they could sue me personally. I could lose my license for certain infractions; I could get fined by the Real Estate Commission. And so what I say could really be helpful, or it could hurt me if I say the wrong thing. So there are times when I’m not sure about how to respond to something, legally. That’s when I can go ask the person in charge of our office or one of the other long-time agents, like, “Hey, what would you recommend I say here? I don’t want to get myself into trouble, I don’t want to break any laws, I just,” you know. So that’s probably the closest I get to a peer review – it’s just going over stuff with experienced agents.

Q: Could you give me an example of a situation like that? Like when you say a potentially legal situation that you’re not sure how to handle, is it some things such as, “Is this a big enough deal that I have to disclose it?” like an issue with a house, or are there other issues that come into play there?

A: Yeah, so for instance, I have a house that is listed and it’s in a really low part of the water table, and the town runoff goes through their back yard. When it rains a lot like during a hurricane or something like that, that water rises, and it’s actually flooded part of her house before. So she had to pay to get that fixed – spent thousands of dollars putting in drains and stuff like that, but because she’s so low, it’s still wet underneath the house. So my question is, I don’t have to disclose things that used to be wrong, like I don’t have to tell people that the house floods if she paid to fix it. But, my question to my boss was, “But it’s still wet under there, it isn’t necessarily from the flooding, it’s from something else. What do I have to tell them?”. So I was kind of a little unsure about that. She told me that it would probably be a selling point to disclose the work that you have done, and feel free to tell them about the problems in the past and tell them you’ve solved it, and explain why it’s still wet now. So, I think the answers tend to often be– if you ever think you’re hiding something, it’s probably a good idea just to tell them.

Q: Got it, okay, that makes a lot of sense. So because you don’t have a boss, this next question is a little bit different than it might be for someone else. But how would you say that the success or quality of your writing is judged? Or maybe, how do you judge the success or quality?

A: Well, how I judge it is if can get my point across in a way that is not too verbose, kind of straight to the point. People don’t read that closely, especially in email and especially in text, so I can’t bury the good information. So sometimes if I have two important things to ask a client, sometimes I will ask them one in an email, and a couple minutes later, send them a second email with the other question in it. Because if I list multiple questions, sometimes they’ll answer the first one and then then they never answer the rest. And texting, I found out, you can’t ask two questions in the same text. You can’t say, “How are you doing today? When are you coming to see me?”. They’re going to write back and go, “I’m doing fine!” or, “I’ll be there on Tuesday!”, but they will not  [?19:13]. And then, my clients often, when the process is all over, they give me recommendations. The thing that I keep seeing over and over is, “Steve is so helpful, he explained things to us, made a lot of sense, he took this process that we didn’t know anything about and he made it easy,” – so that’s kind of how I judge myself. Because at the end of the day, if my clients are happy, then I’m fine.

Q: Great, okay.

A: But if they’re unhappy, I’m not.

Q: Right, okay, that makes perfect sense. Have you had any training that is specific to writing since you’ve graduated from college?

A: No [laughter]. Except having a wife who’s a college English professor, and will tell me if I do something wrong, but yes.

Q: [laughter] It’s its own kind of training, okay, perfect. Do you do anything to prepare to write? This sort of goes back to that question about your writing process, but is there anything that you do in preparation to sit down and write?

A: Not too much, really. Of course, there’s certain topics where, for instance, if I’m explaining to somebody in an email the good and the bad and the ugly from their inspection report, I’m going to have to have that report with me and reference it, and then I comment on it and then I attach it to the document, or something like that. But no, I’m kind of– in this business you have to respond very quick, and that means you might not be home, you might be on vacation, you might be whatever. So just being quick and clear, and answering their questions in a most succinct way as possible is what works.

Q: Gotcha, and that sort of speaks to my next question – how long do you typically have to complete a piece of writing for your job? You said “pretty quick” – what does pretty quick look like, on average?

A: Usually just minutes. I don’t ever write anything and set it aside and come back to it later. Even when I’m listing a house, that paragraph about how great the house is – that isn’t something that I work on, really. I sit down and then I just write it, and then I read it over and I edit it, and then it’s done.

Q: Perfect, great. What challenges did you face when you entered the workplace as a writer? Are there ways in which you felt particularly prepared or unprepared?

A: When I very first entered the workplace, the communication was all phone, and I was very uncomfortable with that. And then email came about and I was really comfortable with email, and could really be clear and thoughtful and all of that stuff in an email much better than I could talking. And then when it came to texting and stuff – half the time I don’t even know what people are saying to me, because they use so many abbreviations, but I look it up and figure it out [laughter]. I don’t know if that answered the question?

Q: It does, it does, yeah. And do you face any challenges in your workplace writing now, beyond what we’ve talked about, sort of the timing issue and things like that?

A: Well that paragraph that I write about why the house is great – after you’ve done this dozens and dozens and dozens of time and you see houses all day long every day, it’s kind of hard to make that paragraph very interesting [laughter], or unique, or just something so that people will pay attention. It really tends to end up being less flowery and more fact-based, like “new roof, new water heater” – like that kind of almost like bullet points. I feel like we’re getting closer to the point in our society where everybody just wants bullet points for everything, whether you write them out or talk them or text them, or whatever.

Q: Yeah. Are you able to identify a change in your writing style between college and now, and if so, what do you attribute that change to?

A: What’s interesting is that when I was in college and before college, I didn’t really have a writing style at all. I did the five paragraph essay in highschool, and I wrote the term papers, but didn’t really do much beyond that. And it wasn’t until I got out and especially when– I used to be big into those email listservs, like on music, or whatever, and I would meet a lot of people, and we would write all day long. I’ve never had any training, but just the constant, for maybe 27 years now, of constant reading, responding, writing, over and over and over, I mean you just get better at it, it’s just [laughter]. But I don’t really think– the only thing that I feel like school, including college, taught me was just the groundwork, the basics, like grammar, spelling, how to form a sentence correctly. Because like I said, when I’m talking– if somebody from an English professor from Duke calls me up, I better at least spell my words right [laughter].

Q: Okay, and other than– you sort of referenced paying a lot of attention to emails that came across listservs and things like that, and sort of seeing– so are there other practical things that you think you’ve done since you’ve been in the working world to overcome writing challenges or to improve?

A: I think it’s just repetition really. I didn’t really utilize any tools or proofreaders or anything like that. Just kind of trial and error, and trying to figure out– for instance, sometimes I write postcards, and I send them out to a neighborhood, and I say to people, “Hey, if you want to sell your house, let me know, I’m a realtor,” basically. And there’s many different ways to say that and you can be long and verbose and say where you went to school and blah, blah, blah, or you can just be like, “Do you need a realtor? Call today!” or whatever. So you have to make those type decisions, and trying to figure that out. And sometimes with those things, you’ll phrase it in a way and you’ll get a better reaction. And then you’re like “oh, okay, I’m going to start doing that now and not the other way”. So, just a little trial and error going on. It’s not direct feedback, they aren’t telling me what they think about my writing, but it is feedback that I can use.

Q: Absolutely, okay. And two more questions – would you say you’re a successful workplace writer, why or why not?

A: Yeah, I think I am. People usually understand what I’m talking about, and sometimes these can be pretty complex. Like if I ask you if you want to get your basement checked for radon, most people don’t even know what radon is. So I have explain that to them, and I explain the pros and cons of it, and why it’s important to do it, and et cetera, et cetera. And I go through it that way. Did I answer the question?

Q: You did, great. And then the last question: what skills would you say are the most central to writing in your very specific job?

A: What was that again?

Q: What skills would you say are the most important in writing in your job?

A: I think just phrasing, really. I’ve talked a lot about trying to write succinctly and straightforward, so a variety of people understand them and all of that, and that’s what I think about the most. When I’m writing I’m not really thinking about spelling, because I can generally spell all right and all that stuff, and I’m not necessarily thinking constantly about the goal in mind, it’s really just thinking a lot about the phrasing, how I write it so it’s clear. And I guess I learned that from school too, probably, but it wasn’t from a specific class, it was just from doing a lot of reading and studying. But really, these years of just communicating with people in a written form, that has made my writing better than anything.

Q: Alright, thank you!

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Certified Public Accountant

Business

Certified Public Accountant, Currently freelance

Date of Interview: November 4th, 2016

Transcript:

Q: Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you’ve graduated from college?

A: I’m a CPA and where I was working I was a manager. I graduated from college in 2007, but technically I finished classes December of 2006. And what else, what was the other thing?

Q: Can you provide a very brief description of your primary job functions?

A: There are many. Let’s see. So as CPA– so I would prepare, I would review tax returns, train staff on that, and client interaction – emails and phonecalls – on a daily basis for whatever questions or issues that come up with their business. With staff, would be as I mentioned training, but also any other HR issues and pay rate, you know, salary, evaluations. I meet with them once a week. Clients, on a daily basis, and then some of the issues that might come up would be tax notices, and so forth.

Q: What forms or types of writing or kinds of documents do you most often complete?

A: Types of writing – many, mostly kind of casual emails between with clients or staff on status of projects. Also, as I mentioned, IRS notices. So, writing responses to IRS or whatever other taxing authority might have had a question. Sometimes it’s just a notice and sometimes it’s a full-on audit, where you have an agent coming out to go through some documents. What other forms of writing..not sure [chuckles]. Oh, I guess with the stuff– so that’s with my employment, and then where I volunteer with the Virginia Society of CPAs and the Northern Chapter, I’ve been tapped to write a couple of pieces for them. Mostly writing informational pieces on a certain issue in the field.  Research and development credits would be one. That might be another thing, is presentations – but I don’t know if that’s so much writing. And then writing articles on those topics. And then a couple times it’s like a more personal piece on “why you’re a CPA” – that sort of topic.

Q: How frequently are you required to write, and if you’d give an approximate estimation on average, per week, what percentage of your job would be writing-involved?

A: You mean, would you count like, emails?

Q: Sure.

A: Okay, sixty percent.

Q: And that’s on a weekly basis? How frequently during the week?

A: Daily.

Q: Daily. Could you describe your writing process, including how like assignments or tasks are given to you, what steps you have to take from the start of a project to its completion?

A: It depends very much on the project. I’d say if it’s just a new client coming in, it’s a sit-down meeting with them. Where writing comes in, you know, I’d take notes on what they’re– about them and their history and what issues they have, and take a look at their, you know, prior tax returns, prior financial statements, look at their history and then talk about what needs to happen in the future. Many times, some sort of research project will come out of that. So we will look into that; either me personally or staff person will look into it. I’ll have them take the first stab at it, and then I’ll sort of clean it up and give to them our conclusions to the client our conclusions. And then from there we can make decisions on how to handle whatever the issue is. If it’s just preparing a tax return, then it’s pretty straight forward. If it’s like a tax audit or something, then we start gathering documents and creating our deliverable.

Q: Could you describe the primary audience or audiences to which you are normally writing and for what purpose?

A: When I talk about like sixty percent of my time is a lot of emails, and those are with clients. So those are generally owner-managed businesses, so either directly to the owner who is managing it, or perhaps a CFO or controller who is taking point on the financial matters. So that would be the primary audience. When it’s something a little more involved with like an IRS notice, then the audience would be that taxing authority or perhaps directly to an agent. Where I’m writing articles, that is either geared towards CPAs and teaching them more about that issue and that would be the audience, or else it might an article where the audience is maybe prospective clients or other owner-managed businesses in like a certain field.

Q: Can you talk a bit about, like, what’s at stake in the writing that you do?

A: My relationship with my clients and their trust in me. Being able to communicate clearly is kind of– I mean, anybody can prepare a tax return – like literally, you don’t have to be a CPA to do that – but you need to have a good foundation relationship. We don’t just prepare tax returns, there’s more to it than that. But if a client is just thinking about it from a compliance point of view like, “I just have got to get this form completed”, then I’m not doing my job in conveying the value that we can provide.

Q: Other than clients, is there anyone that oversees the writing that you do? If yes, could you provide just brief description of their title and their role in your organization?

A: CPA firms are usually organized as partnerships, and so the [? 7:27.3] partners them. So the partner would be whoever– so every client is sort of assigned to a partner, like the partner is responsible for that relationship, and like, officially within the firm. And then they delegate me to handle the issue. So my role is– basically I’m the primary point of contact, and working with the staff to make sure the work gets done, and then review it and make sure it’s done correctly. And then any questions that come up, that goes back to the partner to decide on how to handle that, how to communicate that to the client if it’s sensitive. And so most of my career, any letters that went to IRS or taxing authority would go through one of the partners first. But as a manager, that doesn’t really need to happen. So it’s mostly just communication on how to handle an issue. But yeah, for much of my career, I write all these letters and the partner would like, red-line it and make it to his tone of voice, or her tone of voice, or whomever was looking at it.

Q: Have you had any writing training or education since graduating from college?

A: Not directly. I’ve taken a couple of leadership courses/seminars. But I don’t think writing was directly– communication was a topic for sure, but I think those mostly focus on verbal.

Q: What do you do to prepare to write, for example, research, interviewing, or pre-drafting?

A: I mean, I’ll research it if there’s something that needs to be researched. But usually if it’s just a notice response or something like that, it’s kind of standard and it’s very contingent on the circumstances that the client was under. So I’d interview the client, what are the circumstances, and then you, as my bosses write: write the saddest story that the truth will allow. You know, so that’s one way to think about it.

Q: Can you elaborate on that a little bit [laughter]. That’s fascinating, can you elaborate a little bit about that?

A: If you’re requesting like an abatement of a penalty or something, then you know, the saddest story the truth will allow. I mean it’s, you know, “my dog died, my wife got sick, my car broke down, and I ran out of”– you know, it’s just whatever the circumstances are, you write it in a way that’s like, “it was so sad and it was so awful and they couldn’t possibly have filed that day. But look! They did it two days later and it will never happen again and they have reached out to a professional to ensure it will never happen again and we’re on top of it” – and that’s sort of how you write these things.

Q: So it sounds like there is some persuasion there.

A: Yeah.

Q: Outside of email as a form of writing, does revision ever occur in your writing and, if so, what kind of process do you go through to revise?

A: I try to be paperless, but I usually catch these things after I print it out and just read it cold, basically, if it’s important. Even with email too sometimes, if it’s sensitive at all. And I’ll just set it aside and come back to it and try to re-read it, as if, from their perspective.

Q: How long do you typically have to complete a writing project?

A: Like an hour [chuckles]. Maybe. By the end of the day.

Q: Earlier you asked about types of documents that you write. Were you familiar these genres when you were a student? And if so, how did this affect your approach to them coming into the workplace?

A: Which genres?

Q: The email, or informational writing, persuasive writing, even things like the things you write to the IRS, those sorts of documents.

A: Was I aware of them when I was in school?

Q: At least in the style in which you engage with them now.

A: Not really, no. I guess it’d be mostly like English classes, mostly like kind of reading comprehension, and “did you understand that?”, and then you sort of regurgitate it with a slant. And then history would be just kind of facts and writing it out. I’ll say that probably the most valuable class I had – and since I saw this notice I’ve been trying to remember and I just can’t remember – but I had a professor at Mary Washington who did– it was a business class on business writing, which I think was probably the most valuable in my career, about, you know, don’t– basically don’t use filler words and be as concise as possible, and just kind of the opposite of you know, “minimum of seven pages!”, for these other types of classes. So that was probably the most valuable in terms of business writing that I can see all of my staff need something like that. But, persuasive writing, I don’t think– no, we didn’t have to do any of that. IRS notices never occurred to me [chuckles] to write about that. Email I certainly was aware of.

Q: Are you able to identify any change in your writing style between college and your current time writing in the workplace, and if so, to what would you attribute this shift?

A: Certainly I’ve had more practice at being concise and trying to get to the point quickly, even if it’s a client or you know, IRS agent or something. You have to state your point right away, or else they’re not going to be engaged. It’s not so much with the rules and English – you know, it’s like an introductory, a body, and your conclusion – you kind of lead with your conclusion. It’s like, “I’m writing in response to this, and we believe that this isn’t correct”. And then you state all of your reasons, and then yes, you have a conclusion, but you kind of have to get to the point right away, there’s no introduction really. Much less.

Q: What challenges did you face when entering the workplace as a writer? In what ways did you feel prepared or unprepared to write in the workplace? How does that compare to the challenges that you face now?

A: In what ways did I feel unprepared– I mean that one class helped a lot with preparing and sort of having an idea of, okay, I’m going to try to be really concise here. But having practice in really doing it in practical ways – I did not feel prepared for that. So, basically the way I was trained is I would, you know, take a stab at it, write it up, and then they would, it would just get marked up and completely changed. What I found most interesting is these, even in emails or letters, is it’s very tonal. Like I think in school it was like, try to be as, I don’t know, third person and detached, almost. And in the writing that I do, it’s more personal. When I’m writing a letter for this person’s client, I have to lead off with “Ladies and gentleman!”, and I have to have a certain tone. And when I’m writing for this person, it’s “Dear sir or madam”, and it’s a totally, it’s a different tone. So it’s, people are very particular.

Q: How would you say that you learned to navigate the differences in those kinds of tones?

A: Practice, I don’t know. Just trying it over and over again until it got the point where he’d always be happy with the letters I write, to the point where he’s like “I don’t want to see them anymore, you sign it”. And so I was like, okay now I can do it, and then I could actually start writing them in my tone [chuckles]. So not as much of a “Ladies and gentleman!” sort of author. But it’s been interesting. Yeah, that’s kind of just helped me to develop, just like being exposed to the different [? 17:09.9] people have.

Q: What practical steps did you take in the office to overcome any early writing challenges, for example, looking at documents performed by other writers or asking questions of more senior writers?

A: Yeah, I mean I might go online and just Google how to format something, or read a couple of samples. Or I’d go back in the work file and figure out how we had responded to something for some clients in the past. Fortunately everything was sort of paperless, so you could do a search, IRS letter or something, and try to just find other examples that he’d written before, or whomever had written. Can you say the question again? I feel like there was another piece to it.

Q: Any practical steps taken in the office to overcome early writing challenges?

A: Yeah, pretty much that looking at history and mostly just trying it and it being just totally rewritten every time, the first couple years.

Q: Would you consider yourself to be a successful workplace writer?

A: Maybe average [chuckles].

Q: On what criteria are you making that judgement?

A: People usually understand what I’m trying to say. Not always [chuckles].

Q: How do you, or how does your boss, judge the success or quality of your writing that you do?

A: I guess if it’s like an appeal, and whether it’s successful or not. So those tend to get rewritten a lot more often and I’ll go through a lot of versions of that; usually pretty good success with that. Where I say I’m like average is usually with email correspondence, where if you’re writing it quickly, and then– email is so difficult because you can’t hear the tone, and so you’re trying to respond quickly, but sometimes the message isn’t always completely received, or if I could’ve written it in a different tone, it would go better. So that’s, those are unsuccessful communications where you didn’t, maybe didn’t fully explain it or assume they remember that email from two days ago that we already talked about this and just explaining further. But, by and large, it’s successful. The message gets across and I keep my clients.

Q: Last question. What skills do you think are most central to writing in your specific workplace and function?

A: I don’t know what you mean by that [chuckles]. Skills, like English, I mean, vocabulary? What do you mean?

Q: What traits that you think you have as a writer – or successful writers in your workplace – what do you find to be common? Any common traits or skillsets in writing that you think lead to success in writing in accounting?

A: Being able to get to the point quickly, and being concise. Keeping people’s attention and I’d say being really clear and keeping your tone neutral or positive. Like I have a partner in the firm who will get in trouble all the time for writing those nasty emails, and she didn’t really change what she typed, but she started just inserting smiley faces [laughter]. So, “this is my tone when I am writing to you in this manner, you know, I’m writing”, but you know, but it doesn’t read like that, but you throw in a smiley face. So I think that’s just crucial, is being able to keep it neutral or positive when you don’t intend to offend somebody but you, sometimes you do accidentally. Or knowing when not to put it in writing and when to have a conversation.

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