We were gathered at 7:30 in the morning for a workshop on leadership. The presenter asked us to do an exercise that seemed so simple I began it only to humor her. Her challenge: take each letter of our first name and match it to a word describing ourselves as a leader.
Normally I would have matched C with Creative, but my brain was struggling to make connections at that hour of the morning. Fortunately a source of insight was sitting right beside me. Alan Feirer showed me his acrostic poem and said, “N stands for needs-meeter.”
With two words and a hyphen, he cheerfully flipped standard assumptions about leadership on their head. Many people think about leading from the leader’s perspective: it’s all about what I do, what I tell you to do, what I want you to think about my vision for where we’re going. In other words, I lead and your job is to get with the program.
In Feirer’s model, a leader asks, “What does our company need? As my direct report, what do you need from me?” That attitude positions the leader in the gap between what’s happening and what should be happening. From this perspective, leaders and followers are allies. A leader is more than a provider and assigner of resources; the leader becomes a resource. Responsibility for identifying needs is shared, so leaders’ thinking is no longer bounded by the four walls of a corner office.
How might this model apply to writing? To paraphrase Feirer, my job as a writer is to figure out what readers need and then meet those needs.
How can a business writer become a needs-meeter? The most effective approach, according to writing expert Kenneth W. Davis, is to switch hats. Wear your writer’s hat as you draft. Then take a break. When you return to your draft, take off your writer’s hat and put on your reader’s hat; in other words, reread your draft from your reader’s point of view.
- Can you immediately find the reason you need to read this document?
- Do you have all the information you need?
- Is the information organized so that you can easily understand and act on it?
Answering those questions from the reader’s point of view will help you make changes that will better serve your readers.
Switching hats might seem to create more work for writers up front. However, in the long run, reader-centered writing encourages your audience to pay attention to your message and reduces the need for follow-up.
For example, it’s easy to dash off an email headed Company picnic scheduled. That subject line leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Revising it to Reserve your tickets for Thriller Diller family outing by 7/1 takes just a few seconds and turns your message into a call to action.
Whether you’re leading or writing, switching perspectives can make it easier to treat your audience as allies. Just remember to ask: “What do you need?”
Notes: Alan Feirer posts his thoughts on leadership in his Group Dynamic blog.
Kenneth W. Davis is the author of The McGraw-Hill 36-Hour Course in Business Writing, available from Amazon.
Find advice about how to write with a you attitude in “Finding the Right Tone”: http://www.designsensory.com/pws/lesson12/index.html