Blog

The latest insights on narrative, storytelling and leadership in higher education.

From A to Z: writing that connects

By

What we say and do are regularly explored as ways we can improve our leadership. But what about what we write? How often do we think about the words that we choose to connect with others?

Gathering together 25 insights from communications expert John Simmons, here’s how we can use writing to deepen our connections with the people that we work with, care for and lead.

Words, used well, are containers of compassion.”

John Simmons

Stories matter, they connect.” Sage advice from my colleague John Simmons. But it’s also a truth, too. People have always built connections through stories. They bring us together, helping set the scene for where we go next, explain what’s happening now and make sense of what came before. In a complex year (and few have been more so than 2020), how we tell stories, the words we choose, take on greater responsibility. Can we connect well from a distance, find words that strengthen bonds, bring people into the story, and keep the fire of our collective humanity going?

The word ‘humanity’ always comes to my mind when I think about education. I see it as an endeavour shaped by our curiosity. In this time of shifting towards online education, we need to keep human needs in mind – how can we best work together, and how can we guide students through all stages of their learning experience? The emotional and psychological journey that we’re all on unites us, but how we’re adapting to writing and Zooming more is a journey unique to each person.

Over the summer, my colleague John has been revisiting his book ‘The Invisible Grail’. Each week we’ve published the next instalment, following the alphabet from A to Z to share ways to use words that inspire, motivate and help connect people more deeply with one another. “Words, used well, are containers of compassion.”

Here is a culmination of John’s A-Z. Gathering up the techniques, imagination, and values to enrich how you use and think about your words for work. Whether you’re writing to students, stakeholders, colleagues or peers, we hope you’ll find practical and inspiring ways to think about the words you use for work, and how they can work for you.

Values and culture in our words

A university’s choice of words represent how it sees itself as well as embodying the people who work there and what they stand for.”

Words are signals for far more than what we write. They’re windows into who we are, our past and present, what we believe in and our values. People might see more than we expect, or they might not look at all when we hoped they would. This is true not only for people, but for organisations as well. A university’s choice of words represent how it sees itself as well as embodying the people who work there and what they stand for. Do you, and those you work with or lead, recognise and connect with the values and culture that’s written on the tin?

It’s a question on many of our minds as 2020 strips back a lot of the ways we think, work and live. In June after the killing of George Floyd, the need to use language to embrace greater diversity, recognise and move beyond colonialism and work toward greater equality became unequivocal. Words are shaped by attitudes, but what we write has a responsibility to speak for us beyond the moment it is written.

Tell the truth well.”

John Simmons, Chapter fourteen: N-o

The things that are the hardest often matter the most, and so a lot of writing requires bravery. It’s easy to obfuscate a difficult subject because it offers a layer of protection – the onus is on others to untangle our words. But in times of uncertainty, what we all yearn for is clarity. With clarity comes kindness. “Tell the truth well.”

Techniques to try

We can normally trust our gut to tell us when we’re on the right track. In conversations, we’re picking up cues from body language, tone, and pace, as much as anything we say. But when we write, we have to imagine the person before us, how they might react and what we need to do to engage them in what we’re saying, without forgetting that they’re there.

Let the reader join you in thinking your thoughts “What would I do in this situation?”

When you have something important to write, try a 5-minute stint of automatic writing to help sort the wheat from the chaff. Particularly when other things are on your mind, you can use this technique to break free, “who knows what will emerge?Questions too can be helpful to get started. Questions lead to answers, but if you don’t have any that’s fine as well. Let the reader join you in thinking your thoughts “What would I do in this situation?”

Much of our writing is about persuasion, helping others see our point of view. Perhaps it’s a message to colleagues about shifting priorities as new hurdles spring up this term, or writing an impact statement for a funding bid. Intent is important, put it up front.

A stock technique we all use are lists. Handy things, functional too (you’ll even find one at the end of this blog). But it’s easy for lists to slip from being useful to mind-numbing. What they need are connections; in particular connections that help the points flow from one to the other in the reader’s mind so they can follow your train of thought.

Unlock your imagination and creativity

Imagination isn’t relevant for work. What does it have to do with deadlines? The REF? Or strategising?

We’re not AI. We’re not built for 0’s and 1’s. Imagination and creativity are part and parcel of being human. John reminds us that there’s beautiful language and inventive ways that we can tap into to seize the attention of our reader.

Rise to your feet and feel the words coursing through your veins.”

John Simmons, Chapter eighteen: R-s

Especially when we’re writing more in lieu of meetings, it’s easy to slide into directive speak. But used with care, language can be a valuable source of emotional support. Empathetic language speaks to our hearts: Poetry, rhetoric, alliteration that match the rise and fall of emotion in our words; “Rise to your feet and feel the words coursing through your veins.”

Or how about trying metaphors out for size? John gives us some examples from a recent online course, “Zoom is the first flat white of the day in that Soho café”. The sense of a Zoom meeting suddenly becomes brighter in our minds. Like moving from sepia to full colour, metaphors allow our imagination to bring to life the information we want someone to understand or act upon.

Memory, imagination, feeling words as you use them – following your gut will help you filter out corporate jargon and keep humanity at the heart and centre of what you write.

Find joy, perhaps a little fun through the techniques, and offer your words as gifts to others.”

In releasing a chapter each week, we hope we’ve inspired new ways to think about how you use words at work. They can be so much more than tools of transmissions, instead tap into the potential of words to build emotional connections with the people you work with and care for. Find joy, perhaps a little fun through the techniques, and offer your words as gifts to others.

Photo by Şahin Sezer Dinçer on Unsplash


Leaf through the whole collection:

Values and culture in our words

F-g: Clarity in what you say
G-h: Avoiding bad headlines
J-k: Our attitudes shape the language we use, and we need to aware of that
M-n: We’re all messengers for our organisations
N-o: The need for honesty in what we write

Techniques to try

B-c: Capture the attention of your audience
C-d: Automatic writing
E-f: Avoiding boredom in lists
I-j: The faceless organisation. Using ‘I’ and ‘we’ at work
O-p: Being concise is good, precise is better
P-q: Give your writing clarity and grace, use punctuation
Q-r: Why should you use questions?
T-u: Find your voice and boost your confidence
U-v: The art of colloquialisms
V-w: Use quotations to advance your argument
Y-z: On endings

Unlock your imagination and creativity

A-b: Begin writing in the middle and take your reader there to seize attention
D-e: Using poetry and rhythm for emphasis
H-i: Using metaphors to give your audience greater rein
K-l: Using memory and imagination to create something new
L-m: How we listen to and feel words
R-s: Feel the rhythm of the words you use in your writing
S-t: Pick words that surprise
W-x: When it comes to naming things gut feel counts for a lot
X-y: On favourite words

By Louise Clifton

Louise is the Director of Marketing, Communications and Operations at Invisible Grail. Louise’s passion is to help people bring alive the stories that show the wider world who they are and why what they do matters.

If you enjoyed this blog you might also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Cancel