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Not another meeting paper: exploring the implications of good (and bad) writing in universities


What role does writing have for universities and their people?

Paul Gentle investigates how writing impacts on peoples experience of higher education – from the high stakes of first year TEF results, to the fundamental everyday communication between people, teams and university communities.


There’s no denying that universities – or rather the people in them – produce vast quantities of writing. Much of what we write serves to create and disseminate knowledge. Yet so much of what we write is churned out under tight deadlines, drowning out passion for our work in a sea of noise.

The benefits of effective, empathetic writing are clear, demonstrating, for instance, the impact of a university’s work. Take the most recent submissions to Year 2 of the Teaching Excellence Framework.

The day after one university I know had received its Bronze staff there were contrasting their own submission with those from institutions awarded Gold. The difference was stark, they concluded. It was in the writing. The Gold institutions had a clear and compelling narrative. Theirs was a scrambled mess of data, assembled more or less as a list. The people doing all the work in bringing about the institution’s claimed excellence were invisible. The main actor in the submission was always simply ‘The University.’

The people doing all the work in bringing about the institution’s claimed excellence were invisible.

By contrast, the institutions awarded Gold crafted submissions which used personal pronouns throughout to build a sense of a community held together by values: ‘Our commitment… our culture…the part we play in transforming lives in the local region’.

One Gold submission opened with a quotation which set up a sense of the narrative as a dialogue with the reader: “We want our graduates to stand out from the crowd and be among the best in the world…We are working hard to create programmes which instil a life-long love of learning, stimulate creativity, a worldwide outlook, leadership, the ability to work with others, analytical skills, resilience and imagination.”

A Pro Vice-Chancellor has told me that the decision to bring alive the personality of the university in its submission was a last-minute judgement by the Vice-Chancellor; it paid off.

Rediscovering value through writing

Writing in universities might also aim to make them better places to work in: clearer about their purpose, more inspiring, fairer, better-resourced, more diverse, passionate about the future, able to make their case.

This is not the kind of writing that happens by management edict. It can only work when crafted by writers able to appeal to our human experience by applying emotional intelligence and compassion to engage others.

Writers are everywhere in our 400,000-strong workforce in UK higher education. They draft millions of strategy documents, committee papers, emails, executive summaries, minutes and reports. So why don’t most of these documents work? Why are they more likely to trigger boredom, confusion, indifference or rage (as evinced by flame trails in some chains of email)?

Their writers spend staggering proportions of their time failing to communicate. Even in an age where demonstrating impact can have monumental consequences, we settle for techno-rational bureacratese instead of writing that tells who we are and what we value. You might think that our institutions make professionals write in a particularly deadpan register so as to be taken seriously. Yet in practice no-one recalls being told they have to do this – it just happens.

Even in an age where demonstrating impact can have monumental consequences, we settle for techno-rational bureacratese instead of writing that tells who we are and what we value.

Changing the tide: practical ways to find more meaning in your writing

What could we do to challenge this assumed state of affairs and generate different, exciting writing in our universities?

We could experiment with our innate ability to draw readers into a story so that they connect with the topic; to use the power of words to create energy and meaning through narratives that persuade and inspire. We could try out writing techniques that bring people and ideas together, span different perspectives and goals, nurture relationships and provide common ground.

Here are some techniques to try out:


  1. Before starting to draft a document, write a miniature story that encapsulates your core message in exactly 6 words. This could be one or two sentences, or a headline. One often-quoted example is from Ernest Hemingway: ‘For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn’. Use your mini-story to guide and inform the document you write.
  2. Write (with a pen, not on a keyboard!) for 5 minutes in free-flow, about a topic unrelated to what you need to write about at work. Censor your voice of judgement, and enjoy what emerges on the page. Note how it feels to do this. Then write for another 5 minutes on your work topic, in similar free-flow. After you’ve done this, identify what seem to be the key emotions in what you’ve written, and make sure you allow for these in what you write for your workplace audience.
  3. Compose a Haiku poem based on the topic of a document you’re about to write. Stick carefully to a structure of 3 lines containing 5, 7 and 5 syllables respectively. See what this tells you about the essence of what needs to be in your document.


I used this last approach with a candidate for a senior post who’d got stuck on his covering letter. The Haiku helped him identify the key points he needed to build into his narrative. Three weeks later, he got the job. Telling me the outcome of his interview, he said it was ‘a testament to the journey’ he had taken in connecting his writing with his development of successful leadership.

Writing in this way lets people working in our universities discover a distinctive voice so that they speak and write with an original personality. This engages audiences and gains trust and support. Individuals and institutions that speak their own truths with authority will always stand out from the crowd.


Paul Gentle is a leadership expert, ardent writer and Academic Director of Invisible Grail. If you enjoyed this blog, you might like Paul’s other blogs:

Winning hearts and minds…and disclosing some vulnerability along the way

When you’re expecting a workshop and Invisible Grail happens

The balancing act – leading in a world of top-down and bottom-up demands 


Published Thursday 19 April 2018


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