Bad writer claims writing isn’t important in communications

“Who cares about writing skills?” is the intentionally provocative question asked by prominent U.K. employee communication consultant Liam FitzPatrick, in a recent post on his blog, “Internal communication—it’s not rocket science.”

I braced for the intentionally provocative answer. Fitzpatrick began:

Years ago I went for a job interview at a well-known PR agency and was rather taken aback to be asked to do a writing test. I never got the job and never got any feedback so I’ll leave it to my loyal readers to judge if my writing would have let me down or [whether] I can blame it on my dreadful interview technique.

I took him up on it.

But it is something that has puzzled me over the years. Does a competent communicator have to be a good writer or are there other attributes that are more important?

That last sentence isn’t only clunky; it posits a dodgy opposition. That is, it could be true (and in fact it is true!) that one must be a good writer to be a competent communicator and that there are other attributes that are more important. (Or equally important, in any case: Off the top of my head, emotional intelligence, curiosity, affability, drive, etc.)

To be honest I don’t think being a good writer matters—I’ve met plenty of great comms people who couldn’t write to save their lives and I know a few fantastic writers who I’d never trust to give communications advice.

Generally, when a good writer makes a claim as bold as this—you’ve met “plenty” of great communicators who couldn’t write a lick—he or she backs it up with an example or three. “For instance, there was the media relations maven who couldn’t write a press release, but who was so charming she’d just call up reporters and dictate the stories right to them! And who can forget the speechwriter who couldn’t get anything down on paper for the CEO, but he could pump the old boy so full of enthusiastic blarney that the message didn’t matter! And then there was the communication VP whose communication advice was so good that not only did she not have to write well, she didn’t have to speak! Just a clever wink and a twinkle of the eye was usually sufficient!”

And that was one of the findings that came out when Sue Dewhurst and I conducted our skills research a few years ago. Simply put, many senior communicators see writing as a technical or craft skill that can be bought in as it is needed.

“Bought in”—a telling Freudian typo, perhaps. First, shouldn’t management prefer to hire communicators who don’t have to order out for good writing? Second, writing is often needed at a moment’s notice. (See, I needed it just now!) Who has time to call Tony Morrison and brief her on the context of an urgent communication need?

Other abilities are much more important when it comes to planning messaging or gathering feedback for senior leaders.

These “other abilities,” he doesn’t specify.

Clearly writing involves certain skills that are invaluable for a communicator. Empathy with your audience, simplifying complex ideas and finding ways to make a dull subject engaging are certainly useful.  …

But I’m not sure I’d appoint a director of comms on the basis of their ability to win a Pulitzer prize.

Don’t worry, Liam; Pulitzer candidates won’t be lining up at your door.

I’m not suggesting that a communicator should be allowed to get away with bad writing.

Wait. You just said that you’ve known many great comms people who couldn’t write to save their lives. Another hallmark of good writers is intellectual integrity, Liam.

All I’m saying is that it doesn’t make sense to prioritise writing over any other skill—if a single skill is all that matters why shouldn’t it be film-making, web design or spamming twitter?

Such a slovenly argument, it doesn’t deserve a response.

Take a look at some of the skills models that exist and make your own mind up!

After you’ve blurted out six or seven unsupported absurdities, this is your coupe de grace? You then tell your readers to “take a look at some of the skills models that exist” and make up our own minds?

Methinks, Liam, that your motive with this flabby blog post, can only be one of two: 1. A bad attempt to start a debate. 2. An indirect claim to communication greatness, by a mediocre writer.

Say it ain’t so. And prove it—in writing!

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