At a writing and editing workshop for council officers I learnt as much as I shared with the group. Here’s a summary of what we discussed.

I introduced a framework to help us step into the shoes of the people we’re writing for. Empathy mapping involves imagining and noting what your audience is thinking, feeling, doing and seeing … and then considering how to use those insights to tailor messages for the audience.

Having difficult conversations

This conversation about thinking about our audience led to the group talking about the challenges involved in delivering unwelcome news to people. This includes situations when council rules are preventing someone from developing their land, or accessing the water they need, or when groups are frustrated that not enough is being done to protect dolphins.

These council officers have to answer the phone when people are angry and worried about the impact of council rules on their lives, and sometimes these calls can last an hour. This was a really good reminder to me of how hard it can be to receive these calls. Council officers meet with people with many competing interests, and just doing their job can involve annoying a lot of people.

Here are some ways to communicate well in these situations, as identified by the workshop participants:

  • Listen and show you understand where someone is badly affected by current or proposed rules (sometimes that is enough).

  • Recognise that if people are angry, the real concern fuelling their anger may not be what they initially talk about. Try paraphrasing what you are being told. This gives people an opportunity to talk about what is really worrying them, and in some cases this issue can be resolved.

  • Follow up regularly, and in a timely way. This shows you actually care about what is concerning them. (Don’t leave it six months to get back in touch.)

  • When writing or presenting on a controversial topic, it’s valuable to begin with a goal or a statement that opposing stakeholders can all agree with.

Using plain language

During the workshop I talked about the value of using simple, specific language, that readers (or listeners) can relate to. Here’s a real-life example provided on the day – when taking enforcement action related to exceedance of a water take, he explained to the person that this action was necessary in the same way that the police need to issue a ticket to someone driving 120km an hour in a 100km zone.

Structuring a document

We also talked about the value of having a structure for a document – as this overcomes the problem of staring at a blank screen when getting started. I introduced seven structures that can work well in council documents and a workshop participant said that case studies can be a really good way to make a presentation more interesting and valuable to elected members.

A brilliant idea that emerged during this discussion was using Power Point slides to come up with the structure of a written document – with the ability to easily move around the different slides to work out the most logical order for your content. The bonus of using this approach is you then have a Power Point presentation just about ready to go when you need to present your document.

Speeding up the writing process

I talked about how breaking down the writing process into three distinct phases makes it easier and less time-consuming to create a document. These are:

  • a fast first draft (which requires us to deal with resistance and to accept imperfection)

  • chainsaw editing (which involves making big picture changes, including deleting as much as possible, identifying gaps, simplifying content and improving the flow of it)

  • proofreading (sentence by sentence improvements, and reviewing the document one more time than you think you need to).

The group identified that it would be valuable (and could save a lot of time) to gain feedback at the ‘chainsaw editing’ stage rather than delaying the review process until after a document has been completed.

I hope there is something in here that you can take and run with in your own work.

Thank you to the planning team at Environment Canterbury for sharing these ideas, and for permission to write about them in this article.

Report writing guide

My report writing guide provides more detail on the three-step writing process discussed in this article. You can access it here.