Writing Better: Lessons from Jury Duty
I recently served as a juror in Boston's Suffolk Superior Court. While I was there, I realized that much of what I was experiencing provided valuable lessons we could apply to improving our writing and making it more effective. Six points stood out.
Writing Better: Lessons from Jury Duty
On the first day, before anyone had been selected for a jury, a judge came to address us. He started by saying that he knew what a total drag it was for us to be there, which he then repeated about ten more times in the next five minutes. This did nothing to make anyone want to devote a day, much less a week, to helping the Commonwealth.
At the very least, he could have subordinated the negative thought: "Although some of you may not want to be here, there are many advantages..." This way, the positive thought is in the main clause and therefore receives the main emphasis.
Say Where You're Going
The lawyers clearly stated up front what they were trying to prove. The reason for doing this was so that we could listen to their arguments and, they hoped, reach the same conclusion. When writing for a neutral audience, always state your conclusion first. That way, they'll be able to follow you more easily.
Build an Argument
The four expert witnesses in this case brought forward a large amount of detailed evidence. Had the lawyers let it go at that, without summarizing their positions, the jurors would have been hopelessly lost.
Instead the lawyers built an argument. They took the evidence and arranged it from most important to least important, to show us how it supported their position. In business writing, similarly, it's not enough to just pile up facts. In order to persuade our readers, we have to organize the facts into an argument.
Between closing arguments and deliberations, the judge gave a charge to the jury. In it, she spelled out in detail what factors we should consider, how they interrelated, and what might, in this case, constitute "reasonable doubt." These instructions were invaluable and kept us on the path to a conclusion. Otherwise, we could have spent days arguing about things that had little to do with the outcome.
In business, it is equally important to be specific. If you want someone, for example, to review something you've written, ask them specific questions: How can I make my argument in paragraph three hold together better? How could I make the tone a little less stern? That way, you'll get information you can use. Otherwise, the response will be some version of "It looks OK to me."
In order to reach a verdict, we had to work together. We all had different points of view, and we each presented our arguments and supported them with evidence. At the same time, we had to pay close attention to other people's points of view, since this was a dialogue that was meant to lead to a conclusion we could all support.
At one stage, we decided that each member of the jury should argue persuasively for the other side, a useful exercise that helped give us each a broader view of the case. To emphasize the fact that we had to work together, we were, of course, locked into the jury room.
In the business world, one also has to collaborate, and before we write anything, we should, if we can, seek input from the experts, wholly apart from whether they write better than we do. Or, if we have a large writing project with several authors, we should work together to create a unified argument with a consistent tone.
Three days after the trial, I was most astonished to receive a letter from the judge, thanking me for my jury service. It was a form letter, yes, but at least it started "Dear Mr. Holton" rather than "Dear Juror," which would have instantly negated any good effect. It also struck me as completely sincere.
If someone helps you on a business project, whether it involves written communications or not, it is always effective to thank them. In fact, leader-development guru Tom Harvey says that showing sincere appreciation has positive effects on leaders, workers and organizations. (For further information, see his blog post at http://tomharvey-me.com/blog/?p=444.)
All the best,
P.S. Remember: a selection of my past newsletters is available online at http://www.holton.cc/archive.html.