In his recent Design in Tech 2017 report, John Maeda refers to writing as the “unicorn skill.” Even as information design has become more sophisticated, the ability to explain a concept via the written word has become one of the rare and outstanding skills that sets a professional apart from the herd.
What makes writing such a specialized skill? After all, we all learn how to write in elementary school. With e-mail and texts, most people probably write more than they did a generation ago. The actual skill that a good professional brings to the table is far more than a facility with language. It’s the ability to fully grasp a concept, then turn around and teach it to someone else using only words.
Back in the day, bards or troubadours carried stories from town to town, teaching them using song. While The Canterbury Tales may seem a far cry from content marketing or technical writing, they actually aren’t so far apart. It always comes down to one basic principle: understand your audience. What do the people already know? What’s important to them? Why is this news? Who needs to know? What’s the hook? What’s the takeaway? How can you make the message stick?
When you put a writer on the job, look for a person who grapples with all these questions right from the beginning, thinks through the answers, and then communicates the ideas with precision and clarity to just the right audience. If your audience doesn’t know what you’re talking about, then your efforts to reach them won’t have amounted to much. People talk a lot these days about making their voices heard. But it turns out that anyone can shout and be heard. The question is: were you understood?