Confessions of a word nerd

This article is the second in a series. It was first published on June 5th 2020, via LinkedIn.

I mentioned in my last post that I’m a self described ‘word nerd’. By that I don’t mean that I’m obsessed with constantly learning new words so I can show off an immense vocabulary (although, I’ve worked with a couple of people that fit that description). Rather, I’m fascinated with the origins of the words that we use.

In the context of writing content for tender responses and sales proposals, I have to engage with a wide range of subject matter experts. Nearly all of them are tertiary educated, but come from a variety of disciplines. Their general communication and writing abilities are as varied as their backgrounds.

One of the responsibilities of my role is to blend this content into a cohesive narrative that reads as if it comes from one voice. This is often challenging, given that some contributors are concise to the point of being austere. Others are verbose, as if they were being paid by the word. (As for my personal bias, I’ll side with Mr Jefferson.)

Jefferson - the-most-valuable-of-all-talents-is-that-of-(alternative)

Talent versus Skill

There’s an old saying to the effect that “…you can’t teach talent”.

You can help individuals develop their innate talents.

You can teach them new skills.

You can’t teach them a talent that they don’t already possess.

But, what do these two words – talent and skill – actually mean? What’s the key point of difference? This is where an etymological dictionary comes in handy (word nerd alert!). A little research arrives at the following:

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When working on documents that are page or word-limited, it used to frustrate me when I’d explain to a contributor that we had space for a 1-page answer to a question, only to have them produce an 8-page response. (Maybe you’ve had this problem too?) This is where it’s handy to understand the difference between talent and skill. Whilst some writers will have a natural, innate tendency towards concise communication, for others it’s a skill that they need to consciously develop.

If the root of ‘skill’ is to discern or discriminate, this implies a number of independent decisions are required in order to condense 8-pages into 1-page. Such as:

  • What content is so important that it must stay?
  • What can be expressed in less detail? How best to do that?
  • What gets cut altogether?

Making these decisions is hard…especially if you’re not practiced at it. The good news is, because it’s a skill, you can get better. You just need to understand that it’s work. It will take effort to improve.

Napoleon Bonaparte is attributed as saying “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.” Over time, I’ve come to recognise the truth of those words. Hard choices are required in order to condense and simplify language. If your communication is concise, it will be easier for your audience to understand the message you’re trying to convey.

Ultimately, that’s that goal in striving to produce great documents.


How to design great documents

This article is the first in a series. It was first published on June 2nd 2020, via LinkedIn.

Over the past six months I’ve had the opportunity to give several presentations on document design. They’ve been to audiences with different experience levels; each presentation has needed it’s own particular focus. In preparing to run these sessions, I’ve had to revisit and reconsider the things that I’ve learnt over the course of 30+ years of intense reading and writing. Things like:

  • What makes a document good, or even great?
  • What are the key lessons and principles to share?
  • What’s most relevant for the day’s group?
  • What do I know about the individuals attending?
  • How do I make sure I have something for each of them to takeaway?

It’s been invaluable to reflect on the many thousands of hours of intense practice that form one’s body of experience…and the myriad sources from which the most important lessons come.

In this series of short articles I’ll summarise what I believe to be the key principles to keep in mind when designing a great document. Hopefully, I’ve hit the mark and identified universal principles. If that’s the case, then you’ll find that they have application to any professional document that you produce, whether it be a sales proposal, process manual or executive presentation.

Broadly speaking, the topics covered will include:

  1. Form follows function,
  2. Less is more; simple is best, and
  3. The importance of subtraction.


Plus, as a self-confessed ‘word nerd’, we’ll take a quick look at some relevant etymology. Nothing too technical. It’s important that we understand and agree the meaning of key terms. If we spend a little time doing this upfront, there’ll be less chance of getting lost in the weeds.

That’s all for now. Thank you for taking the time to read this introduction. I’ll be posting regularly over the next few weeks.