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Avoiding the Approval Death Spiral: Writing (Less Painfully) by Committee

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If you're a communications manager or consultant for a company, you're going to be writing things that need the approval of the CEO before they go out.

And the VP of Marketing, of course. And the VP of Engineering better have a look too, because it's technical. And hey, this piece is about our new customer—everyone who worked on the sale and implementation better review it too.

And so you enter the Approval Death Spiral—revision after revision—trying to work in everyone's pet idea, arbitrate conflicting viewpoints, and remember why writing the piece seemed like a good idea at one time.

Writing by committee—unless the writer imposes strong discipline—ends with too many words and too little focus, and it is a colossal waste of time.

A simple tool called the “goals worksheet” can help you avoid the Approval Death Spiral, keep your sanity, and still give everyone a chance to review and approve what goes out. It goes back to one basic concept: making sure that goals and expectations are clear from the outset.


What Is it?

The goals worksheet is a one-page document that states why you're writing the piece, what it must say, and who will review it. It's especially effective with high-tech organizations that value a structured, methodical approach to everything.

Our goals worksheet has four sections: the positioning statement, reviewers, goals and key messages.

Section 1: the Positioning Statement

Have a positioning statement. Don't have one? Get one. Put it at the top of your goals worksheet. Everything you write had better support that positioning statement. If you can't do it, then (a) the piece isn't going to further your company's message, is a waste of time and should be abandoned, or (b) your company's positioning statement is out of line with the company's daily activities, and—if the activities are the right ones—needs to be revisited.

Section 2: Reviewers

Who needs to approve your piece before it is published? This will vary according to what type of document you're writing and how formal your management structure is. The CEO usually wants to approve press releases. The VP of Marketing may be the only one who needs to approve email newsletters. For customer case studies you may want to broaden your reviewer network to include the people closest to the customer. Enter their names on your goals worksheet.

Section 3: Goals

Before you start writing, get together with at least one of your key reviewers. Include the person who has the “final say” on the piece (probably the CEO). Include the other person on your list who usually disagrees with the CEO. Get them together now and save yourself the headache of arbitrating their disagreements later (usually by writing and rewriting and rewriting).

Now answer this question: Why are we writing this piece? Keep it to two or three short sentences but think deeper than the obvious “to announce our new product.” You're looking for what you want to accomplish in terms of supporting your marketing strategy. For a new product announcement, something like this: “To reinforce our position as the technology innovator in the xyz market.” For a customer case study: “To disprove our competitor's claim that our product is hard to use,” and, “To show that we contribute to the success of the leading company in the xyz market.”

In the end, you will judge your piece by how well it meets these goals.

Section 4: Key Messages

Now spell out the three key messages you want the reader to remember. People won't take away more than three, so don't junk up the piece with more. For the case study noted above, your key messages may be (1) the customer installed our product and learned to use it in X months, (2) the Y and Z features made it easy for them to use, and (3) the product's ease of use helped them to realize a specific business benefit (name it).

What's Next?

Now share the goals worksheet with all reviewers. Email is fine for most of them. For your problem children—the ones who keep changing things for you—it's a great idea to meet in person and review the goals. Get agreement from everyone that these are the right goals and messages.

Only then should you start writing. Keep the goals worksheet handy as you write, and make sure you cover the messages you agreed on. Avoid adding information that does not directly support one of your key messages.

When you're done, assess whether the piece meets the stated goals.

Using the Goals Worksheet in the Review Cycle

Now, when you send your piece to the reviewers, include the goals worksheet as a cover sheet. Use it to remind busy CEOs and VPs of the messages and goals you all agreed on in the beginning.

With this reminder in front of them, reviewers have a more objective context in which to evaluate your work. Did you cover all the key messages? Does it meet your goal?

This makes it far less likely that they'll begin rewriting to add all the new ideas they've had since you started writing. And it helps them resist turning every document into a treatise on the company's history, philosophy and technology.

The goals worksheet won't save you from the reviewer who knows she writes better than you do, and rewrites your work as a matter of style. And it won't prevent the CEO from changing his mind about the goals after he sees the actual piece—but at least he'll realize what he's doing instead of wondering why you weren't smart enough to deliver what he thinks he wanted in the first place.

And, most of the time, it gets you to the final draft faster, with fewer rewrites and far less agony.


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Lisa Schaertl Lisa Schaertl is president of Tech Savvy Marketing (www.techsavvymarketing.com).

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