Write Right Now: How Engineers Can Innovate, Influence, and Lead in Business

Managers and marketers have more say on the software that you write than you do, but why? It’s easy to shrug and move on to the next incremental improvement. They are easy and gratifying to complete, but you won’t influence and you won’t innovate. Making an argument about a bigger, better idea is risky. Although you and I both know that you have a great idea in there somewhere (not good, but great) it’s hard to prove it, heck it’s hard to explain it, even to yourself.

What is the best way to create innovative ideas and influence business decisions? Write. It’s not just a skill for managers abd marketers. Writing a business narrative -not a spec, not list- will help you transform your thoughts about idea to a compelling innovation that matters. It will also help you convince others that your idea - and that you are worth investing in.

Clarify Your Thinking

The best thing about writing is also the most painful. Most of the time while writing I change my mind. Or I get stuck, struggling with the original idea itself. Maybe this doesn’t make sense after all I think. Indeed some of them don’t and they don’t go any further. Some are rewritten a half dozen times before I even show them to another person. Other times, the core idea changes or improves in ways that I never anticipated, for the better. Sometimes how I explain the idea gets simpler, but often the idea itself gets simpler. This is all while writing it down! Writing before getting feedback from others makes the feedback and the idea better.

Empower Your Audience

When communicating your ideas to others, your goal is to influence. You can certainly do that with a presentation or a meeting. However, much of your work goes into performing” - beautiful slides, compelling dialog, etc. If you’re a great performer, your ideas will get further, but they will rarely get better. Writing is different. In narrative it is harder to make a bad idea compelling, so you’ll have to work at it. But your effort will make your idea clearer and considered, and your audience will thank you. Written communication relinquishes the power of the idea presenter to the consumer.

Edward Tufte, has long advocated for the principles of clarity, simplicity, and letting data speak for itself. His book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information emphasizes that effective communication doesn’t involve dazzling the audience with complex visuals or jargon. Instead, it involves presenting information in a way that empowers the reader to draw their conclusions and insights. This approach not only enhances understanding but also fosters a deeper alignment with your team.

Writing, rather than performing your idea, will enable your audience to engage with it at their own pace, explore nuances, and add their own insight. This shift in perspective, from the presenter to the reader leads to understanding, more meaningful discussion, and better decisions.

Writing Lives On

Your presentation is great, but it is over. A recording is hard to find, and even slower to get to relevant content. A thoughtful narrative is usually easy to find on slack, a wiki, or even in git 1.

Written communication extends beyond the moment of delivery. In a world where projects evolve, team members change, and challenges resurface, written information allows easy access to past decisions and insights. It facilitates knowledge sharing, onboarding of new team members, and the ability to revisit and learn from past successes and failures. I’ve been a hero countless times to my bosses, and team members across the organization from marketing to the executive team preparing for a board meeting because of a narrative I had laying around. More than a couple times, people that I never met before thanked me for the narratives I left behind. That’s influence.

I’ll share more about how to write business narratives in an upcoming post.

But, don’t take it from me…

As much as I believe in the power of writing, I am still surprised at how often people that I admire value it too. I’ll leave you with a few notable quotes that resonated with me below:

I wish I were a better speaker. But I don’t wish I were a better speaker like I wish I were a better writer. What I really want is to have good ideas, and that’s a much bigger part of being a good writer than being a good speaker. Having good ideas is most of writing well. If you know what you’re talking about, you can say it in the plainest words and you’ll be perceived as having a good style. With speaking it’s the opposite: having good ideas is an alarmingly small component of being a good speaker. - Paul Graham, VC & Co-Founder Y Combinator in Writing and Speaking

Of course Amazon is well known in the industry for their culture of writing business narratives or memos”. Below are a couple from Jeff Bezos:

Well, the traditional kind of corporate meeting is somebody gets up in front of the room and presents let’s say a PowerPoint presentation or some kind of slide show. And in our view, that is a very kind of, you get very little information that way. You get bullet points — it’s kind of easy for the presenter but difficult for the audience. And so instead what we do is all of our meetings are structured around a six-page narrative memo. And when you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences and complete paragraphs it forces a deeper clarity of things.” - Jeff Bezos on Charlie Rose

The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than writing’ a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related,” he writes, Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.” – Jeff Bezos email according to Ben Bashaw in How Jeff Bezos Turned Narrative into Amazon’s Competitive Advantage

And some others, that resonated with me:

I write every day. It is my discipline, my practice, my thing. It forces me to think, articulate, and question. - Fred Wilson, VC & co-founder of Union Square Ventures in Writing It Down

Science is a way of thinking more than it is a body of knowledge,” said Carl Sagan. Writing is similar—it is a process, not a position. It’s as much about challenging and polishing an idea as it is about the idea itself. When I’ve written something, I’m suspicious when my view doesn’t change at least a little before I share it with the world. - https://devonzuegel.github.io/pages/projects.html#clarity

Thanks to my friend Chris Mathews and my wife Oksana Willeke for proofreading and feedback.

  1. A README is a wonderful opportunity to clarify your ideas!↩︎

Up next Now Write Right: 3 Best Practices for Writing to Innovate and Influence Recently, I explored the reasons for writing in the tech industry. Now, let’s delve into how to write effectively. It is challenging to write a good
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