Writing As a Competitive Advantage

Yesterday an email exchange between the late Steve Jobs and some executives at book publisher Harper Collins made the rounds. Tho most commentary, retweets and reblogs focused on Steve’s negotiating tactics, I found another aspect of the exchange equally interesting.

Rather than the message, I wanted to highlight the medium.

Specifically, that this exchange happend in email. Sure, the emails reference back to a series of meetings and calls that lead up to the exchange but the real negotiating didn’t happen in the boardroom or over breakfast, it happened behind a keyboard.

This stuck out to me for a few reasons. 

The first being that it matches my experience. Over the years, the vast majority of investments we’ve made have been agreed to behind keyboards, not in person. Which runs counter to much of the folklore of “the handshake deal” embedded in our startup culture. The reality is that in-person people are less comfortable. They aren’t as articulate. They forget, or are too nervous, to bring up certain sensitive issues.

I wasn’t in these Harper Collins negotiations, so don’t know if Jobs was just putting into writing what had already been spelled out in those prior meetings. My guess is it was a lot of restating what was already said, and a little new context or a different angle than was discussed live. Given that both parties were able to absorb the information without someone staring across the table, and looking at the clock, they were able to take the time to process the material and have a low decible, civil exchange that netted them a plan for moving forward.

The medium made the message resonate in a way a face to face exchange could not.

Pulling further back, I see the value of writing clearly and concisely becoming an increasingly important skill for digital workers. Partly for the reasons outlined above, but also because we’re moving into a massive wave of distributed work and self selected customers.

This means our voice, and the voice of our companies, are often going to be discovered and engaged with via the copy of our services, the content of our social media channels and the clarity of our emails.

I recently met with the manager of a large engineering team. As we talked he shared that one of the key pieces of his hiring process were a series of writing exercises. Sure it wasn’t coding, he went on, but his teams are distributed across multiple states with a few in other countries. The vast majority of their collaboration is happening in IRC, IM and email. As a result, he was hiring the engineers who not only knew how to build, but who knew how to communicate the whats, hows and whys in writing across those various channels.

Writing can be intimidating, even challenging. But I believe it will be an increasingly important medium for getting work done and convincing others of our ideas. Steve was a master of the medium and I’m glad we’ve gotten a small peek into how he used it.