The most important thing you need to have to be a successful consultant is excellent communications skills . If your client doesn’t understand and trust what you tell them, it doesn’t matter what you suggest, create, build, or deliver.
I have been helping a few colleagues lately work on their client communication skills and figured I should write down my suggestions for how developers can communicate well with clients.
Everyone on a project team needs to be able to communicate what they need, what they are doing, and how their piece of the project works. They also need to know how to address their own errors and mistakes so the project moves forward and the client trusts that errors will be resolved.
As I sat down to write this piece I realized the topic is huge; far too large for one post. I’ve thought about the importance of good writing, editing, grammar, the kinds of email messages we send, documents we write, and presentations we give.
All of those probably justify at least one post, so I’m starting here: editing.
Why Editing is Important
Editing probably feels like an odd place to start a series on writing, but it is a thing you can start to do now that will help you write more effectively. If you have a college degree you probably got into the habit of writing papers fast, and turning them in at the deadline. But you almost certainly didn’t do enough editing of those papers (I’m married to a college professor, and I talk to college professors a lot: No. You. Didn’t.). If you don’t have a college degree, it’s also unlikely many people have sat down and talked to you about the importance of editing. If you’ve come to consulting from a writing-heavy background you’ve figured out by now the value of editing – this post isn’t really for you, so please come back for later installments.
Editing is how you take poor, or merely acceptable writing, and make it clear and compelling.
Good editing is about more than basic mechanics, it’s about testing that your idea or explanation makes sense. Editing lets you clean up awkward, but technically correct, expressions. And it gives you a chance to reflect on how your audience will read the material. As you edit, see if each sentence makes sense to them the same way it does to you.
Editors Are A Luxury
A good editor is worth their weight in gold – sometimes more. Well known authors have been known to change publishing houses to follow a good editor. They are also not part of your typical consulting team. For consultants, having an editor is a rare luxury.
For large documents, good teams will make sure one or two people give completed drafts an editing pass. Often getting support from a marketing department to edit a conference talk is possible. Another person reading an email and offering edits happens exceptionally rarely. It’s the same with internal presentations. No one will edit your chat messages except you.
So, while an outside editor is an invaluable tool, a consultant should not expect to have access to one.
Be Your Own Editor
That means you have to be your own editor. Editing your own writing is hard. If you could see the mistake the first time, you would have fixed it before you write the next sentence (those kinds of fixes are not the same as editing, that’s “fixing typos” or “not being lazy”).
There are three main tricks I use when being my own editor:
- Put the document aside between writing and editing – the longer the better
- Reading it aloud to yourself (yes really, out loud)
- Edit on paper (use one of those printer things)
I wrote the first draft of this while sitting in the Atlanta airport. I revisited and edited a printed draft a few days later (my wife also took a pass – see above). And again after I put it into my blog. It’ll probably get a few tweaks after it’s posted.
Don’t Let Edits Be Personal
Writing, even technical writing, is very personal; editing should not be.
A good edit may be brutal to the original material. If you get too attached to your first draft, you will be tempted to skip asking for an edit or doing an editing pass yourself. That’s part of why I put a document aside for a bit between writing and editing, it gives me space to see the flaws in my words and ideas.
Several years ago I was editing a long report for AFSC, and the first draft was far too long, too detailed, had too many tangents, and didn’t focus on the intended audience. I attacked it. She and I spoke several times to make sure she understood my goal was to help make her was succeed. Through aggressive editing we made sure her great work achieved her intended goal: stopping the unchecked growth of private prisons.
I deleted entire sections, rewrote the summary (which someone else then edited for me). I pulled in favors, got my wife to edit drafts. We debated chapter order, technical details, and sentence after sentence. What started at 100 pages, ended up being 20 page report with an 8 page summary that journalists and politicians cited as they debated proposed private prison expansion. Because of that work, and follow on efforts by people using it as a model, private prison growth has slowed substantially (if that’s not a topic you know about, trust me that’s a good thing). The author and I became friends and worked together well on follow up projects and efforts. She appreciated the value of the edits even if they were painful at first.
Whether your editing for yourself, or for someone else, dig deep and edit aggressively. If you haven’t done much editing you want to think about every word, every piece of punctuation, every detail. As you get more practice you’ll find short cuts and learn your own weaknesses (or your team’s). I use too many words, and write long sentences – I attack those. Shorter is better.
Using traditional grammar tools can be helpful, particularly if you are unsure about the basic grammar rules. But if you use tools like Grammarly or ChatGPT to rewrite things make sure you think carefully about if, and why, you like that version better. Used well Generative AIs are a useful tool, but if you lean on those tools too much you don’t actually get better yourself.
More to Come
As I said at the top, communications skills for developers and consultants is an enormous topic. I have not yet planned the series, but you should expect more to come (and I’ll edit this section to add references).