You’ve just been asked to compose a speech, white paper, brochure, or article, and you have limited time. Most busy professionals just dive into the task with the primary goal of getting the job done. After all, you know the subject matter inside and out. But how are you going to distill all of your background and experience into a brief, meaningful message that doesn’t sound like either a textbook or an advertisement–especially when you don’t have time to think about it?
In combat, there’s an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) in place for every action and every condition. It provides a familiar structure that can be followed automatically. I’ve created an SOP for writing. It breaks the process down into sequential actions that lead to the result you want. Let’s take a tough topic–the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA)–to demonstrate how this process works.
Step 1: Who are you writing to?
Think of a generic, but comprehensive, description that would fit anyone in your prospective audience. What are the concerns and needs of this reader? Put yourself in their shoes. Identify why your message would be of any interest to them and how it would benefit them.
How do you speak to this specific audience in such a way that they will be able to assimilate your message? Use simple, direct language to take something that is tactical and tell it in a way to make it practical. Overused media sound bites, high-concept nouns, and industry jargon have a way of causing the reader’s mind to glaze over, unable to discern anything new in what you’re saying. Keep in mind that this is not an advertisement of proven statements touting your qualifications and accomplishments. The paradox is that it takes real intelligence to deliver a complex concept in a simple way that is so engaging that readers feels they have discovered something new. It causes them to embrace and integrate their newfound knowledge and to recognize you as the source of this good feeling.
An audience most likely to benefit and respond to a speech or article about ERISA is one comprising fiduciaries of retirement plans–business owners, officers, directors, and employees of the company, as well as the named trustees of the plan and certain advisors to the fiduciaries. These entities may not even be aware they have fiduciary responsibility, and would greatly benefit from learning how to protect themselves from any personal liability. So we would begin writing by defining a fiduciary.
Step 2: What is the main point you want this story to address?
This step involves incorporating the problem or issue you are addressing and the solution you are offering into a core message. It sets up the direction and outline for the delivery of all the evidence and explanation you will give to support your premise.
“Learning the basic elements of ERISA will enable anyone in a fiduciary position to avoid personal liability.” This core message establishes the need to (1) define what roles fall into the category of a fiduciary, (2) provide a small background of how ERISA was enacted to protect the interests of participants in employee benefit plans from rampant abuses and discriminatory practices, and (3) what you need to know and/or do to protect yourself while fulfilling your responsibility.
Step 3: Identify concerns your audience has about the topic
You need to establish why your audience should be interested in what you have to say. It has to be timely and significant enough to hold their attention. In other words, they must feel as if you are talking about or to them personally.
What is their biggest concern, problem, obstacle, or impending issue that your message answers?
Here we would explain that the duties of a fiduciary are the following: to be loyal to employees’ interests, to diversify, to keep expenses reasonable, and to monitor and review. Being a fiduciary means that you can be held personally liable for wrongful acts committed either knowingly or unknowingly, directly or indirectly, that happen to the plan for which you are a fiduciary. Approx-imately 80% of small plans (those with under $3 million) are currently in violation of ERISA regulations. As the Enron debacle has illustrated, non-compliance could leave advisors (fiduciaries) open to liability.
Step 4: Provide steps/actions to correct the problem
This is where you get to shine. Now you showcase your specialty, process, or knowledge that resolves or averts the issues outlined in Step 3. Still, this must be done in a way that is not self-serving. How? By focusing on the solutions and the ways in which they solve the problem at hand. You should also include any relevant discoveries or recent developments that the reader hasn’t likely heard yet.
Using our example, we would now list the actions a fiduciary must take to prove compliance with the appropriate section of ERISA: