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Plain speaking and writing: a rare skill


08:00 Friday, 24 September 2021

UK Cyber Security Council

As a security professional, you will write a lot of words throughout your career: reports for the board, instructional documentation, presentations, the list goes on. And the chances are that most of us have been able to write coherently since primary school. Why, then, do so many of us write such utter nonsense in corporate documentation? None of us has been to night school to take special classes in how to construct overly long, incomprehensible sentences that say nothing, so where have we gained this new “skill” between the classroom and the desk? And more to the point, how do we get out of it?

The answer is inadvertent imitation: because we have read so much utter garbage written by others (who should also have known better) we have subconsciously started to do it ourselves because it seems the “normal” way to write. But just because something is normal doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good.

And, as a cyber professional, that’s a problem. We live in an industry full of concepts that are quite tricky for the average person to comprehend, and a key element of our job is communicating with people, getting our point across, explaining technical terms and encouraging people to behave in a certain way.

Readers of a certain age will recall a certain Mr. Cleese in a fictitious cheese shop, telling a certain Mr. Palin: “I thought to myself, ‘a little fermented curd will do the trick’, so, I curtailed my Walpoling activities, sallied forth, and infiltrated your place of purveyance to negotiate the vending of some cheesy comestibles”. When asked for clarification, the character simply says: “I want to buy some cheese”. Think about the first of these two statements and consider when you last saw something like it in a document at work: it was probably quite recent.

Writing corporate documents well is an important skill in cyber security. We are fighting an uphill battle to make ourselves heard and understood, so we need to communicate effectively. And there are some basic rules.

First, keep it simple and use the same language in your writing as you do when speaking. One might consider it curious for an individual to employ, when drafting materials for visual consumption, an entirely dissimilar vocabulary from that which he might practise when communicating verbally … if you see what I mean.

Second, use as many words as you need and no more. This correspondent once read a two-page incident report that could simply have said: “The primary firewall crashed and the secondary didn’t take over because of a software bug; we upgraded the software and did a successful test”.

Third, and kind of related, is to write what people want to read. A while ago this correspondent was talking with a colleague in my day job, and he had revolutionised the monthly report his team produced for a particular committee. Previously the report had run to an average of 70 pages; as of last year, that has been reduced … by 69 pages. And this was because someone stopped to ask: is all this actually required? (In fact, they did stop producing the report entirely for a month, but decided that a one-pager would be useful).

Fourth, put things in order of importance. If you must have revision histories, change logs and whatnot in your reports, put them at the bottom in an appendix: it makes no sense for the reader to have to flip to page five or six before they get to the meat of what you’re trying to tell them. And make the first paragraph on page one a quick executive summary – no more than three or four sentences: if the firewall example I gave a few sentences ago was the executive summary of a board paper, most of the board members would think: “Ah, fine, I don’t need to worry about this one” and move on to the next document.

Finally, bear in mind that writing good documents will make you stand out. And this doesn’t mean clever words or grammar – it means documents that tell people what they need to know clearly and with minimal effort on the reader’s part.

It means writing documents that, metaphorically, tell the shopkeeper that you want to by some cheese.

And if you need more guidance there are many, many books on the subject – of which one of the best is John Kirkman’s “Good Style: Writing for Science and Technology”.