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Carroll Connection

Faculty Author Writes Book She Needed as a Young Consultant

by william bole


Mark Twain once said, characteristically: “If you have nothing to say, say nothing.” Rita Owens (Business Law & Society) recalls that as a young technology consultant, she at times ran afoul of such advice.

“Sometimes I said or wrote too little; most of the time I said too much,” she writes. “I always wished I had a book to help me bridge the communication gaps between my customer and me.” That book is Communication for Consultants, recently published by Business Expert Press and authored by Owens herself.

Owens teaches business writing and communication skills in the Carroll School of Management. Her book, as the title makes clear, is geared mainly toward independent consultants as well as employees who do internal consulting. But her methodology and examples apply to almost any managerial professional, and she addresses what has become a growing concern among companies of all kinds.

For example, in 2015 the Boston-based research firm Burning Glass Technologies analyzed 25 million job listings to find out about employer attitudes toward so-called “soft skills,” also known as baseline skills. The survey found that communication skills were the ones most requested in postings by 13 of the industries. Writing abilities in particular as well as organizational skills were also high in demand.

“So it’s pretty obvious that there’s a burning need for this and it’s something we need to address,” Owens says in a video produced by Boston College Libraries as part of its Faculty Research Highlights series.

Read an excerpt from Communication for Consultants

One of her key takeaways can be summed up in a triple word: audience, audience, audience. When putting together a piece of writing, most people are naturally preoccupied with all the things they want to say, but Owens says the real task is to “take a look at what the client needs from the communication. It’s really about looking at the value to the client.”

Howard Weinberg, a nationally prominent consultant and retired principal of Deloitte Consulting, threw further light on the challenge in an interview Owens conducted for the book. When she asked him what his biggest pet peeve was about business communications, he cited a failure to think through the value to the audience. Weinberg zeroed in on three aspects of value: functional (what you can do with the information); social (how others might appreciate what you know); and emotional (the satisfaction of learning something new and valuable).

“Like the real estate rule about ‘location, location, location’ it is about ‘value, value, value’ of each element of the communication for the audience,” said Weinberg, who now consults independently for clients including the Carroll School of Management Graduate Programs. “Just because you are proud of it, think it’s cool, or it is a fact about our project is no reason to communicate it.”

In the book, Owens lays out a methodology for performing an “audience analysis.” It starts with assessing the situation that a client and consultant find themselves in—looking at factors such as what the client needs or wants, whether the message amounts to good or bad news, and the exact relationship between reader and writer. She also goes into detail about the product of communication (for example, the form it takes as well as tone and length) and the “delivery modes and idiosyncrasies” (which extend to questions such as how the client will share the communication internally and whether it’s best to deliver the product face to face).

Driving home the need for such analysis, Owens writes:

Whenever we write or present, we assume that our letter, memo, e-mail, report, proposal, or slide presentation will be read or heard. However, this isn’t a realistic assumption since we are not in control of our audience and in no way can predict whether they will actually read or understand what we’ve presented to them. The best way to increase our chances of being heard is to put ourselves in the audience’s shoes and craft our communication from their perspective. We are usually quite fixated on what we want to say, but we need to be more focused on what the audience needs to hear.

Communication for Consultants also turns attention to the variety of audiences encountered at different stages of a consulting project (including pre-engagement, actual engagement, and post-engagement). An excerpt from the book—starting with some communication dos and don’ts—is available in this issue of the Carroll Connection.