Getting commitments in writing is like magic. When they are said aloud, they don’t mean much. But once they appear as words, they are practically guaranteed to happen.
Everybody has heard the phrase “get it in writing.” It is used to express a desire for certainty. Unless you record a promise as ink on paper (or bits on a computer hard drive), there’s not much chance it will actually happen.
(That’s not to say that writing is good for everything. Here at Slaughter Development, we’ve warned about how operations manuals can be counterproductive. We’ve noted that there are many problems with written instructions. But when it comes to promises and decisions, writing it down is absolutely essential.)
So why do we need to put pen to paper and fingers to keyboard? Why is it so important to get things in writing?
Here’s why: Ideas in written form take moments of conversation and turn them into historical record.
Consider some of the following phrases you may have heard at work:
- “Okay, let’s put that project aside for now and we can come back to it later.”
- “Good idea. I’ll give the client a call and find out their preference.”
- “We can’t afford that right now, so we’ll have to pass.”
- “I’d be happy to give you some feedback. I’ll get something to you by the end of the week.
- “This is our most important task right now. Everything else should be second priority.”
How many meetings have you attended where people said these kinds of things but nothing actually happened? Chances are that you are shaking your head in agreement. People speak up, but there’s not much action. And it’s not as if we all work with pathological liars. Instead, we all recognize that talk is cheap. It’s not that we intend to shirk our responsibilities, we just get busy.
Here are two essential productivity tips for getting things in writing:
1. Write down your own promises, and let people know you’re doing it. Say: “Okay, I’m going to reconfirm that our security team has the new schedule. I’m putting that down right now.”
This creates one of those moments where everybody quietly realizes they should be doing what you’re doing. There are countless ways to say it, so keep doing it until others start the practice as well. You’re changing culture, and changing culture takes time.
2. Write down the promises of others, and thank them in writing. You can do this at the meeting or an email afterwards, and preferably both. “Bob, I just want to make sure I heard you correctly: it sounds like the budget doesn’t support sending the full staff to the conference this year. I appreciate you keeping us in the loop and being as transparent as you can be.”
Following up in writing not only clarifies what was agreed and cements it in the mind of others, but it also provides a reference in case there is any confusion later on. The ultimate insurance policy is an email in your sent folder which reads: “Thanks for clarifying in today’s meeting that the Zimmerman Project is *on hold* indefinitely—let me know if this changes.”
Bonus Tip: If the decision seems important but vague, or if you work with someone who has a history of changing their mind without telling, you consider adding this sentence:
“I know this is important, so can you please REPLY to this email to confirm I’ve got it correct?”
If they don’t respond to your message, you at least have the backup in your sent items. It’s proof that you tried to capture the idea in words and that you asked for a confirmation.
That’s it: improve productivity with these simple tips. Get it in writing, and you’ll find that your organization has more productive, more efficient and more effective employees!