Pam Hurley – President of Hurley Write, Inc.
I liked Pam Hurley from the moment I met her. It was on the exhibit floor of the International Conference & Exposition of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) in 2015 in Orlando, FL. I was a first-time attendee and Pam had a booth for her company, Hurley Write Incorporated, at the convention. Pam instantly struck me as smart and funny with a fierce work ethic. Those traits have served her well over the years as she has turned her female-owned and operated company into a powerhouse in the communications training industry. Over the past 30 years, Hurley Write has taught over 50,000 professionals – ranging from engineers at Intel to biotech experts at Bayer – how to write better documents. In short, she’s seen a lot of BS, folks.
EDITOR’S NOTE: I now work for Pam on a freelance basis as an instructor of presentation skills for Hurley Write.
Q: How did your company start?
I came from academia. I was getting my PhD in technical writing and just loved the students, loved teaching, but I was working a lot and wasn’t making any money. I thought what I was teaching had practical applicability to professionals, so I called up the biggest employer in our town of Wilmington, North Carolina. I was like, “Hey! There’s this class I would like to teach,” and they were like, “No.” So, really and truly, for a solid year, I called this contract research organization until I finally got someone that said, “Yes, this is a great idea.” I came in, I taught the course and they ended up hiring me to teach all their new recruits. My consulting business kind of took off from there. It was dumb luck in a lot of ways, but it was also perseverance. I’m just tenacious. I don’t give up.
Q: How much business speak (BS) did you have to learn transitioning from the academic world into the corporate world?
We started out in the pharmaceutical industry, bio tech, and they, of course, have their own kind of lingo. That involved a lot of reading for me. I had to read a lot of their work to understand their language. Then we started working with folks in government and engineering, and with engineers in government agencies. Those folks are interesting because if they can use 25 words to say something that could have been said in five, they will do that. Then you combine that with all the acronyms they love to use…holy cow. It just becomes this tremendous swirl of words and abbreviations.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A couple of reasons. One, I think people believe that all the corporate jargon they use is what their readers expect. We had an engineer in one of our classes say once, “I feel like if I don’t turn in a big fat document, they’re going to think that I didn’t do the required amount of work for the project.” We counter that belief with something called “readability.” Readability is if I can read a five-page document and understand what you’re communicating versus a 25-page document that may make understanding harder, which do you think that I would prefer?
Two, there’s angst in writing. I think you’ll find that people will come into an organization and they start reading whatever everybody else has written to help themselves along. However, they don’t pause to question if any of it makes sense. It’s kind of like they’ll say, “Well, this is what everybody else is doing. Why question it?” It’s a really interesting phenomenon. We call it “modeling” where people will look at what others have written before them and will try to model their writing after that, instead of asking themselves critical questions like, “Does this make sense? Can I do this in fewer words?” One of the funnier stories I have along these lines is we do a lot of work with the Navy. One of the facilitators in one of our classes used the word “gun decking” in an email exercise we were doing. So, we were talking about emails in the class the next day and I said, “Do you all know what ‘gun decking’ means?” Nobody knew what it meant, and nobody questioned it when they first heard it. [laughter] I think that happens because people don’t want to appear stupid. They don’t want to look like they don’t know the lingo being used.
Q: Working with government agencies, I’m sure you’re dealing with a lot of acronyms in your classes, right?
Oh, yeah. The government loves ‘em some acronyms, for sure. Something that drives me crazy is if you have a term that your reader may not be familiar with, you should spell it out the first time you use it and then you can use the acronym every time after. But we’ll get the pushback on that sometimes when people will say, “Well, my reader will know what the acronym means. I don’t have to spell it out on first reference.” “That may or may not be true,” we say, “but you have to think about the longevity of the document you’re writing. In five years, will someone reading your document understand that acronym and/or will it be used in the same way that you’re using it today?” So, it’s really thinking critically about those kinds of things.
Q: Acronyms in procedure-heavy fields like government and engineering are almost unavoidable, aren’t they?
Yes, they are and we’re not opposed to acronyms at all. Writers just need to think critically about them. The abbreviation ACC, for example, stands for the Atlantic Coast Conference, but it’s also the American Chemical Council. There are lots of acronyms in today’s world that may mean one thing to your organization but not mean the same to other organizations. We work with people who are preparing stuff for Congress, so thinking about who your actual readers are – and may be in the future – as well as how that document will be used is important.
Q: When you’re writing documents that need to be a resource for people years to come, is there a concern that some of today’s corporate buzzwords won’t stand up to the test of time?
We talk about it all the time – especially when we talk about writing emails. Emails are full of the “word of the day.” It’s funny because I was thinking about this this morning right before I got on the call with you. I’m thinking when we go to see our grandkids now it’s a “drive-by.” (laughter) “I gotta do a drive-by with my grandkids.” That term has taken on this whole new meaning during the pandemic.
Q: How do you, yourself, handle it when you’re introduced to an unclear business term on the job?
I ask for clarification. This is a prime example. We were helping a company re-write their Standard Operating Procedures [EDITOR’S NOTE: SOPs, in BS talk] and there’s this one term (I can’t remember what it was now), but it kept popping up. I’m walking around the room and I’m asking people, “What does that term mean?” and they’re like, “Uh, I think it means that.” Another person says it means something else, and a third person says, “I have no idea.” It was a common term used in their SOPs, but everybody who worked at that company and dealt with those SOPs had different opinions about what it meant or didn’t know what it meant. The lesson is you really have to get people to think critically about the language that they’re using. It shouldn’t be a matter of “Well, I’ve seen five other people use this so I’m going to use this as well.” Are you being specific and deliberate with your word choices? If you’re not, oftentimes you have to communicate more to explain what you mean.
Q: Do the companies you work with have so many acronyms and specific business terms that they need to train their people on them?
None of the companies we work with onboard new hires with that training, but that’s a really good insight. There’s one company in particular that I’m thinking about. It’s a huge company. They have tons of different departments. A ton of different employees. They don’t necessarily know each other’s acronyms. I don’t even think that they could train everybody on the acronyms, there are so many.
Q: Do you ever work with people that English is a second language?
Oh, a lot. And they have their own set of issues.
Q: Like what?
Articles, tenses. Things like that.
Q: What challenges do those present in your classes?
My son and colleague, MJ, was working with a multi-national company last year that had to translate a lot of their documents from English into other languages and they were having a terrible time because the words we use here in the United States don’t always translate well in other countries. I think that’s why IKEA uses stick figures in their instructions (laughter).
Q: Do these same challenges present themselves for native English speakers?
Yes, at trade shows, MJ and I will go by some of the booths on display, look at a company’s description or tag line and say, “What the hell do they do?” It’s so expensive to put these booths together and get everything printed. If you’re going to incorporate a bunch of buzzwords that make it hard for me to understand who you are and what you do, then it’s a huge waste of time, energy and money, in my opinion. Websites too. You go on and you’re reading the website and you’re like, “I have no idea what you do.”
Q: What are your main teaching points when it comes to communicating, in general?
Think critically about who you’re writing for:
· What do you know about them?
· How are they going to receive the information?
· How are they going to read your content?
· Are they skimmers? Most people are. But, typically, a lot of folks don’t write for skimmers.
· Is every word you’re using adding value?
· Are you using buzzwords? Are you using jargon?
· Are you using verbiage that readers may not be familiar with?
Those are some of the key things we talk about.
In addition, reduce, reduce, reduce. Most of the time, people can go through their writing and get rid of words that add no value and wind up with a more succinct document.
Finally, develop a strategy. You have to have a strategy. Most people just don’t. They go, “Well, I’m just going to start writing and hope for the best.” Or they dislike writing so much that they procrastinate, and they end up submitting something that isn’t that good or is over-written.
Q: How can someone find out more about what you teach at Hurley Write?
We have a free e-book called, “Writing in the Workplace,” that we’re giving away on our website. It’s a guidebook for planning, writing, and revising almost any document. That’s a fantastic start. Or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: Did you ever get clarity on what “gun decking” meant in that Navy class you mentioned?
Yeah, the author told me what it meant, but I don’t remember. I think it was one of those things where you just throw ideas on a wall and see what sticks. I think that’s what “gun-decking” is, but I’m not 100% percent sure. (EDITOR’S NOTE: According to Urban Dictionary, “gun decking” is “to falsify official documents, reports, logs, etc. especially in cases where work was not actually performed.” )
Q: Are there specific BS terms you do not like?
I try not to go there just because I want people to think critically for themselves, but I do think emails have a lot of buzzwords that we could do without. The phrase “please find attached” makes it sound like the attachment has been hidden and you’re not going to be able to find it. Then ending an email with “please feel free to contact me” isn’t useful because you don’t need to give people permission. They’re either going to contact you or they won’t. My eyes just glaze over when I see that in an email. Communication that’s short, succinct, and to the point should be every writer’s goal.