Organisations are usually looking for people with two skills sets: ‘hard skills’ and‘ soft skills.’ As the name goes, ‘hard skills’ are the specific, teachable abilities that can be defined and measured, such as typing, writing, solving math, reading and the ability to use software programmes.
By contrast, soft skills are less tangible, harder to quantify, challenging to teach and, sometimes, difficult to describe. Soft skills include attributes such as etiquette, getting along with others, listening and engaging in conversations necessary to deliver the requisite services.
I agree that all government officials, whether elected, appointed, or serving in the civil service, “live or die” by our communications skills. We often have no other weapon at our disposal. But we are not communicating with machines. We are trying to achieve things by influencing the behaviour of other human beings . . .If we are to be effective, therefore, we must be aware of the the three classic Greek elements of rhetoric – all of which have since been deployed, often unknowingly, by all powerful communicators .
The three classic Greek elements referenced in the document are: Rationality; Authority and Emotion.
Of course, as a civil servant, your approach to many communications will “depend on whether you are still at the stage of designing your policy, or whether you are implementing or defending it. But, whichever applies, it is essential that the contents are clear, logical and accurate,” whether we are communicating within Alausa or with the public. Many of our communications deal with subjects which are important either to the government or to sections of the public, or to both. None of us will get very far unless we learn to write accurately and unambiguously.
This accounts for Governor Akinwunmi Ambode’s approval of the training for mid-level civil servants. Without doubt, the “structure of written text can make all the difference, especially if the subject is a complex one.” As has been advocated, do “not hesitate to make full use of side headings. ‘Background’ and ‘Next Steps’ or ‘Action’ are particularly useful. Also make full use of annexes to reduce the length, and improve the flow, of the main document. If you are asking more than one question, or dealing with more than one issue, consider giving each a separate section and a separate heading. And remember that one table of figures, or one graph, can often do the job of several pages of words.
Peculiar to communicating with the public is the need to properly explain the considerations that informed government policies. If civil servants simply adopt tired phrases such as ‘It is the department’s policy that . . .’, the obvious retort from the reader or other recipient of the communication would be: ‘Why?’.
Furthermore, if a civil servant’s communication with the public must be persuasive, it must transmit an air of authority, upon which the writer can as necessary build a sense of motivation, energy, commitment and direction. Thus, it is not enough to demonstrate, in a submission, “that you are familiar with the facts, and are concerned about them. You also have to show that you intend to do something about the issue. Only then will your supervising authority be happy to leave you to get on with your job.
Similarly, when writing to colleagues or the public, you need to demonstrate that you appreciate what is troubling the correspondent, and should clearly and unambiguously deal with the point at issue. A Secretary of State in the United Kingdom has been quoted as saying that “Many civil servants seem too concerned to flesh out all the detail that they know to pay attention to impact, logic and narrative.
Correspondence, for example, needs to explain policies in plain English with good illustrative stories that connect with the experience of the intended recipients. It needs to avoid the kind of recital of clichés or jargon that is sometimes served up.
Of great importance is the need never to neglect the requisite emotion and humanity when we, as civil servants and public officers, speak and when we write, either for our own or for a government official’s signature. “Emotions make a very clear impression on those with whom we are communicating, and contribute greatly to the effectiveness of our communications.
They should therefore form a small but vital part of almost all communications, including inter-Ministerial correspondence, Ministerial submissions, letters to the public and speeches – indeed any communication in which you are trying to persuade or leave a lasting impression. Dry, official sounding texts are simply less effective in these circumstances.”
Finally, I wish to point out the need for politeness. We must also always be polite and, if there is anything to apologise for – including a late reply – then apologise generously, using the word ‘sorry’ (as ever, a short Anglo-Saxon word is the most effective).” Furthermore, you should always try to avoid jargon, legalese, foreign or Latin phrases, acronyms and abbreviations that may not be readily understood by the recipients. Insincerity should also be avoided.
*Benson Oke is Lagos State Commissioner for Establishments, Training and Pensions.