Writing that’s meant to be seen and not read

(This is a rant. Don’t expect any valuable insight.)

There are two types of internal company docs (think vision docs, roadmaps, strategies, post mortems, etc.):

Type 1: Those which are meant to inform.

Type 2: Those which are pretending to be type 1, but are too long and detailed for anyone to actually read them, so deep down they’re meant to impress others (especially leadership).

Before you call me jaded, tell me if this sounds familiar:

  1. You open a doc that someone else wrote
  2. You notice that it has, like, a lot of words
  3. You decide that the topic isn’t interesting or important enough for you to invest the time in reading all those words
  4. You think: “I probably don’t have to worry about it anyway, because it’s obvious the person who wrote this has thought a lot about it since they wrote all these words”
  5. Your trust in that person’s competency increases proportionally with the length of the doc
  6. You give up and close the doc

Do you see what happened there? Someone wrote a gigantic doc that provides zero value because nobody will ever read it. But the fact that it was long made people trust that they know what they’re doing. What an insidious form of preening.

The part I hate most (as someone who’s ranted about how everyone’s writing is too long and too wordy) is that it’s such an effective strategy for building trust. Sometimes the easiest way to show your boss or skip level that they don’t have to micromanage you is to give them a super long doc that they can pretend to read.

Replacing that doc with a one pager that they’ll actually read doesn’t have the same effect, because what gets read gets nitpicked and questioned and debated and bikeshedded. Remember, negativity is another insidious form of preening, and where better to “show value” via negativity than in the comments of a Google doc?

So you have two options:

  1. Write a short doc that people will read. Micromanaging increases.
  2. Write a long doc that people will pretend to read. Micromanaging disappears.

Ugh. Email me if you have suggestions for fighting this cultural antipattern.

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