4 Reasons Writing By Committee Fails

Content death by committee poses a real danger, and a dilemma for people managing thought leadership at consulting firms. An article that begins with one partner can end up with five partners involved, and in the process the article’s authority and voice vanishes, noted one manager at a recent Association of Management Consulting Firms (AMCF) event in San Francisco. Worse yet, a big group may mangle the article's original argument.  Anyone who has managed content at a large firm has navigated the complex politics that can lead to author multiplication.

What if the expert who wants to add her name to the article is senior to the original author?  What if she wants to bring in someone else she’s mentoring? What if she loops in a powerful rainmaker for the firm?

Suddenly, instead of one author, you have a committee.  

It’s never easy for content managers, but limiting the number of authors and editors involved in a given piece is worth the fight: The stakes are high. A recent AMCF study found that 94% of queried executives who buy consulting services said that poor quality content lowered their opinions of a consulting firm.

Let's examine the four big problems with writing by committee, and how some of your peers avoid these outcomes.

1. The robot voice

Think of what you like to read in your leisure time and why. Maybe it's sports, travel, or cooking articles. Most of us have favorite publications and favorite authors and we come to enjoy and appreciate a writer's expertise and voice.

Even in business writing, voice matters. As I noted in a recent blog post, skillful thought leaders display their authority and expertise colloquially. No one wants to read something that sounds like it was written by a robot or an algorithm spitting out corporatized phrases. But when there are seven or eight voices in an article, the writing inevitably becomes flat. It always represents a compromise between the authors.

Partners' time is money, so one way to convince them to take turns writing their own articles is to emphasize that everyone eventually will get a chance, and that will help the business more than adding their name to a long list of authors. Another tactic: Create an evangelist or two among the partner ranks. This ally preaches the value of thought leadership and the value of a strong, individual voice – ideally using specific sales wins. After all, you can talk until you're blue in the face, but advice from a peer hits home.

2. Jargon pollution

Jargon creeps into articles written by committee, like a stealthy and silent chemical polluting a lake. Jargon may be how multiple subject matter experts can find common ground, but it is the enemy of good thought leadership. A friend of mine, a reporter at a prestigious business publication, keeps her Facebook friends groaning by sharing CEO and executive quotes full of jargon from her interviews (with names hidden to protect the guilty). You, too, can pivot or ideate your way to her list. Is this the reaction you want from your readers?

Content managers know that jargon can stop a good idea dead in its tracks. But multiple authors may wear you down during the writing process, repeatedly inserting buzzwords. In the end you may shrug and say, "This piece simply has to move." This is how good content managers can end up harming their firms’ reputations.

The fewer authors and editors in your process, the fewer chances for jargon to slip into the material. One tactic a manager at the AMCF event shared was drawing a clear line between sales collateral and thought leadership. Tell the consulting teams that they can use all the buzzwords they like in sales material, but avoid them in the thought leadership. After all, one hopes the potential client will be intrigued by the thought leadership piece first, then ask for the marketing material second.

3. The death of passion

I have long advocated that all good online content revolves around two words: passion and pain. We want to write about topics we’re passionate about, and topics that cause our readers pain. Authors who have passion for a subject stand out in a big way – and drive the best results.

But passion does not survive the committee process.

Providing your consulting teams with a few examples of articles with a clear voice and passion could go a long way in getting them to join you in your fight against writing by committee. Use these articles as examples of success, and build on that record.

As a former editor-in-chief, I can testify that passionate, smart contrarians have some of the best chances of winning over editors at business publications. Find these people in your firm and cultivate those relationships.

4. The diminished argument

Every compelling thought leadership piece starts with a strong argument. Ideally, you have put time and thought into shaping, strengthening, and organizing that argument. But bring four or five authors into the process, each with a point of view, and the resulting article will be full of compromises. It will turn wishy-washy, as the argument is modified and tailored to suit all those authors.  

This represents the most damaging consequence of writing by committee. Compromise ruins what was once a compelling argument that spotlighted the firm's expertise.

Once a crowd has convened to gnaw at the article's argument, life becomes difficult for the content manager. You probably have three choices. Stand up and tell a big group of people that the article now stinks, and you need to start over. (Not an appetizing option when big egos are involved.) Second, tweak the article slightly, finding yet another compromise between the original argument and the one that emerged. (That's hard, and likely will be unsatisfying to the prospective reader.) Third, publish the article with the watered-down argument, even though you know in your gut it's not as strong.

Nobody likes a set of options like that. So strive to protect the argument fiercely from the beginning. And stress to the team that the piece's value starts with the argument.

Writing by committee is a problem that content managers in consulting firms will wrestle with repeatedly. We hope we've given you some tactics you can use in your battles to avoid it. Do you have advice you'd like to share with your peers? Let us know in the comments below. 

Comments

Submitted by Tim Parker on

Love it. Passion and pain is an expression I will remember and use. 

Among our clients are those (most of them) where one or two authors are the norm and we don't have these problems. Some of the bigger, more structured organizatons can involve many in the review process, with the results you talk about. For example, one global firm has the best set of internal writing guidelines I have ever read, and a set of final reviewers and editors that has never read them. Their prime objective seeems to be to kill the passion and make uniform with the robot voice. At other firms, for example some strategy firms, pieces are often reviewed with several peers and colleagues who usually add rather than subtract. And on one piece we are working now, the marketing owner helped us reduce the number of authors from eight to three after the first call. All to say, something to look out for, and usually something you can overcome.

Add new comment