The Art of Writing Performance Evaluations

Last week, I wrote about the science of writing performance evaluations. The message is simple--no matter who you work for, the evaluation is just qualitative data that decision-makers use to determine your pay and promotion. Your job is to communicate that data in the most effective way possible. The science is in figuring out what you really need to say. It's important enough that I built out a workbook to help my clients make that happen.

But there's a part of this process that no matrix can address--the art of writing. 

Writing is a torturous art. The stereotype of the unwashed recluse with a substance abuse problem exists for a reason: Writers are masters of language who still feel misunderstood. They, unlike happy-go-lucky 20-somethings who run around saying things like, "I'm literally dying right now" while eating gelato on a sunny day in Central Park, have a high standard for precision and recognize that most of our language fails to meet it. They've turned in countless first drafts that they thought were brilliant, only to discover that readers could hardly follow the plot. They know that the more abstract the thing you are trying to say, the more important it is to find the perfect words.

Unfortunately, the perfect words can be elusive. I learned this the hard way by writing in the foreign policy context, where precision is essential. (Just ask John Kerry.) Use of a word either slightly stronger or slightly weaker than what you actually mean has consequences, as the media, political opponents, lawyers, and everyone else with a stake in the issue uses it to advance their case. That's why public officials and their aides spend hours poring over talking points to be certain that there is no room for misunderstanding.

Poor writing in your performance evaluation may not cause an international incident, but it does impact pay and promotion. That's why I encourage people to take it seriously and spend a little time reflecting on their accomplishments before putting fingertips to keyboard. 

Think of your story as an hourglass. The top half is what you drop in, the bottom half is what comes out for the reader, and the words you use are the bottleneck. They must be narrow enough to filter out all the things you don't want your audience to think of yet wide enough to communicate all the things you want them to associate with you. They must evoke a range of performance far greater than what fits on a single page.

For example, if you want to show that you are excellent at following orders in the midst of a crisis but also that you know when to act without permission, you might look for terms that frame you as "responsive" rather than "sensitive" or "independent," which err on either side. However--and here's where the real artistry comes in--you cannot simply come out and say, "I was responsive." You have to use verbs, context, and hard facts to illustrate your responsiveness instead.

You will notice that excellent speechwriters, fiction writers, and poets all choose terms that leave the desired impression without relying on adjectives or adverbs. Instead of telling the reader that a character "feels scared," the writer will describe dark alleys, tense shoulders, a trapped cat's muffled screams. The reader is so swept up in the description that the author is no longer in the way. We call this the rule of "show, don't tell." When we tell people what to think, they resist or pivot out to an assessment of our agenda. When readers come to their own conclusions, they are much more committed to them. 

Whenever I write about people, I lean on Roy Peter Clark's Writing Tools, particularly #27: Reveal Traits of Character. In this short chapter, Clark uses several examples to illustrate the contrast between showing and telling. He writes, 

The reader who encounters character adjectives screams silently for examples, for evidence [...] The best writers create moving pictures of people, images that reveal their characteristics and aspirations. [emphasis mine]

This kind of artistry is powerful for any kind of persuasive writing, but especially for performance evaluations, where the writer is automatically suspect. You want a promotion or a raise, so of course you're going to say you deserve it. Find a way to communicate the fact that you deserve it without having to say so, and readers are much more likely to believe you. 

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I recommend several resources for people who must write narrative performance evaluations for themselves or others.

The first is the aforementioned Writing Tools, a useful compendium of guidelines for any kind of writer. 

The second is this list of action verbs from Yana Parker of the Damn Good Resume Guide

The third is my whiteboard workshop on describing your work in words, which I conduct for groups of up to five people at Impact Hub Seattle or the venue of their choice. If you are interested in a personal or group session, please reach out