© Performance Management Consultants
Few people can claim to be “born writers” – it’s a skill honed with practice and shaped by the type of writing you’re tasked with. Not all writing is the same and nowhere is this better exemplified than writing for business.
As a business writer, you’re less likely to be concerned with painting a colourful story than simply crafting a clear message that spurs actionable results.
Whether it’s emails, meeting briefs, or massive policy documents, there’s a specific way to write effectively for business. And everyone can benefit from sharpening their writing skills. Great writing can be a boon for your career and promote personal growth. Not to mention your colleagues will enjoy working with you more!
While every workplace is different, learning some general best practices for business writing is an essential foundation on which to build. Here are some pointers for creating greater clarity and impact with your written communication.
Know Who You’re Writing For
Don’t make the reader work harder than they have to. Nobody wants to use their energy to read convoluted emails and business documents.
Keep your message tailored to your audience’s level of understanding – don’t use acronyms or jargon unless you’re sure your audience understands them. With few exceptions, it’s best to write at a high school level. When in doubt, use smaller words and shorter sentences.
Here’s an example:
“It has come to my attention that the bi-weekly sustainable waste management program has failed in its attempt to amass the surplus organic refuse for reclamation during the last three collection periods.”
Before reading on, think about the statement above and what it actually means. Is it clear? Does it sound smart? How would you simplify it?
Let’s try that again. Here’s a simplified version:
“The compost has not been picked up in six weeks.”
Which would you prefer to receive? Sure, you can understand the first example above, but it probably took more energy and time to figure out the meaning. Maybe it sounds smart, or maybe it sounds pretentious. Either way, it’s not doing anyone any favours because a lack of clarity will waste more time – yours and your readers’. People will appreciate working with you more if you don’t make more work for them. Simple is almost always better.
Know Your Objective Before You Write the First Word
You already know everything you write has its own purpose. Emails, policies, reports, and meeting minutes each require slightly different approaches because they have unique goals, different action items, and will be consumed by different audiences.
That means before you ever put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) you need to establish a clear purpose and desired outcome for your piece.
For instance, you are not just forwarding meeting minutes because it’s in your job description. You’re likely sending the minutes with the intention of clearly informing all relevant parties of important issues and decisions, and requesting help in correcting any misinformation. No matter how tedious they might be, accurately and clearly capturing the prominent points of a meeting and presenting them in a digestible way can be extremely important in informing people who were not able to attend and will impact future decisions.
Establishing a clear goal for your written communication is the first and most important step. Don’t assume the reader knows what action you want them to take. Instead, include a clear “call to action” where you explicitly say what you need them to do. For example:
• Please read the meeting minutes and send any corrections by Friday at 5pm.
• Let us know if you have any questions about the new policy.
• Be sure to login before the training session and let us know if you experience any problems.
If you can’t offer any new, relevant information, re-consider whether it’s necessary at all. One example of a purposeless communication was shared by a local radio host. The property management company for the building she works in sent a memo telling employees to distribute their weight when walking on ice because it’s slippery and they might fall. The radio host had a good laugh over it and listeners called in sharing similar experiences with pointless memos. That kind of unhelpful communication is likely to reduce morale, demotivate staff, and possibly create distrust.
Keep Your Writing Simple
There is a time and a place for detailed writing. It wouldn’t behoove a police officer to quickly jot down only the most interesting details in a report – important evidence could be missed. But in business scenarios, stripping a piece of writing down to the bare bones is, for the most part, more effective.
A good way to practice this is to review what you’ve written and ask yourself, “If I had to remove 10%, what is the very first thing I would cut?” Keep repeating that question until you absolutely can’t cut any more without sacrificing clarity and value. Just be sure to mind your manners. There’s no need to cut out “please” and “thank you”!
Shorter writing will not only keep your reader’s attention, it will help you stay on topic. In a business context, few people are interested in being entertained. Instead, they are concerned with the important information that will help them take action and perform effectively. Clear, concise writing based on a solid core message will help you achieve this.
When communicating with colleagues, remember their time is valuable, so the conciseness of your writing will be valuable to them. Keep this in mind when you write, and ultimately you’ll have more impact.
Consider the Context of Your Writing and the Reader’s Point of View
Any writing has the potential to be interpreted differently by each individual reader. This is great for fiction, but not so much when it comes to writing an email to your busy colleagues. That’s why it’s important to consider the context in which the end reader will interpret the message.
You can never know with 100% certainty how the person on the other end of the message will respond, or even whether they will respond at all. But a good rule of thumb is to (very literally) visualize yourself as the person on the other end.
Take a moment to put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Now try to understand the specific context in which your audience will be reading it with questions, such as:
• How would you feel about this message if you were a junior employee just starting out in your career? • What about the seasoned executive who spends her day putting out fires? How will it be received by the accounting department compared to the marketing or communications departments?
• What does each recipient need from the message? How will they use the information?
• What experiences or point of view might the other person use to filter the message? How might that change the tone in the reader’s mind?
• If there was a conflict, how would you argue for each side to better understand where they are coming from?
• Is the message clear and the tone honest and appropriate?
When reading from someone else’s point of view, you may discover the potential for negative reactions. If that’s the case, you now have a chance to tweak the message to achieve the tone and clarity you had originally intended.
Considering the context only takes a few minutes, but it can prevent confusion, or worse, a misinterpretation of tone that could lead to workplace conflict, lost productivity, and damaged relationships.
Strive for Editing Excellence
It can be difficult to edit your own work, but it is an essential part of business writing. When self-editing, take a step back from your writing and try to view it objectively. If you’re struggling to make a word, phrase, or paragraph work, ask yourself, “Am I hanging on to this because I like the way it’s written or because it actually adds value for the reader?” While you may like the alliteration or poetic nature of a phrase, that’s not a good enough reason to keep it.
If you can, take some time after finishing your piece to grab a coffee or work on something else for a while. Editing with fresh eyes can make a big difference. This is especially important if you’re upset. Never hit the send button until you’ve had a chance to calm down and re-read!
An even better option is to find someone else who understands what you’re writing about and ask them to proofread. This can be especially useful if you are writing something of a sensitive nature and you want to gauge how a person might respond to it. When someone else reads your work, you may find the tone doesn’t come across as you had intended.
The more potentially impactful something is, the more important it is to have a second opinion from someone to catch issues that can be difficult for the author to see and critique.
Increase the Impact of Your Business Writing
Would you like to improve your writing skills? Are you looking to write clearly and concisely, or to make a bigger impact with the people you work with? If so, consider signing up for any of our business writing courses to help you write more effectively, including:
Writing in Plain Language (also available as an online course – live with instructor)
Business Writing for Impact and Influence (also available as an online course – live with instructor)
Proofreading and Editing (also available as an online course – live with instructor)
Not sure which course is right for you? Give us a call at 613-234-2020, ext. 18 and we’ll help you choose.