There are vital reasons for business people to communicate effectively. Fortunately, improving business writing is not as difficult as many people think. This article presents four easy steps that any businessperson can immediately use to lift their written communications to a higher, more effective level.
Business Writing Matters!
Most business people write far more than they realize; letters, e-mails, proposals, notes, memos, presentations, manuals, newsletters – the list is long. The quality of that writing heavily influences how customers, colleagues, suppliers, and others in the business world see the writer and the company they represent. The ability to persuade others through writing is an essential part of business success.
Persuasion is the Goal
Most English composition teachers maintain that all creative writing intends to inform, entertain, or persuade. True enough; but in the world of business, “informing” really means persuading someone to accept the information they see as valid and valuable. Likewise, “entertaining” means persuading someone to feel a certain way about information. In other words, all business writing is about persuading others to think or feel a certain way about the writer and the writer’s company.
The Four Fast Fixes
Any businessperson can follow these four simple steps to give their business writing a quick tune-up:
- Choose a clear objective.
- Know the target audience.
- Structure the writing to appeal to the target audience.
- Avoid the most common style mistakes.
Choose a Clear Objective
A simple, direct, measurable objective is the best choice for any piece of business writing. The objective should include the persuasive goal for the piece, e.g., persuade the boss to approve funding for a new piece of equipment, persuade the meeting chair to include certain agenda items in the next meeting, persuade the newspaper editor to publish a press release, persuade a client to pay his bill, etc.
Effective writers refer to their objective often as they write. They are disciplined about excluding words that do not support their objective, no matter how fascinating or dramatic those words may be. This technique will keep the piece focused on achieving the objective.
Choosing a specific objective does two important things:
- It defines a “touchstone” to use in keeping a piece on track.
- It enables measurement of the piece’s success with readers.
Know the Target Audience
Knowing the target audience means understanding how they prefer to receive written communications. Giving them the content you want in the structure and style they want maximizes your chance for persuasive success. For example, senior managers will most likely respond well to short communications that contain all essential elements of your message and offer them clear choices. Technical people usually prefer a precise, logical development of the message before they will accept it as valid. With some forethought, an effective writer can usually choose an effective structure and style for the target audience.
A Simple Structure for All Occasions
Here is a simple structure that works well in nearly all business writing situations:
- Tell them what is coming.
- Then tell them.
- Then tell them what was just said.
- Close with a specific “call to action” and an easy channel to use in responding.
Sound repetitive? It is – and it works. Repetition is a key factor in getting the message remembered by the reader. The fourth step, the “call to action”, is essential in getting the reader to respond. The call may be explicit or implicit, but effective writers never leave it out.
Style Errors to Avoid
Every person has a distinctive writing style. Great writers use a style they are comfortable with–one that presents them genuinely. They also avoid the three most common style mistakes in business writing:
- Run-on sentences and paragraphs
- Misspellings and grammar errors
- Using passive voice excessively
Correcting these style defects is usually a straightforward process. Fixing a run-on sentence means removing some of the commas that string a number of independent thoughts together, then begining each thought with a capital letter and end it with a period. The same principle applies to run-on paragraphs – an entire page of writing without any paragraph breaks is guaranteed to fail.
Frequent misspellings are deadly to the professional image writers want to present to their readers. Careful use of spell checking features in word processing and e-mail programs is mandatory for good business writing.
Using passive voice excessively will put a reader to sleep fast. “The presentation was made by Jane” is a simple example of a sentence written in passive voice. “Jane made the presentation” is the active voice equivalent. One passive sentence doesn’t sound that bad by itself, but if the writer strings a number of passive voice sentences together it creates a real snoozer. Active voice generally allows for writing that flows much better and has more color and clarity. The spelling and grammar checking features in MS Word can show the writer what percentage of sentences in a piece use passive voice. Effective business writing generally contains less than 10 percent passive voice.
Effective business writers always ask themselves these questions before releasing a piece of writing:
- Does the piece satisfy a clearly defined objective?
- Is it written in a style to which the target reader(s) will respond? Does the structure make the message(s) stick in the reader’s mind?
- Are there any of style mistakes—run-ons, misspellings, excessive passive voice?
- Is there a summary of the message toward the end?
- Is there a “call to action” at the conclusion of the piece?
The principles described herein will help any businessperson communicate effectively in writing.