Tuesday, June 27th, 2017

How-To: Better Business Writing

By Geraldine Eliot on Feb 22 2010 • Filed under How-To

There is always a dual purpose to any piece of business writing. Although primarily we want to accomplish something (make a request, place an order, lodge a complaint etc.), we also have an underlying purpose: to maintain a good relationship with the reader and promote ourselves and our organization.

Communication skills are at the top of the list of employability skills noted by the Conference Board of Canada (according to Bovée et al, 2010), and especially in today’s world of email and social media, the majority of our business transactions can comprise written messages. Incorporating the following five steps can help you improve your business writing and achieve your goals:

1. Plan out Your Message

With the speed of technology today, including instant messages and emailing via mobile devices, writers often forget the important step of planning out their messages before they hit the send button. This can result in sloppy work, and unintentional (and embarrassing) typos and omissions that reflect poorly on the writer and his or her organization.

Allow enough time to plot out your message. Identify what you need to include to ensure all the reader’s questions are preempted and answered, including the what, when, where, why and how. This will help keep your message organized and to the point.

2. Use the Direct Approach

A huge portion of our day can be spent replying to and sending emails, so time becomes a precious commodity. Unless your message contains bad news that would better be expressed though a more indirect manner, then start your message with the main idea or central purpose to why you are writing. Make your request, and then follow up with a brief, focused explanation of why the reader should comply. Order the information in a logical way for readability and comprehension. Ensure your subject line matches the main idea, and that these both answer the question: “I want my reader to…”

3. Focus on the Audience

Although any business message is there to help the writer to get what they want, a key to achieving this success is in the tone and language used. In the planning phase, create an audience profile. Who are they? What do they need to know to understand and comply? How receptive will they be to the message? How much background information do they need?

The type of tone you use (neutral, persuasive, friendly etc.), always needs to take the reader into account. Approach the message from their point of view, and imagine as if you were reading the message to them face-to-face. Think about how you would feel receiving the message. Watch language choice, too. Avoid ambiguous expressions that may confuse or mislead the reader (especially if you are dealing with someone from a different culture or language group). Only use industry jargon if the reader will understand without any explanations. Focus on using positive language and rephrasing negative statements, and cut out any unnecessary wordiness.

4. Incorporate Graphic Highlighting Techniques

Because the majority of messages get scanned by the reader, ensure your message is easy to read so that the main idea is not lost. Include headings, bullet points, or lists to highlight the most important information and to add to the skim value of the message. Italics, bold, and underlining can add emphasis, but be careful not to over use these, as this can distract the reader.

White space, including page margins and clear paragraphing, can stop the reader from being overwhelmed by large chunks of text. Images, graphs and tables (where relevant) can also help to emphasize key points and ensure the reader pays attention. It is important, though, to keep all formatting consistent and use a legible font style and size.

5. Make the Next Step Clear

To ensure you get the right response, end your message with a very clear next step for the reader to follow, whether it is further contact or a concrete action. Include a specific deadline and short reason for that deadline if appropriate, and add your contact information for an easy reply. Maintain a tone that promotes goodwill, looks forward to future dealings, and encourages feedback.

With proper planning and adopting an audience-centred, focused approach, your business writing can save you time, and produce tangible results. 

Example of a Weak Email

TO: All Employees

FROM: Lisa Thwaits <lthwaits@company.com>

SUBJECT: Parking Gong-Show!! 

It has recently come to my attention that a huge problem with parking exists here. I understand that the problem is that you have been parking in reserved and visitor’s bays, and using expired passes early in the month.

You are absolutely forbidden from parking in any spot that is not allocated to your use. We also must warn you not to use your parking pass from the previous month longer than for the first day of the next month. You don’t want to get your car towed!! Enclosed please find a form that must be signed ASAP and returned, indicating your acknowledgement of and acquiescence to the procedures described herein. Anyone whose signed form is not returned will have his or her parking pass revoked.

Example of an Improved Email

TO: All Employees

FROM: Lisa Thwaits <lthwaits@company.com

SUBJECT: New Office Parking Procedures 

Your cooperation is needed to solve a problem with parking. To ensure everyone is able to find parking for work and to avoid any fines or issues with Impark:

1. Please only park in your designated spot. Also, do not park in visitor bays.

2. Please renew your parking pass before the end of the month.

You may still use your old pass for the first day of the new month, but from the second day, only new passes are permitted. You can now use our online system to renew your passes quickly and efficiently, and will be sent an automatic email reminder to ensure you don’t forget.

Please sign the attached form and return it to my office by 23 June, indicating that you understand this issue and agree to follow the new procedures. We appreciate your help in making parking at work hassle free.


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