Good business writing is seductive.
It pleases the eye. It begins by hinting at something good to come, then strategically draws the reader to the parts that most need attention.
Good writing is clear about what it wants; it makes offers and demands. It is attentive to the other party’s needs.
Good writing relies on consent but isn’t afraid to do the work to earn it.
Finally, it can be very satisfying when it’s reached its conclusion.
Speaking gets attention because stage fright is a real barrier, so emotionally consuming. Like fear of flying or heights or spiders, it is triggered by something specific and, frankly, rare. The anticipation alone spikes heart rates and activates sweat glands.
Writing, on the other hand… We knowledge workers spend vastly more time reading and writing than we do speaking. Perhaps because it’s so common, we have grown numb to so much of it that’s bad and ineffective.
Poor structure, insider jargon, ten-dollar words when a few good one buck words would do, dense paragraphs—these are the killers of clarity. They are what makes your time disappear when you have to decipher the boss’s memo or explain yours to her.
Next time you have to write a key email, memo, white paper, or anything designed to educate, inspire, and move to action, keep this list of tips handy.
TL:DR IS YOUR FRIEND. Before TL:DR (too long, didn’t read) became a common phrase, I liked putting a “TOPLINE” above the greeting in my emails. Include key facts; indicate any decision(s) that must be made and by when; and what sort of follow-up you expected. Your colleagues will appreciate this and bosses even more.
On longer pieces, like memos or research papers, an Executive Summary does the same job—hits the high points, tells what’s needed, and tells what’s next.
DON’T OVER-COMMUNICATE. When you are the subject-matter expert or the person driving the discussion, you have the most information. Your job is to simplify. It’s up to you to synthesize, summarize, cut, cut, cut the issues to only the most critical points. Just as a trend line on a graph cuts through a plethora of specific elements to show general direction, it’s on you to smooth out the story. Use just enough information to focus your audience on the outcome you are responsible for driving and the decisions that will get you there.
USE ROAD SIGNS. Draw the eye where you want it, and let readers know what’s important. Three points to make? Use bullets—readers who skim will go right there. Call to action for a particular individual? Bold and highlight their name. The main question you need answered through your process? Set it apart, put it in red, or use a slightly larger point size.
–> I like to use an arrow like this to draw attention to a key thought or question. (Two dashes and the greater-than sign over the period get you this on Microsoft apps.)
Shorter paragraphs make a screen of type look easier to take in than dense, long ones. Short sentences are easier to grasp than long ones with lots of commas and clauses.
And note the way I’ve used bold starters for each tip here.
BE DIRECT. When you are communicating a course of action or are responsible for driving a group along a timeline to decide, you must assume permission to be direct. Deadlines, decisions, naming who has responsibility—be clear. Don’t hide behind the passive voice—get your actors front and center. “Our new products were rejected by customers” lands with less shock than the simple declaration, “Customers rejected our new products.” Imperatives like “must” outrank wishy-washy words like “should.”
When you are in charge, you will take the heat for decisions; you might as well be bold. The wiggle room you give yourself with statements shaded by weak or uncertain-sounding construction will not be enough to get you off the hook. Say what you mean, say what you want.
Make reading your work a pleasure, or at least easy, for your audience, and you’ll get more engagement and make quicker progress on your objectives.
As business writing guru Josh Bernoff writes in his masterwork, “Writing Without Bullsh*t” (without the asterisk), treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own. Put your time and effort into clear writing and reap the results in faster decision cycles and greater alignment among your readers.