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12 Tips for Better Business Writing

12 Tips for Better Business Writing

Today’s business world is almost entirely information-driven. Whether you run a small business or occupy a small corner of the org-chart at a massive multinational corporation, chances are that the bulk of your job consists of communicating with others, most often in writing. Of course there’s email and the traditional business letter, but most business people are also called on to write presentations, memos, proposals, business requirements, training materials, promotional copy, grant proposals, and a wide range of other documents.

Here’s the rub: most business people have little experience with writing. While those with business degrees probably did a bit of writing in school, it’s rarely stressed in business programs, and learning to write well is hardly the driving force behind most people’s desire to go to business school. Those without a university background might have never been pushed to write at all, at least since public school.

If you’re one of the many people in business for whom writing has never been a major concern, you should know that a lack of writing skills is a greater and greater handicap with every passing year. Spending some time to improve your writing can result in a marked improvement in your hireability and promotional prospects. There’s no substitute for practice, but here are a few pointers to put you on the right track.

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1. Less is more.

In business writing as in virtually every other kind of writing, concision matters. Ironically, as written information becomes more and more important to the smooth functioning of businesses, people are less and less willing to read. Increasingly, magazines and other outlets that used to run 2,000-word features are cutting back to 500-word sketches. Use words  sparingly, cut out the florid prose, and avoid long, meandering sentences. As Zorro taught his son, “Get in, make your Z, and get out!” – get straight to the point, say what you want to say, and be done  with it.

2. Avoid jargon.

Everyone in business hates business writing, all that “blue-sky solutioneering” and those “strategical synergies” that ultimately, mean nothing; “brainstorming” and “opportunities to work together” are more meaningful without sounding ridiculous. While sometimes jargon is unavoidable – in a business requirement document or technical specification, for example – try using plainer language. Even for people in the same field as you, jargon is often inefficient – the eye slides right past it without really catching the meaning. There’s a reason that jargon is so often used when a writer wants to not say anything.

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3. Write once, check twice.

Proofread immediately after you write, and then again hours or, better yet, days later. Nothing is more embarrassing than a stupid typo in an otherwise fine document. It’s hardly fair – typos happen! – but people judge you for those mistakes anyway, and harshly. Except in the direct emergency, always give yourself time to set your writing aside and come back to it later. The brain is tricky and will ignore errors that  it’s just made; some time working on something else will give you the detachment you need to catch those errors before anyone else reads them.

4. Write once, check twice.

I know, I just said this, but I mean something else here. In addition to catching typos and other errors, putting some time between writing and re-reading your work can help you catch errors of tone that might otherwise escape you and cause trouble. For instance, when we’re upset or angry, we often write things we don’t actually want anyone else to read. Make sure your work says what you want it to say, how you want it to say it, before letting it reach its audience.

5. Pay special attention to names, titles, and genders.

OK, there is one thing more embarrassing than a typo: calling Mr. Smith “Ms. Smith” consistently throughout a document. If you’re not positive about the spelling of someone’s name, their job title (and what it means), or their gender, either a) check with someone who does know (like their assistant), or b) in the case of gender, use gender-neutral language. “They” and “their” are rapidly becoming perfectly acceptable gender-neutral singular pronouns, despite what your grammar teacher and the self-righteous grammar nazi down the hall might say.

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6. Save templates.

Whenever you write an especially good letter, email, memo, or other document, if there’s the slightest chance you’ll be writing a similar document in the future, save it as a template for future use. Since rushing through writing is one of the main causes of typos and other errors, saving time by using a pre-written document can save you the  embarrassment of such errors. Just make sure to remove any specific information – names, companies, etc. – before re-using it – you don’t want to send a letter to Mr. Sharif that is addressed to Mrs. O’Toole!

7. Be professional, not necessarily formal.

There’s a tendency to think of all business communication as formal, which isn’t necessary or even very productive. Formal language is fine for legal documents and job applications, but like jargon often becomes invisible, obscuring rather than revealing its meaning. At the same time, remember that informal shouldn’t mean unprofessional – keep the personal comments, off-color jokes, and snarky gossip out of your business communications. Remember that many businesses (possibly yours) are required by law to keep copies of all correspondence – don’t email, mail, or circulate anything that you wouldn’t feel comfortable having read into the record in a public trial.

8. Remember the 5 W’s (and the H)

Just like a journalist’s news story, your communications should answer all the questions relevant to your audience: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? For example, who is this memo relevant to, what should they know, when and where will it apply, why is it important, and how should they use this information? Use the 5W+H formula to try to anticipate any questions your readers might ask, too.

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9. Call to action.

The content of documents that are simply informative are rarely retained very well. Most business communication is meant to achieve some purpose, so make sure they include a call to action – something that the reader is expected to do. Even better, something the reader should do right now. Don’t leave it to your readers to decide what to do with whatever information you’ve provided – most won’t even bother, and enough of the ones who do will get it wrong that you’ll have a mess on your hands before too long.

10. Don’t give too many choices.

Ideally, don’t give any. If you’re looking to set a time for a meeting, give a single time and ask them to confirm or present a different time. At most, give two options and ask them to pick one. Too many choices often leads to decision paralysis, which generally isn’t the desired effect.

11. What’s in it for your readers?

A cornerstone of effective writing is describing benefits, not features. Why should a reader care? For example, nobody cares that Windows 7 can run in 64-bit mode – what they care about is that it can handle more memory and thus run faster than the 32-bit operating system. 64-bits is a feature; letting me get my work done more quickly is the benefit. Benefits engage readers, since they’re naturally most concerned with finding out how they can make their lives easier or better.

12. Hire a freelancer.

Not a writing tip per se, I know, but good advice nonetheless. Writing is most likely not your strong suit – if it’s important, hire someone for whom writing is their strong suit. You may think freelancers are only for marketing material, but that’s not true – a good freelance writer can produce memos, training manuals, internal letters, corporate newsletters, blog posts, wiki entries, and just about any other kind of writing you can think of. Depending on your needs, you can farm work out as needed or move a freelancer into a cubicle on-site, or work out whatever other arrangements best fit your needs. Expect to pay at least $30 an hour, and more likely $50 – $125 an hour, for good writing – anyone who charges less is either not very good, or not very business savvy. (These rates are for writers in US metro areas – rates may differ in other parts of the world.)

Great writing may require a talent that few of us have, but effective writing is a learnable skill. If your business writing isn’t up to snuff, follow the tips above and see if you can’t improve it. If your writing does pass muster, how about leaving a tip or two in the comments below?

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Last Updated on March 14, 2019

7 Questions to Ask in a Job Interview That Will Impress the Interviewer

7 Questions to Ask in a Job Interview That Will Impress the Interviewer

Recruiters might hold thousands of interviews in their careers and a lot of them are reporting the same thing—that most candidates play it safe with the questions they ask, or have no questions to ask in a job interview at all.

For job applicants, this approach is crazy! This is a job that you’re going to dedicate a lot of hours to and that might have a huge impact on your future career. Don’t throw away the chance to figure out if the position is perfect for you.

Here are 7 killer questions to ask in a job interview that will both impress your counterpart and give you some really useful insights into whether this job will be a dream … or a nightmare.

1. What are some challenges I might come up against this role?

A lesser candidate might ask, “what does a typical day look like in this role?” While this is a perfectly reasonable question to ask in an interview, focusing on potential challenges takes you much further because it indicates that you already are visualizing yourself in the role.

It’s impressive because it shows that you are not afraid of challenges, and you are prepared to strategize a game plan upfront to make sure you succeed if you get the job.

It can also open up a conversation about how you’ve solved problems in the past which can be a reassuring exercise for both you and the hiring manager.

How it helps you:

If you ask the interviewer to describe a typical day, you may get a vibrant picture of all the lovely things you’ll get to do in this job and all the lovely people you’ll get to do them with.

Asking about potential roadblocks means you hear the other side of the story—dysfunctional teams, internal politics, difficult clients, bootstrap budgets and so on. This can help you decide if you’re up for the challenge or whether, for the sake of your sanity, you should respectfully decline the job offer.

2. What are the qualities of really successful people in this role?

Employers don’t want to hire someone who goes through the motions; they want to hire someone who will excel.

Asking this question shows that you care about success, too. How could they not hire you with a dragon-slayer attitude like that?

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How it helps you:

Interviewers hire people who are great people to work with, but the definition of “great people” differs from person to person.

Does this company hire and promote people with a specific attitude, approach, worth ethic or communication style? Are the most successful people in this role strong extroverts who love to talk and socialize when you are studious and reserved? Does the company reward those who work insane hours when you’re happiest in a more relaxed environment?

If so, then this may not be the right match for you.

Whatever the answer is, you can decide whether you have what it takes for the manager to be happy with your performance in this role. And if the interviewer has no idea what success looks like for this position, this is a sign to proceed with extreme caution.

3. From the research I did on your company, I noticed the culture really supports XYZ. Can you tell me more about that element of the culture and how it impacts this job role?

Of course, you could just ask “what is the culture like here? ” but then you would miss a great opportunity to show that you’ve done your research!

Interviewers give BIG bonus point to those who read up and pay attention, and you’ve just pointed out that (a) you’re diligent in your research (b) you care about the company culture and (c) you’re committed to finding a great cultural fit.

How it helps you:

This question is so useful because it lets you pick an element of the culture that you really care about and that will have the most impact on whether you are happy with the organization.

For example, if training and development is important to you, then you need to know what’s on offer so you don’t end up in a dead-end job with no learning opportunities.

Companies often talk a good talk, and their press releases may be full of shiny CSR initiatives and all the headline-grabbing diversity programs they’re putting in place. This is your opportunity to look under the hood and see if the company lives its values on the ground.

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A company that says it is committed to doing the right thing by customers should not judge success by the number of up-sells an employee makes, for instance. Look for consistency, so you aren’t in for a culture shock after you start.

4. What is the promotion path for this role, and how would my performance on that path be measured?

To be clear, you are not asking when you will get promoted. Don’t go there—it’s presumptuous, and it indicates that you think you are better than the role you have applied for.

A career-minded candidate, on the other hand, usually has a plan that she’s working towards. This question shows you have a great drive toward growth and advancement and an intention to stick with the company beyond your current state.

How it helps you:

One word: hierarchy.

All organizations have levels of work and authority—executives, upper managers, line managers, the workforce, and so on. Understanding the hierarchical structure gives you power, because you can decide if you can work within it and are capable of climbing through its ranks, or whether it will be endlessly frustrating to you.

In a traditional pyramid hierarchy, for example, the people at the bottom tend to have very little autonomy to make decisions. This gets better as you rise up through the pyramid, but even middle managers have little power to create policy; they are more concerned with enforcing the rules the top leaders make.

If having a high degree of autonomy and accountability is important to you, you may do better in a flat hierarchy where work teams can design their own way of achieving the corporate goals.

5. What’s the most important thing the successful candidate could accomplish in their first 3 months/6 months/year?

Of all the questions to ask in a job interview, this one is impressive because it shows that you identify with and want to be a successful performer, and not just an average one.

Here, you’re drilling down into what the company needs, and needs quite urgently, proving that you’re all about adding value to the organization and not just about what’s in it for you.

How it helps you:

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Most job descriptions come with 8, 10 or 12 different job responsibilities and a lot of them with be boilerplate or responsibilities that someone in HR thinks are associated with this role. This question gives you a better sense of which responsibilities are the most important—and they may not be what initially attracted you to the role.

If you like the idea of training juniors, for example, but success is judged purely on your sales figures, then is this really the job you thought you were applying for?

This question will also give you an idea of what kind of learning curve you’re expected to have and whether you’ll get any ramp-up time before getting down to business. If you’re the type of person who likes to jump right in and get things done, for instance, you may not be thrilled to hear that you’re going to spend the first three months shadowing a peer.

6. What do you like about working here?

This simple question is all about building rapport with the interviewer. People like to talk about themselves, and the interviewer will be flattered that you’re interested in her opinions.

Hopefully, you’ll find some great connection points that the two of you share. What similar things drive you head into the office each day? How will you fit into the culture?

How it helps you:

You can learn a lot from this question. Someone who genuinely enjoys his job will be able to list several things they like, and their answers will sound passionate and sincere. If not….well, you might consider that a red flag.

Since you potentially can learn a lot about the company culture from this question, it’s a good idea to figure out upfront what’s important to you. Maybe you’re looking for a hands-off boss who values independent thought and creativity? Maybe you work better in environments that move at a rapid, exciting pace?

Whatever’s important to you, listen carefully and see if you can find any common ground.

7. Based on this interview, do you have any questions or concerns about my qualifications for the role?

What a great closing question to ask in a job interview! It shows that you’re not afraid of feedback—in fact, you are inviting it. Not being able to take criticism is a red flag for employers, who need to know that you’ll act on any “coaching moments” with a good heart.

As a bonus, asking this question shows that you are really interested in the position and wish to clear up anything that may be holding the company back from hiring you.

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How it helps you:

What a devious beast this question is! On the surface, it looks straightforward, but it’s actually giving you four key pieces of information.

First, is the manager capable of giving you feedback when put on the spot like this? Some managers are scared of giving feedback, or don’t think it’s important enough to bother outside of a formal performance appraisal. Do you want to work for a boss like that? How will you improve if no one is telling you what you did wrong?

Second, can the manager give feedback in a constructive way without being too pillowy or too confrontational? It’s unfair to expect the interviewer to have figured out your preferred way of receiving feedback in the space of an interview, but if she come back with a machine-gun fire of shortcomings or one of those corporate feedback “sandwiches” (the doozy slipped between two slices of compliment), then you need to ask yourself, can you work with someone who gives feedback like that?

Third, you get to learn the things the hiring manager is concerned about before you leave the interview. This gives you the chance to make a final, tailored sales pitch so you can convince the interviewer that she should not be worried about those things.

Fourth, you get to learn the things the hiring manager is concerned about period. If turnover is keeping him up at night, then your frequent job hopping might get a lot of additional scrutiny. If he’s facing some issues with conflict or communication, then he might raise concerns regarding your performance in this area.

Listen carefully: the concerns that are being raised about you might actually be a proxy for problems in the wider organization.

Making Your Interview Work for You

Interviews are a two-way street. While it is important to differentiate yourself from every other candidate, understand that convincing the interviewer you’re the right person for the role goes hand-in-hand with figuring out if the job is the right fit for you.

Would you feel happy in a work environment where the people, priorities, culture and management style were completely at odds with the way you work? Didn’t think so!

More Resources About Job Interviews

Featured photo credit: Amy Hirschi via unsplash.com

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