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12 Tips for Better Business Writing

12 Tips for Better Business Writing
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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.

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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 July 20, 2021

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)
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You’re standing behind the curtain, just about to make your way on stage to face the many faces half-shrouded in darkness in front of you. As you move towards the spotlight, your body starts to feel heavier with each step. A familiar thump echoes throughout your body – your heartbeat has gone off the charts.

Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with glossophobia(also known as speech anxiety or the fear of speaking to large crowds). Sometimes, the anxiety happens long before you even stand on stage.

Your body’s defence mechanism responds by causing a part of your brain to release adrenaline into your blood – the same chemical that gets released as if you were being chased by a lion.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you overcome your fear of public speaking:

1. Prepare yourself mentally and physically

According to experts, we’re built to display anxiety and to recognize it in others. If your body and mind are anxious, your audience will notice. Hence, it’s important to prepare yourself before the big show so that you arrive on stage confident, collected and ready.

“Your outside world is a reflection of your inside world. What goes on in the inside, shows on the outside.” – Bob Proctor

Exercising lightly before a presentation helps get your blood circulating and sends oxygen to the brain. Mental exercises, on the other hand, can help calm the mind and nerves. Here are some useful ways to calm your racing heart when you start to feel the butterflies in your stomach:

Warming up

If you’re nervous, chances are your body will feel the same way. Your body gets tense, your muscles feel tight or you’re breaking in cold sweat. The audience will notice you are nervous.

If you observe that this is exactly what is happening to you minutes before a speech, do a couple of stretches to loosen and relax your body. It’s better to warm up before every speech as it helps to increase the functional potential of the body as a whole. Not only that, it increases muscle efficiency, improves reaction time and your movements.

Here are some exercises to loosen up your body before show time:

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  1. Neck and shoulder rolls – This helps relieve upper body muscle tension and pressure as the rolls focus on rotating the head and shoulders, loosening the muscle. Stress and anxiety can make us rigid within this area which can make you feel agitated, especially when standing.
  2. Arm stretches – We often use this part of our muscles during a speech or presentation through our hand gestures and movements. Stretching these muscles can reduce arm fatigue, loosen you up and improve your body language range.
  3. Waist twists – Place your hands on your hips and rotate your waist in a circular motion. This exercise focuses on loosening the abdominal and lower back regions which is essential as it can cause discomfort and pain, further amplifying any anxieties you may experience.

Stay hydrated

Ever felt parched seconds before speaking? And then coming up on stage sounding raspy and scratchy in front of the audience? This happens because the adrenaline from stage fright causes your mouth to feel dried out.

To prevent all that, it’s essential we stay adequately hydrated before a speech. A sip of water will do the trick. However, do drink in moderation so that you won’t need to go to the bathroom constantly.

Try to avoid sugary beverages and caffeine, since it’s a diuretic – meaning you’ll feel thirstier. It will also amplify your anxiety which prevents you from speaking smoothly.

Meditate

Meditation is well-known as a powerful tool to calm the mind. ABC’s Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America weekend and author of the book titled10% Happier , recommends that meditation can help individuals to feel significantly calmer, faster.

Meditation is like a workout for your mind. It gives you the strength and focus to filter out the negativity and distractions with words of encouragement, confidence and strength.

Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is a popular method to calm yourself before going up on the big stage. The practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future – which likely includes floundering on stage.

Here’s a nice example of guided meditation before public speaking:

2. Focus on your goal

One thing people with a fear of public speaking have in common is focusing too much on themselves and the possibility of failure.

Do I look funny? What if I can’t remember what to say? Do I look stupid? Will people listen to me? Does anyone care about what I’m talking about?’

Instead of thinking this way, shift your attention to your one true purpose – contributing something of value to your audience.

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Decide on the progress you’d like your audience to make after your presentation. Notice their movements and expressions to adapt your speech to ensure that they are having a good time to leave the room as better people.

If your own focus isn’t beneficial and what it should be when you’re speaking, then shift it to what does. This is also key to establishing trust during your presentation as the audience can clearly see that you have their interests at heart.[1]

3. Convert negativity to positivity

There are two sides constantly battling inside of us – one is filled with strength and courage while the other is doubt and insecurities. Which one will you feed?

‘What if I mess up this speech? What if I’m not funny enough? What if I forget what to say?’

It’s no wonder why many of us are uncomfortable giving a presentation. All we do is bring ourselves down before we got a chance to prove ourselves. This is also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy – a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it already is. If you think you’re incompetent, then it will eventually become true.

Motivational coaches tout that positive mantras and affirmations tend to boost your confidents for the moments that matter most. Say to yourself: “I’ll ace this speech and I can do it!”

Take advantage of your adrenaline rush to encourage positive outcome rather than thinking of the negative ‘what ifs’.

Here’s a video of Psychologist Kelly McGonigal who encourages her audience to turn stress into something positive as well as provide methods on how to cope with it:

4. Understand your content

Knowing your content at your fingertips helps reduce your anxiety because there is one less thing to worry about. One way to get there is to practice numerous times before your actual speech.

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However, memorizing your script word-for-word is not encouraged. You can end up freezing should you forget something. You’ll also risk sounding unnatural and less approachable.

“No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and the application of wise thought that counts.” – Bob Proctor

Many people unconsciously make the mistake of reading from their slides or memorizing their script word-for-word without understanding their content – a definite way to stress themselves out.

Understanding your speech flow and content makes it easier for you to convert ideas and concepts into your own words which you can then clearly explain to others in a conversational manner. Designing your slides to include text prompts is also an easy hack to ensure you get to quickly recall your flow when your mind goes blank.[2]

One way to understand is to memorize the over-arching concepts or ideas in your pitch. It helps you speak more naturally and let your personality shine through. It’s almost like taking your audience on a journey with a few key milestones.

5. Practice makes perfect

Like most people, many of us are not naturally attuned to public speaking. Rarely do individuals walk up to a large audience and present flawlessly without any research and preparation.

In fact, some of the top presenters make it look easy during showtime because they have spent countless hours behind-the-scenes in deep practice. Even great speakers like the late John F. Kennedy would spend months preparing his speech beforehand.

Public speaking, like any other skill, requires practice – whether it be practicing your speech countless of times in front of a mirror or making notes. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!

6. Be authentic

There’s nothing wrong with feeling stressed before going up to speak in front of an audience.

Many people fear public speaking because they fear others will judge them for showing their true, vulnerable self. However, vulnerability can sometimes help you come across as more authentic and relatable as a speaker.

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Drop the pretence of trying to act or speak like someone else and you’ll find that it’s worth the risk. You become more genuine, flexible and spontaneous, which makes it easier to handle unpredictable situations – whether it’s getting tough questions from the crowd or experiencing an unexpected technical difficulty.

To find out your authentic style of speaking is easy. Just pick a topic or issue you are passionate about and discuss this like you normally would with a close family or friend. It is like having a conversation with someone in a personal one-to-one setting. A great way to do this on stage is to select a random audience member(with a hopefully calming face) and speak to a single person at a time during your speech. You’ll find that it’s easier trying to connect to one person at a time than a whole room.

With that said, being comfortable enough to be yourself in front of others may take a little time and some experience, depending how comfortable you are with being yourself in front of others. But once you embrace it, stage fright will not be as intimidating as you initially thought.

Presenters like Barack Obama are a prime example of a genuine and passionate speaker:

7. Post speech evaluation

Last but not the least, if you’ve done public speaking and have been scarred from a bad experience, try seeing it as a lesson learned to improve yourself as a speaker.

Don’t beat yourself up after a presentation

We are the hardest on ourselves and it’s good to be. But when you finish delivering your speech or presentation, give yourself some recognition and a pat on the back.

You managed to finish whatever you had to do and did not give up. You did not let your fears and insecurities get to you. Take a little more pride in your work and believe in yourself.

Improve your next speech

As mentioned before, practice does make perfect. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, try asking someone to film you during a speech or presentation. Afterwards, watch and observe what you can do to improve yourself next time.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself after every speech:

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  • How did I do?
  • Are there any areas for improvement?
  • Did I sound or look stressed?
  • Did I stumble on my words? Why?
  • Was I saying “um” too often?
  • How was the flow of the speech?

Write everything you observed down and keep practicing and improving. In time, you’ll be able to better manage your fears of public speaking and appear more confident when it counts.

If you want even more tips about public speaking or delivering a great presentation, check out these articles too:

Reference

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