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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 February 11, 2021

Easily Misunderstood by Others? 6 Barriers You Should Overcome to Make Communication Less Frustrating

Easily Misunderstood by Others? 6 Barriers You Should Overcome to Make Communication Less Frustrating

How often have you said something simple, only to have the person who you said this to misunderstand it or twist the meaning completely around? Nodding your head in affirmative? Then this means that you are being unclear in your communication.

Communication should be simple, right? It’s all about two people or more talking and explaining something to the other. The problem lies in the talking itself, somehow we end up being unclear, and our words, attitude or even the way of talking becomes a barrier in communication, most of the times unknowingly. We give you six common barriers to communication, and how to get past them; for you to actually say what you mean, and or the other person to understand it as well…

The 6 Walls You Need to Break Down to Make Communication Effective

Think about it this way, a simple phrase like “what do you mean” can be said in many different ways and each different way would end up “communicating” something else entirely. Scream it at the other person, and the perception would be anger. Whisper this is someone’s ear and others may take it as if you were plotting something. Say it in another language, and no one gets what you mean at all, if they don’t speak it… This is what we mean when we say that talking or saying something that’s clear in your head, many not mean that you have successfully communicated it across to your intended audience – thus what you say and how, where and why you said it – at times become barriers to communication.[1]

Perceptual Barrier

The moment you say something in a confrontational, sarcastic, angry or emotional tone, you have set up perceptual barriers to communication. The other person or people to whom you are trying to communicate your point get the message that you are disinterested in what you are saying and sort of turn a deaf ear. In effect, you are yelling your point across to person who might as well be deaf![2]

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The problem: When you have a tone that’s not particularly positive, a body language that denotes your own disinterest in the situation and let your own stereotypes and misgivings enter the conversation via the way you talk and gesture, the other person perceives what you saying an entirely different manner than say if you said the same while smiling and catching their gaze.

The solution: Start the conversation on a positive note, and don’t let what you think color your tone, gestures of body language. Maintain eye contact with your audience, and smile openly and wholeheartedly…

Attitudinal Barrier

Some people, if you would excuse the language, are simply badass and in general are unable to form relationships or even a common point of communication with others, due to their habit of thinking to highly or too lowly of them. They basically have an attitude problem – since they hold themselves in high esteem, they are unable to form genuine lines of communication with anyone. The same is true if they think too little of themselves as well.[3]

The problem: If anyone at work, or even in your family, tends to roam around with a superior air – anything they say is likely to be taken by you and the others with a pinch, or even a bag of salt. Simply because whenever they talk, the first thing to come out of it is their condescending attitude. And in case there’s someone with an inferiority complex, their incessant self-pity forms barriers to communication.

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The solution: Use simple words and an encouraging smile to communicate effectively – and stick to constructive criticism, and not criticism because you are a perfectionist. If you see someone doing a good job, let them know, and disregard the thought that you could have done it better. It’s their job so measure them by industry standards and not your own.

Language Barrier

This is perhaps the commonest and the most inadvertent of barriers to communication. Using big words, too much of technical jargon or even using just the wrong language at the incorrect or inopportune time can lead to a loss or misinterpretation of communication. It may have sounded right in your head and to your ears as well, but if sounded gobbledygook to the others, the purpose is lost.

The problem: Say you are trying to explain a process to the newbies and end up using every technical word and industry jargon that you knew – your communication has failed if the newbie understood zilch. You have to, without sounding patronizing, explain things to someone in the simplest language they understand instead of the most complex that you do.

The solution: Simplify things for the other person to understand you, and understand it well. Think about it this way: if you are trying to explain something scientific to a child, you tone it down to their thinking capacity, without “dumbing” anything down in the process.[4]

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Emotional Barrier

Sometimes, we hesitate in opening our mouths, for fear of putting our foot in it! Other times, our emotional state is so fragile that we keep it and our lips zipped tightly together lest we explode. This is the time that our emotions become barriers to communication.[5]

The problem: Say you had a fight at home and are on a slow boil, muttering, in your head, about the injustice of it all. At this time, you have to give someone a dressing down over their work performance. You are likely to transfer at least part of your angst to the conversation then, and talk about unfairness in general, leaving the other person stymied about what you actually meant!

The solution: Remove your emotions and feelings to a personal space, and talk to the other person as you normally would. Treat any phobias or fears that you have and nip them in the bud so that they don’t become a problem. And remember, no one is perfect.

Cultural Barrier

Sometimes, being in an ever-shrinking world means that inadvertently, rules can make cultures clash and cultural clashes can turn into barriers to communication. The idea is to make your point across without hurting anyone’s cultural or religious sentiments.

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The problem: There are so many ways culture clashes can happen during communication and with cultural clashes; it’s not always about ethnicity. A non-smoker may have problems with smokers taking breaks; an older boss may have issues with younger staff using the Internet too much.

The solution: Communicate only what is necessary to get the point across – and eave your personal sentiments or feelings out of it. Try to be accommodative of the other’s viewpoint, and in case you still need to work it out, do it one to one, to avoid making a spectacle of the other person’s beliefs.[6]

Gender Barrier

Finally, it’s about Men from Mars and Women from Venus. Sometimes, men don’t understand women and women don’t get men – and this gender gap throws barriers in communication. Women tend to take conflict to their graves, literally, while men can move on instantly. Women rely on intuition, men on logic – so inherently, gender becomes a big block in successful communication.[7]

The problem: A male boss may inadvertently rub his female subordinates the wrong way with anti-feminism innuendoes, or even have problems with women taking too many family leaves. Similarly, women sometimes let their emotions get the better of them, something a male audience can’t relate to.

The solution: Talk to people like people – don’t think or classify them into genders and then talk accordingly. Don’t make comments or innuendos that are gender biased – you don’t have to come across as an MCP or as a bra-burning feminist either. Keep gender out of it.

And remember, the key to successful communication is simply being open, making eye contact and smiling intermittently. The battle is usually half won when you say what you mean in simple, straightforward words and keep your emotions out of it.

Reference

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