Is Business Writing a Neglected Skill?

“Writing is not a talent. It is taught.”

Those words were imparted to me during a discussion with my journalism lecturer when I attended a university open day. That was 15 years ago and the advice still resonates today.

Business leaders spend time and money investing in training that will bring obvious benefit to the company. However, learning how to write for business is often neglected, despite it being one of the most used methods to convey your ideas and concepts.

The written word is a means to engage with those whom you work and do business with so getting it right is essential.

Busy managers may not have the time nor see the need to improve how they write, but investing into learning how to produce intelligent and informed content is well placed.

Bryan Garner, author of The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing also echoes the sentiment of my former lecturer. Effective writing “is not a gift that’s you’re born with,” he said. “It’s a skill that you cultivate.”

Here are tips on how to bring clarity to your content.

Ideas, Research, Write

It is tempting to jump straight into writing your document and research as you go along. Truth is, writing is not a linear process, but having a clear idea of purpose and audience makes it more productive.

Create a mind-map, formulate a rough structure and then establish what research you need to undertake to patch-up any gaps in knowledge.

You may deviate from the structure once you start writing, or your research could take you in a different direction. However, by implementing this process, your voice and intent will come across more naturally than if you were to painfully stumble your way through the first draft.

Be Clear and Concise

The way we read and process content is changing. It needs to be understood upon first reading and clunky, technical language can hinder the message instantly getting across.  Technical business jargon is out, conversational tone is in.

Cut down on prose, minimise corporate lingo and get straight to the point. Use short sentences and never use a long word when a short one will do.

Limit emails to three or four sentences, making it easier for your reader to respond from their mobile device.

Appeal to Short Attention Spans

Long prose is becoming a rare concept in the world of business writing. If used in blog form it is often broken up to appeal your audience’s shorter attention span.  Use headings, sub-headings and bullet points to keep them on track.

Use an Active Voice

The verb “to be” is one of the most common phrases in the English language and has many forms such as “was”, “were”, “being”.

Avoid using a passive voice to tighten up your copy. For example:

“The letter was written by me in a day” (Passive)

“I wrote the letter in a day” (Active)

Adjust Your Tone

When communicating verbally, adjusting your tone is an intuitive process. In the business environment, finding an appropriate tone of voice in written communication depends on the purpose of your content and audience.

Writing in the wrong tone, whether you mean to or not, can lead to sending the wrong message. Fine-tune your words so you ensure your point is taken the way you intended.

‘Clear Writing Means Clear Thinking Means…’ written by Marvin H Swift originally appeared in the Business Harvard Review in 1973 and analyses examples of business communications.

Here is one example that outlines the importance of getting the tone right:

To: All Employees

From: Samuel Edwards, General Manager

Subject: Abuse of Copiers

Employees have been using the copiers for personal matters. Obviously, such practice is contrary to company policy and will result in dismissal.
If there are any questions, please contact this office”

In this extract, the policy is well stated, the prose is tight but does the memo achieve its intended purpose? It does, however, as Marvin H Swift points out, the wording sounds harsh and a little foolish. Is this manager really going to fire someone over using a printer?

The words that stand out are:

  • Abuse
  • Obviously
  • Dismissal

Abuse can be substituted for ‘use’, but ‘obviously’ needs further thought. If the policy is obvious then why are they using the printers? Are employees purposely ignoring the company rule book or is it that the policy was never ‘obvious’ in the first place? This calls into questions the word ‘dismissal’. Should colleagues be dismissed for something that was never clearly understood as a rule?

This is how the memo was amended:

To: All Employees

From: Samuel Edwards, General Manager

Subject: Use of Copier

Copiers are not to be used for personal matters. If there are any questions, please contact this office.

Proofread

Typos happen. That’s a fact. Minimise the chances of the odd mistake creeping into your business content by re-reading it once, twice or even three times.

Set aside time to write a draft and to proofread separately. Deadlines may dictate when you do this but it is a good idea to return to the draft later on in the day or the day after. Read your writing out loud to catch any missing words or unclear phrasing.

Practice Makes Perfect

Whether writing for business or for pleasure, it is a skill that takes time to master. All writers find that the learning never stops and continuous practice will prevent your ability from developing rust.

Stay ahead of the curve, analyse content trends and new ways to communicate and engage with your audience.

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