Effective Business Writing

I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.

Quote attributed to Flannery O’Conner

Why Write?

Why bother writing at all in business?  Can’t you just talk with somebody and get things accomplished faster?

These are reasonable questions.  Particularly since writing well is hard, and in the days of emails, tweets and electronic messaging writing well is becoming a lost art.  My first answer to the questions is – if you are going to write poorly there is no reason to bother with writing.  Poor writing is going to create confusion and in all probability slow down instead of speed up progress.

But, if you are serious about writing well, there are five reasons for writing.

  1. Solidify and strengthening thinking.  Logic flaws, lack of supporting information, and costs are more easily seen when you are forced to put your thinking in writing.  This is a huge help in avoiding those blind side moments down the road of execution.
  2. Gain agreement to an idea or approval for execution.  It is easier for Management to digest and then respond to your idea or proposal if it is clearly written and subsequently read.  Including a sign-off line to authorize execution can also be helpful if your manager changes before execution is complete.
  3. Stimulate action.  When you want to get things done, having a written document you can share with team members outlining objectives and tactics is a huge help in moving from intellectual agreement to passionate action.
  4. To inform.  Not everything you write is expected to stimulate an action.  Sometimes you want to make team members or management aware of data or your observations.  Typically, you inform so you can keep relevant people posted and later leverage that knowledge to support an action you may want to take.
  5. To record.  In learning organizations, it is key to debrief activities and learn lessons that might have reapplication potential.  Recording facts in a way future readers could benefit is an important role for writing.

How Does Management Read?

In College, professors are interested in understanding your thought process as a way to assess if you are learning.  In business, the assumption is you understand the subject so managers read to make effective decisions.  Writing in business is very different than writing in College.

In terms of layout, typically managers read from top to bottom.  The first paragraph is key.  It helps determine if the manager will bother reading the rest of the document.  A poor or confusing first paragraph will likely result in the document being ignored.  You want to include a such required information in the first paragraph as practical.  The classic approach is to consider who, what, where, when, why and the financial implications.

Next, most managers look for underlined sentences.  In theory, if you (the writer) underlined a thought for emphasis it is because you felt it was important.  Therefore, managers key in on those sentences.

Last, managers will be drawn to charts and graphs that provide a visualization of a point you are making.  The key is to ensure the charts are helpful to the reader and provide relevant perspective.

Six Steps To Effective Writing

It is always nice when a checklist can be created to help you be better at something.  These six steps, if followed, will make you a better written communicator.

  1. Think.  As simple as it sounds, you need to take time to think through what you want to accomplish with a written document.  What is the objective?  What are your most compelling points?  Who is your ultimate target audience?  Is it your manager or are you expecting the document to be shared?  What action do you want the reader to take?  These are questions you should answer before ever putting a finger on a keyboard.
  2. Outline.  Use a format skeleton to help you identify your major conclusions and support.  Collect examples of similar documents if they exist and/or look online for templates that can make the organizing task easier.  Get alignment from colleagues and manager on what is important to address in the document.  Knowing the information needed to make a decision helps ensure your document is acted upon.
  3. Write.  Fill in your outline with prose.  Make certain your arguments are concise and persuasive.  Aim for sharing what is needed to take the action you seek rather than sharing everything you know.  This isn’t College, there is no such thing as partial credit so be as brief as possible.  One helpful approach is to chunk content.  Focus on one idea to each point.  Keep your paragraphs and words short.  Only use a data table or graph if it is more efficient than words.  Use headings and sub-heads to guide your reader through your document.  Use lists whenever they can help make comprehension easier.
  4. Edit.  Make sure your writing is easy to read.  Is the flow logical? Are you using facts to support your points or are you simply pontificating your opinion?  Are there typos (autocorrect cannot be trusted)?  Are the numbers you are using consistent throughout the document?  Have you properly referenced , titled and numbered attachments?
  5. Leave.  Walk away, do something else and then reread what you wrote.  Make changes so the document is as efficient as possible.
  6. Send.  Ask for feedback from the reader.  Take the feedback and rewrite any section that is confusing or add any additional data/information required to take the action you are seeking.  It is important to do this rewrite so you can have confidence that the alignment/approval you are seeking is without reservation.

What To Write

In general, there are four types of business writing.  They all follow a similar format.

  • Recommendations
  • Analyses/Summaries
  • Issue Sheets
  • Talk Sheets

The classic format is:

Subject Line

Opening Paragraph (what, when, where, why, toppling financials)

Basis (rationale, typically no more than three points)

Detail ( a more robust description than provided in the opening paragraph, often makes use of attachments to deepen reader understanding)

Risk Discussion

Next Steps (with your agreement, we will …)

In the case of an analysis, simply replace the Basis with Conclusions, the Detail with Key Findings (these support your conclusions) and the Risk Discussion with a review of research methodology.

In the case of an issue or talk sheet, the Opening Paragraph defines the issue.  The Basis describes why it is an issue.  The Detail section shares relevant data to help the reader understand the scope of the issue, and the Risk Discussion discusses the implications if the issue is not resolved.

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