Once I learned these simple tricks to improve my business writing, everything improved.
I got better responses. I got better results. I wasted less time.
You can do the same.
Like many things, the magic is in the approach. Knowing which trick you are using and why makes all the difference.
You’ve got to aim for certain results if that’s what you want to get.
Don’t waste so much time, like I have done over the years (countless hours!), in frustration that things aren’t going the way you like.
This email thread is going on forever…
I can’t believe that they don’t get it…
They are missing a big important point….
Pretty much all business is conducted in writing today. Whether it’s emails or texts or meeting notes or whatever Basecamp-y tool of the day is “facilitating” communication on your project.
The tool is not the answer. And the tool is not the problem.
Better to master a few timeless techniques that are proven to be effective.
That’s how you can get better results.
What Are You Writing For?
There are 3 things we hope to accomplish most of the time in business writing.
- Action. This is when we need to get things done. It requires clarity and persuasion. Because we need to communicate an idea, to convince people to agree, to make something happen.
- Thought. Sometimes we see a need to get people thinking about the bigger picture and broader implications. Strategic ambiguity can help.
- Stop the logistical bullshit. Ugh! You’ve been there, I know. Let’s do our part to put an end to the madness!
Let’s talk about how to write for results in each scenario.
How to Write When You Need Action
You must be clear about your goal. You must be strategic in your approach.
And you must be clear and persuasive in your writing.
There are 3 simple rules to being clear in your writing (those are the subject of my book on the topic).
- Overcome the “Curse of Knowledge.” We all have a bias in this area. Simply put: once we know something, we forget what it’s like not to know it. So you must work to put yourself in the shoes of your readers. Make sure you put things in plain and simple terms. Avoid jargon at all costs.
- Say one thing only. Nothing diverts action quite like trying to tackle too many things at once. Yeah, there’s probably a lot to talk about. But when you are writing for action, stay focused strictly on the one thing you are trying to communicate.
- Use the power of story to persuade. Nothing helps people to grasp concepts like a story. Stories can build empathy and help people envision the future way more easily than data. Tell the story to sell the idea.
Being simple, clear, and compelling will go a long way toward getting the outcome you desire.
Yes, it takes some thought and effort and a few re-writes. But I can assure you, especially after having ignored this strategy for many years, it’s well worth the effort. My results have improved dramatically!
How to Write When You Need People to Think
You might need to provoke thinking rather than action. Maybe you sense a strategic error in the works. Or it could be that you feel people are jumping to a conclusion. Perhaps you just need more time for analysis, and you think others might too.
In this fast-paced world, it can be hard to slow down. And text, emails, etc aren’t really good at cultivating strategic thinking.
Unless you introduce a business writing technique that can help.
I call it the “I am thinking out loud” technique.
This is when you present your thoughts in a demonstrably reflective and contemplative manner, including with your use of punctuation.
By doing this, you can change the tone and encourage others to step back and think a bit more too.
The key here is to drop any sense of formality. Including sentence structure and punctuation.
It goes something like this:
lots to consider…. could be a good opportunity….not sure I have the full picture….thinking we might do well to look at a few alternatives…wonder what Sue would have to say…or maybe even Bill….
This jumbled up paragraph is what thinking out loud might look like in written form. And that’s the point. To make it look like just that. While including open ended thoughts and using words like “could,” “maybe,” and “wonder” to help induce others to ponder with us a bit.
Not every message merits a clear, direct, and final response. Sometimes we need to think. Making that clear in your writing can help to shift a discussion to a more open mode.
And perhaps help shift it to a more appropriate medium, like a meeting or call.
How to Write When You Need the Madness to Stop
There might not be anything more common or maddening than these threads. While it seems like they are some sort of “necessary evil” of modern life, they don’t need to be.
You can help to stop the madness by deliberately planning through to the end goal. This is the opposite of the technique we just talked about.
In this case, you will attempt to fully articulate the path to closure.
For example, maybe it’s as simple as one of those plans about meeting for lunch that is spiraling out of control.
Many times we’re tempted to be polite and flexible. But that “anything is fine with me” response is not helpful.
You will be better off responding with a suggested final decision and a process for coming to a resolution, such as “Let’s meet at xyz at 12:30. I’ll call and make a reservation unless I hear from one of you that it doesn’t work. If that happens, we’ll come back to the group with a specific recommendation of when and where to hold the lunch.”
The key here is to be specific about driving toward a specific resolution and/or a process for bringing things to a conclusion.
People will appreciate your help. While we’re all being polite, we’re secretly hoping someone will help to end the madness when too much time and energy is going into low impact work.
Improving your business writing, in many cases, is about being strategic. Know what you are trying to accomplish. Then, go after that goal.
If you want to make something happen, then be clear and persuasive. Write to support the perspective of your audience, focus on one core message, and use stories to illustrate your points when and where you can.
If you want to provoke thought, then use the “thinking out loud” technique to share your thoughts and to encourage others to think more broadly.
If you want to end the madness of long, low-value, logistical threads, then push a very specific resolution and/or a specific process that will lead to one.
Be deliberate. Be clear….except when you want people to step back and THINK. Be specific about the path to resolution.
Use the appropriate technique for the situation and your writing will become much more effective.