Business people expect to be able to read, without difficulty, any document they’re given. They don’t want to have to spend time reading it again and again in order to understand the message. Regardless of how grammatically correct a piece of writing is, they will condemn it as badly written if they can’t understand its message easily.
This means that if we want to be considered good business writers, we need to think about more than simply getting the grammar right.
If our documents are to be useful to people as they go about their daily work, those documents must be concise and accurate, and they must offer something helpful. In business-speak, they need to add value. Unfortunately, this is where many modern business documents fall down.
|What do business readers want?||What to they often get?|
|Opinions, advice, conclusions, solutions, insights||Too much information, long lists of findings, lengthy essays|
|Questions answered quickly and clearly||Answers buried in indigestible text|
|Concise, unambiguous language||Garbled sentences; vague, abstract language|
The purpose of business writing
‘If you have nothing to say, there is no point in saying it.’
First of all, let’s consider why we write.
In business, we’re usually writing for one of three reasons: to explain, to inform or to persuade. This is in contrast to other areas, where documents can be written for quite different reasons: to amuse, to educate, to entertain, to pass an exam, to win a literary prize, and so on.
Here are some examples of business documents that either explain, inform or persuade (or do all three):
- an email to a manager requesting a new computer
- an auditor’s annual report to a company’s board of directors
- a market research report to a politician on the results of a telephone survey
- a company-wide memo from the CEO explaining the new flexible work hours policy
- a healthcare adviser’s report to a government depart- ment on the options for an integrated health services program
- a local council’s policy on resident parking.
Although the reason for writing may be obvious in theory, in practice many writers are so busy recounting the detailed background, or how they arrived at their conclusion, that their purpose for writing is obscured or lost altogether. Too often the result is a document that is unclear to everyone but its writer.
Why do we get it wrong so often?
One reason is our education. We’ve absorbed certain writing habits from an early age. For example, at primary school we’re encouraged to be creative in our use of words, then at high school and university we’re expected to demonstrate excellence in thinking. When we make the transition into business, not only do we need to support our conclusions, we’ve also been conditioned to believe it’s essential to write as much and as elaborately as possible.
Another reason is the pressure most of us are under at work. Submissions, reports, business cases and other docu- ments often have to be written on the run, with little time for drafting or rewriting. Deadlines are usually non-negotiable, and project plans rarely include a realistic amount of time for writing and editing a report.
Finally, we all want to be respected in the workplace – to be seen as experienced and professional – and sometimes we misguidedly believe this will happen if we use complicated, overly formal language. We therefore risk confusing style
with substance, by focusing on the language rather than the document’s structure or message.
So what does a ‘good’ document look like?
‘Good’ documents, as well as being grammatically correct and written in straightforward language, present their messages in such a way that their intended readers can understand them quickly and easily. Writers of these documents do this by considering the document’s overall readability.
Readability has three components
We can think of readability as having three equally important elements:
- structure: the material is organised based on the reader’s point of view, not the writer’s
- layout: the material is designed and presented in a way that allows for quick and easy reading and understanding
- language: the style is clear, concise, uncluttered and to the point.
This book deals primarily with the third element, language, but it’s important to be aware of the other two as well if you want to create truly readable documents.
TIP: Documents that are intellectually and empirically sound but difficult to read and understand do not help the writer’s professional reputation.
How to do it
First, confirm your reader and purpose
Before you do anything else, you need to confirm two things: who your reader is, and the purpose of your document (in other words, what you hope your document will achieve).
It’s easy to define our reader as ‘the board of directors’ or ‘the project management team’ or ‘all staff’ or ‘business unit heads’. But a generic definition doesn’t work in practice. You need to be more specific.
Answering the following questions will help:
- Who is the reader? Can you name him or her? If there’s more than one . . .
- can they be grouped? How? (ie into what categories?)
- who is the primary reader? On what basis? (ie who pays the bill? makes the go/no decision? has influence over the other readers?)
- What are you writing about? Can you say it in one sentence? Why are you writing about this? Can you say it in one sentence?
- Is the reader familiar with the topic?
- How much do they already know about it? (ie how much background do you honestly need to provide? Don’t tell them what they already know.)
- What is their main question?
- Can you answer it?
- Where in your document will you place the answer?
- What is their probable frame of mind:
- towards you? (receptive? interested? cynical? wary?)
- towards the document and its message? (enthusi- astic? uninterested? hostile?)
- What do you hope they will do after reading this document?
- How can you make sure they see this document as value-adding?
Think carefully about the answers to these questions, as they will influence how you structure and present your information.
Get the ‘story’ right
If you’re struggling to clarify your ideas and key messages, the best approach is to plan the big picture before you start writing. Here is an easy way to do it:
- Do a storyboard or linear plan before you start writing.
- List all your main topics or themes, with each one accompanied by a one-sentence explanation. This will show you at a glance how your ‘story’ stacks up.
- Include key messages, not just chapter or topic headings.
- Rather than simply listing your chapter and section headings, you’ll find it much more helpful if you include a sentence after each one, stating the main conclusion or principal message of that section.
- Keep your reader and your purpose in mind.
- After writing each topic, heading or key sentence, ask yourself whether they will make sense and be valuable to the reader.
- Include only information that is directly relevant to this topic and purpose.
- Do not include history, background or ‘nice to know’ facts unless you are sure they are relevant to or important for the topic/purpose.
- Use the ‘So what?’ test to help you stay on track
One size does not fit all
How a business document is structured should depend on its reader and purpose, which means that a one-size-fits-all template is unlikely to be successful. Templates are more effective if they are flexible, to allow for the document’s specific context. If you are obliged to use a standard template that permits no variations, you should do your best to tailor the information so that it addresses the reader’s concerns and interests.
In addition, different readers may have different require- ments of a document, as well as different levels of knowledge of the topic. Some will only want a quick overview of the main points, and won’t be interested in the detail. Others will want to know the detail of every point. Others again might have only one question: ‘What does this mean for me?’
As it’s not possible for a document to cover all these variables successfully, you will need to think laterally about how to structure your writing.
For example, a large, complex report with numerous recommendations, plus instructions for how to implement them, can be more effective if it’s constructed as three stand- alone documents, each with its own reader and purpose:
- an executive summary (main points, overview only)
- the body of the report, containing the context for the work, the findings, conclusions and recommendations (the substantive content)
- appendices, containing the detailed implementation plan, plus any background material not essential to under- standing the main report.
These three sections can be bound together, or they can be bound separately if the report is extremely long.
Some tools to help you
Once you’re clear about who you’re writing for and why, you can think about how best to organise and present your material to make sure it’s truly ‘readable’.
The following powerful tips will help you do this.
|To create a good document…||How?|
|Use a top-down structure||Reverse the traditional structure and place your conclusions first.|
|Highlight the key messages||Present the principal messages early and in summary form. Then, within the main body of the document, make them easy to find.|
|Make layout your secret weapon||Consider non-text elements, such as page layout, legibility, highlighting and graphics.|