Writing with impact

Despite predictions of the paperless office, we are still wading through piles of the stuff.

The environmental implications aside, one of the key issues here is that we are being swamped by communications - and this means that if you are in the habit of issuing requests or directives in writing, they need to stand out - for the right reasons.

A write struggle

As Robert Ashton, chief executive of business writing trainers Emphasis, says: "For many companies, writing is a 'soft skill'.

In other words, it's one of those slightly intangible areas of competence they would prefer their employees to have got to grips with, but not a great cause for concern if they haven't".

However, as Ashton points out: "Very few companies have any real understanding of just how much time their employees spend struggling to write reports and other documents - or trying to read badly written ones.

Nor do they understand the true cost implication of all this wasted time.

If they did, the chances are they might begin to take good writing skills a lot more seriously."

Pen skills

Business writing is a real skill.

And it is not the preserve of corporate communications - everyone needs to be able to put together well-written, punchy reports and concise e-mails.

There's nothing more likely to be deleted, unread, than something dull or poorly written.

There's an element of snobbery in it, too - poor English, written or spoken, is unlikely to help speed you towards the boardroom.

But don't be intimidated.

If you are concerned about your written style, speak to an expert.

Much of the art of business writing comes down to confidence.

Ask someone you respect for their written style to look over your work, and ask the recipients of your written communication what they think of it.

Think about your audience.

Who will read what you write - and why do you want them to read it? What response do you want? Consider the tone of your language - as an HR practitioner, you could be using very formal, even legal, language.

You might also need to use less formal, reassuring language.

Resist the temptation to use 'text' language, however well you know people.

Don't try to crack jokes - they won't go down well.

Written words are much more easily misinterpreted than their spoken equivalents, and what may have seemed hilarious to you may not have the chief financial officer roaring with laughter.

Think about the number of recipients - this will also affect the tone of the language.

Be friendly to your users Content is key.

It needs to be relevant and concise.

If you're not a confident writer, sit down and plot what you want to say, using bullet points or sub-headings.

Use these to build the content, making sure that the structure is logical and fluid.

Think about the result you want.

Do you want people to sign up for a training course or to attend a meeting? Mention it somewhere prominent in the text - however beautifully it's written, they may not read to the end of your missive.

Avoid lengthy chunks of text.

Make sure your copy is broken up into user-friendly pieces, and keep the language simple without patronising your audience.

Ask a colleague to check the facts - if you get anything wrong, you can be certain someone will pull you up on it, and nine times out of 10 it will be the chief executive.

Above all, make sure you write for your readers.

Ask what formats and styles they want their written communications in, then act on their advice.

What are the biggest challenges?

Developing a reader-centred approach to writing can be one of the most important concepts to grasp.

For reports and longer documents, this means asking yourself a few questions before you start, such as: 'Who will read it?' and: 'How much do they know about the subject?' Always think about what you want your reader to do when they have read whatever it is you are writing.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to writing at work is to make sure the main points are immediately clear to the reader and not hidden under layers of analysis and background detail.

E-mails should highlight main points in the first two paragraphs.

Longer documents such as reports, business cases and proposals should have a one or two-page executive summary highlighting the main points - your readers are short of time too.

What should you avoid?

  • Using jargon, business-speak and flowery language
  • Typos, poor punctuation and grammatical errors
  • Key messages hidden by much less important information and detail
  • Big chunks of text with never-ending paragraphs and too few subheadings
  • Vague and unsubstantiated statements
  • A weak or long-winded introduction and no real ending.

Top tips

  • Learn how to KISS (keep it short and simple)
  • Avoid using jargon and HR-speak
  • Write short sentences that are easy to follow
  • Be active and direct.

Books

10 steps to successful business writing Jack E Appleman, ASTD Press, ?11. 95, ISBN: 1562864815 Business Writing: A guide to doing it well Sidney Callis, Management Books 2000, ?14. 99, ISBN: 1852525800

By Tara Craig

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