I have particularly noted the number of people who use English as an additional language (EAL) with whom I interact for almost all my business outside the house. In the last month, I dealt with people from Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines, China, Nigeria, Hungary, and many more. They helped me deal with essential services like vaccinations, eye exams, proper cooling for my home, groceries, and schooling for my kids. I have realized, rather personally and viscerally, that I am working to bridge communication about basic needs when I teach business writing. I also realize that my students, and in many cases their sponsoring organizations, pay an awful lot of money to improve English communication.
We all have come to understand that communication is an essential component of any enterprise. Yet, companies spend an astounding amount of time and money bringing employees up to basic proficiency standards. Businesses reportedly spend $3.1 billion on remedial writing training for their employees annually. And this huge amount isn’t from a lack of education. It isn’t that the technical skills of grammar and punctuation aren’t taught. Much more, it seems the problem of poor writing can largely be attributed to a lack of proper framework – frequently an inability to be aware of what is actually happening when people communicate, and in our concern here, write.
Increasingly, companies understand the key to productivity and organizational success lies in fortifying their internal writing standards, whether it’s around, emails, company news, internal documents and memos, work order instructions, chats, or project collaboration. But what they fail to do is to get across what is actually happening when communication happens.
The values of good business writing
With more workers shifting to remote recently, managing self and collaborating with others are seen as vital.
From an individual perspective, employees devote their attention to mastering stress and anxiety, taking control of their time to increase productivity, and improving their business writing, communication style, listening skills, and etiquette. It also gives employees the tools they need to reduce stress, improve confidence, and work smarter.
Bolstering business writing increases and improves team performance overall. Improved communication enhances team collaboration, customer conversion, employee happiness, and retention. Yet the value of good business writing goes beyond this.
Good business writing focuses the reader on content. The best writers let the content emerge from the writing, so the writer and the language used is not so much seen as an obstacle, but offer a kind of background to the content, in which the sender and the receiver find a common awareness. This is the essential value of good writing. The two become of one focus, and if the focus is important enough, the two people will share that content inseparably.
Conceived as such, excellent communication has the potential to create a richer lived experience. And unlike much advice, learning to be a good writer is to understand how one’s written communication is like the car that delivers a treasured friend to one’s home – good writing disappears once the content has arrived. Once my friend arrives at my home, the car is no longer important.
Unfortunately, writing is often developed in such a way that the writing itself becomes the focus, which has the same effect as putting my friend back in the car.
6 business writing tips for leaders and their teams
Good business writing is part of the best business cultures and needs models at all levels of management. Employees need strong examples to follow as guides and feel confident with the advice and tools they need to succeed. Consider these six pillars of strong business writing as a foundation for company-wide guidelines.
Plan out your message before you write.
Taking a moment to think about what you want to say can help you convey your message more effectively and clearly. Keep communications short and simple, ideally expressing one main idea per message to ensure the point lands. This, of course, is almost the most vital of all tasks – considering how “it lands”. So few people can identify with the receivers of the message before sending it. What do your receivers need to know? What content should shine through your message?
However, you may need to combine several related points into one message to avoid bombarding colleagues with a full inbox; in these cases, number paragraphs or use bullet points to organize chunks of information into smaller, more digestible sections.
You can also outline or use planning tools (like mind maps) to assist with longer or more complicated documents. Diagrams can help clarify the relationships between different tasks, ideas, and priorities.
Place the main point up front in the communication.
What is your purpose for communicating?
- To inform?
- To inquire?
- To confirm?
- To propose?
- To persuade?
- To invite?
- To approve?
- To reject?
- To oppose?
Clearly defining your purpose from the outset will set your message’s tone, style, and structure. You should also begin your message with the most essential information so the recipient knows what to expect upfront and can prioritize the message accordingly.
For instance, if your purpose is to generate excitement to join a team-building activity, you won’t want to write too formally, use heavy jargon, or bore them with paragraphs about how their participation will increase team productivity. Instead, keep the memo light and fun, using bullets to describe what will happen at the event, and wrap it all up with a call-to-action that encourages enrollment. You may not ordinarily use many exclamation points in a business setting, but the subject matter allows it in this less formal instance.
Pay attention to tone.
Tone can be one of the trickiest aspects of writing because it requires you to see the message through the readers’ point of view to ensure there is no subtext between the lines. The right tone conveys confidence, respect, and professionalism, but the wrong tone can confuse, muddle the meaning of the message, or even sow discontent.
Be sure to avoid these pitfalls in conveying tone:
- Avoid using overly negative words, particularly in the subject line. For instance, instead of a “problem,” it’s a “situation.” Instead of sharing what you cannot do, state what and when you can do it. For example:
- Say: “I can provide greater detail at the meeting Friday afternoon”
- Don’t say: “I cannot provide further details at this time.”
- Use empathy when communicating new directions. People, by nature, are anxious when it comes to change, so providing a sense of closure to the reasoning behind the change is more likely to help them cope.
- Give employees the benefit of the doubt and open the door for a productive conversation. For example, if an employee failed to complete a report, try to address the situation by saying:
- Say: “I did not receive the report this week. Do you need assistance?”
- Don’t say: “You did not deliver the report to me on time.”
- Skip dramatic language. Certain phrases have become all too common in business writing: “I regret to inform you”; “It is really unfortunate”; “It is extremely urgent that you”; or “There is a massive effort underway to . . .” This wording can come off as calculated and impersonal, immediately deterring the recipients of the message.
- Give the message a final review to assess what tone of voice comes through. Analyze word choice, phrasing, punctuation, and capitalization to determine how a recipient is likely to interpret a message, allowing you to click “send” with confidence. The problem here is the hurry with which most writing happens. Business can put time pressures on us that may, in fact, not allow us to do this last step. I constantly encourage business leaders to help employees slow down, take a break from the email they are composing, and come back with a “reader’s hat” on. When they are able to return to their own writing as if they were the recipient, they will be able to clear out all confusions, errors, or poor word choices that may present the wrong tone. That way the message will land smoothly.
Consider your audience.
You always want to ask yourself, “Who am I writing this for?” Content should be tailored to prioritize what your audience values. Often, management talks down to employees and emphasizes that workers should care about a particular agenda because the corporate leaders care. Instead, communication should be written with a team mentality, emphasizing the collaborative corporate culture you want your organization to embody.
For example, in situations where management has to announce bad news to the sales department, try to go for a positive approach:
- Say: “Although sales generated last quarter were not as expected, we are confident management and teams can collaborate effectively on a new strategy that will bring in the expected results.”
- Don’t say: “Management is disappointed in sales generated last quarter and needs teams to step up to the plate and perform accordingly.,”
Define responsibilities clearly.
As a leader, it’s your job to delegate tasks to empower your team, assist with professional development, and get projects completed.
If you’re collaborating with colleagues on a single project or document, make sure it’s clear who is responsible for what part of the project to avoid duplicate work. Let the individuals know why you’ve selected them to lead a particular effort to build trust and inspire confidence. Be sure everyone knows what decisions they have the authority to make and whom to speak to if there is an issue that arises beyond their own authority.
Clearly describe what goals, deadlines, or milestones you expect to reach. Let each team member tackle the job in their own way and at their own pace as much as possible to avoid micromanaging.
Create templates for commonly used documents and communication.
Business leaders often find they are writing many of the same types of messages:
- Acceptance or rejection letters for positions or raises
- Positive “thank you” or acknowledgment letters
- Memos to update employees on company news
- Project assignment announcements
- Performance reviews
- Work order requests
- Meeting minute summaries
- Project updates
Templates can be incredibly helpful to keep messaging consistent and provide teams with a blueprint of everything they need to know and/or include. They can encompass goals, success metrics, responsibilities, budgets, milestones, deliverables, schedules, and communication plans. Templates can take the pressure off of employees who are wondering if they included all necessary information, helping them streamline their processes and improve productivity.
In the end, you don’t want your people to focus entirely on productivity. Instead, consider that effective business writing builds community bonds that offer a stable structure for continued growth. This is the long-term goal of all business writing. If excellent business writing was a garden, it wouldn’t just focus on the flower- and food-producing plants, but it would take care of the soil that produces the plants, and the weeds that can jeopardize them.
Thus, improving business writing across the entire organization takes time, patience, and consistent work. However, with these six business writing tips mentioned above, you and your team can take the first steps toward business writing proficiency as soon as today!