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I'll Have a Latte with that Memo:
Five Tips for Better Business Writing

By Tana DeBoer
Communications Manager, Manchester Companies, Inc.

July 2006

“Good communication is as stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard to sleep after.”

~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1906-2001
(noted writer and aviation pioneer, wife of aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr.)

Many business people spend hours every day writing e-mails, memos, proposals, reports, presentations, newsletters, and other written materials, but they don’t consider themselves “writers.” They also catch the errors, polish the grammar, and correct the misspelled words of others, but they don’t consider themselves “editors.”

The irony is that the power of the written word is immense. And, as the above quote illustrates, business writing can be as stimulating as a latte when you do it correctly. So even if you don’t think of yourself as a writer or editor, you and your company can probably benefit from these five tips for clearer, more polished, more professional business writing:

One: Start with a key message and an outline
Do you stare at the blank page on your screen, waiting for inspiration to strike and the words to start flowing? A more efficient use of your time is to kick-start your writing project by thinking about your key message(s) and drafting an outline.

What is the most important message you want to communicate? Pull it out of your brain and write it down in one simple sentence. Keep it concise and easy to understand. Put it in a prominent spot where you can see it while you are writing. (I usually write the key message on a scrap of paper and tape it to my monitor.) By keeping your key message in mind at all times, you will be more effective with the words you choose to write.

Next, draft an outline that supports your key message. This ensures that you don’t focus too much on the little things (such as grammar) and forget any of your main arguments.  In addition, you’ll avoid the inclusion of points that aren’t relevant. An outline also prevents writing in a confused, illogical order; it illustrates areas where you need to find more information or do more research.

Two: Know your audience
Is your document or presentation for co-workers, customers, investors, or the media? No matter who the audience is, be sure to tailor your words to fit your readers. For example, co-workers will understand the internal business jargon that’s a part of all corporate cultures (acronyms for business units or products, for example), but your customers will think that you are speaking a different language.

Remember that in a business environment, your words are usually intended to persuade or inform your audience, and you will not be effective in that endeavor if you don’t understand what’s important to them and what their expectations are. If you miss this target, few people will take the time to read past the first sentence.

Three: Apply correct grammar, style, and usage
Another goal of effective business writing is to gain the trust and credibility of your audience, so it is imperative that your document or presentation does not have poor grammar, misspelled words, or inappropriate style. Nothing blows credibility like a misspelled word or poor punctuation—readers will assume that if you are sloppy about these simple details, then you probably don’t know what you are talking about in the substance of your communication.

Don’t be afraid or intimidated by grammar rules; just take the time to care about these details. You’re asking for trouble if you solely rely on your software’s spell-check feature. In addition to spell-check, carefully read through the document or presentation to look for spelling errors. Think about verb tenses, subject-verb patterns, and pronouns. Make sure your business jargon, abbreviations, and acronyms are used properly for your audience. Check punctuation marks, capitalization, and usage of tricky words (insure or ensure? affect or effect?). Read every word carefully and think about whether or not it is needed or if you can communicate the same message in fewer words.

And a final word on style: Be careful with humor and casual style in business writing. Don’t over-use business clichés. And never use damaging, biased, or sexist language that could be interpreted in a negative way.

Four: Flow with effective transitions
Do you ever make strong and logical written statements that come across like a bulldozer? Or do you have a tendency to be so wordy that, by the end of the paragraph, the reader thinks, “huh?”

Better business writing means using transitions that signal or clue readers as to the relationship between one idea and the next. Transitions help readers see that a certain thought is being continued, developed, challenged, changed, or summarized. They make written words flow and easier to understand, and they can be used at the beginning of new paragraphs or within a paragraph to link ideas.

For example, the following words and phrases are transitions that lead the reader forward: again, in addition, above all, similarly, moreover, besides, in other words, and next. To show the reader that a different idea is coming, consider these transitions: however, on the contrary, yet, but, in contrast, nevertheless, conversely, and instead. Transitions that show the result of one idea include the following: thus, therefore, as a result, for that reason, and consequently. These transitions indicate a summary: in conclusion, in general, in short, finally, in summary, and in brief.

Five: Grab attention with powerful openings and closings
Business people are very busy; every day, they’re swamped with e-mails, letters, reports, and presentations. You need to grab their attention and give them a compelling reason to keep reading what YOU wrote. Get to your key message right away and use persuasive, influencing words to reel them in. Some effective techniques for persuasive writing are to open with an unusual detail statement (for example, “Human resources professionals estimate that more than 80% of the people who fail at their jobs do so for one reason—they don’t relate to other people”), a question (“Do you know the number one reason why more than 80% of people who fail at their jobs do so?” ), or a strong statement (“The foundation for success on the job, according to human resources professionals, is communication skills that enable you to relate well to other people”).

Similarly, business writing that is intended to persuade or inform should end with a strong closing statement. Repeat your key message, summarize the main points in your outline, and be clear about your call to action. Strong conclusions include predictions about what may or may not happen if your key message is or isn’t implemented, recommendations about what you think should happen next, or a summary statement of what you want to communicate to your readers.

If you are a business person, you are a writer/editor whether you realize it or not. You can always polish up your business writing skills. Following these five simple tips will send you on your way to creating powerful, polished messages that truly are as inspiring as a latte!

About the Author

Tana DeBoer, Communications Manager, specializes in public relations, investor relations, business writing, and crisis communications for Manchester’s clients.  She also manages the firm’s public relations activities. With a background in journalism and unique experience with troubled as well as growing companies, she has the ability to digest complicated business issues and create easily understood messages for shareholders, employees, and the media.

For Manchester clients in a variety of industries, Ms. DeBoer has developed and implemented communications efforts for companies implementing turnaround plans including executive presentations, shareholder relations, and media communications. She has also conducted market research and written strategic and business plans.

She gained hands-on experience in crisis communications at a NASDAQ-listed medical device manufacturer where, for six years, she was responsible for shareholder relations and public communications during both growth and crisis/turnaround periods. She also has experience in direct marketing and was a reporter/editor at a daily newspaper.

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