Not everyone needs to be an English professor but one sure way to diminish your professionalism in the eyes of your staff, customers or prospects reading what you’ve written is poor business-writing basics. Communication is the single most critical element in engaging people. In an age of text-speak and consulting jargon, one sure way to stand out positively from the crowd and noise is clear, simple, and persuasive written communication skills.
I’ve had several books published, as well as being a regular columnist in industry media. I watch with amazement at professional proofers doing their job. Neither you nor I need to have that level of skill and precision, but we can all improve our results and lessen our regrets by following a few simple principles. I’m not calling them ‘rules’. The thing with English is that every time you have a rule, you soon find many exceptions. I before E anyone?
I met one trainee who ran a clothing boutique. They’d sent out a mailbox drop in their neighbourhood promoting their latest fashion arrivals. Their intention was to communicate that many of the shoes matched up nicely with many of the trousers on offer. They referred to this matching as, “These shoes are complimentary with these pants”. Unfortunately, what they meant was, “These shoes are complementary with these pants”. You see, one of those words means ‘matching’ but the other one means ‘free’.
Write from the reader’s point of view
Are you including information useful and relevant to the reader or just brain dumping to get it out of your head or make you look like an expert? They don’t have time to read everything and there is a lot of competition for their attention. How often are you using the words “you” and “your” compared to “me”, “my” and “I”?
Ambiguity is the enemy
I saw a billboard advertising ice cream that was, “97% fat-free and gluten-free”. Can a gluten-intolerant person eat that ice cream? It’s ambiguous. I saw a magazine cover, “Rachel Ray loves cooking her family and her dog”. How do her family and dog feel about this?
If in doubt, leave it out
If you’re not sure, how can you be sure they’re sure? If you can’t explain to me where and why you might use the word ‘whom’, then don’t use that word.
Less is more
Do I need to expand this? I hope not.
What is the purpose of your document? Is it to sell, influence, or inform? Should that one email be three emails instead? Check all your ideas that you might include back against the over-riding purpose of the document. If it isn’t working for your purpose, it’s working against it. Leave it out or append it.
In jest, I often recommend having a13-year old around of slightly above average intelligence. They can test your writing for reader-centricity, clarity, efficiency and meaning. If you don’t have access to such a resource, have you ever run readability statistics over your documents? You can find this function in your word-processing apps usually in the same menu as spellchecker. Not everyone needs to write for a 13-year old, but the stats can give you a feel for the consistent level you should be writing for and when you’re off-track.
Not every document matters, but if it matters, it really matters. Use fresh eyes and have others check your writing and you reciprocate. If you have multiple people contributing to a single document such as a proposal, then make one person in charge of sorting consistency.
Better engagement via better communication leads to increased productivity and revenue. Let’s write right!