10 tips for effective business writing
We’re bombarded with words, all day, every day—e-mails, brochures, reports, letters, ads, speeches, articles, PowerPoint presentations and much, much more.
You can’t afford to let your business communications get lost in the crowd—not if you want to inspire your customers to buy, encourage your employees to work harder, or simply invite associates to a business luncheon.
Here are a few ways to make your messages stand out from the pack.
1. Know your audience
It’s an old saying in the advertising business: A message aimed at everyone often appeals to no one.
To communicate effectively, you have to know your readers. Are they familiar with your subject? Are they likely to resist your message? Are they old or young, urban or rural, highly educated or not?
Knowing your readers makes it easier for you to answer everyone’s most pressing question: “What’s in it for me?”
Tip: Picture the typical reader in your mind. Is she an 18-year-old university student in a small New Brunswick town or a 60-year-old executive in Vancouver?
2. Know your message
Before typing a word, decide what you’re trying to achieve. Do you simply want to share information? Do you need to explain a difficult concept? Or do you want to inspire your readers to act? Most importantly, what is your key message?
Tip: Try to boil your message down to an ad-style slogan—for instance, “This product can save your business thousands of dollars a year.”
3. Think like a reporter
When you’re closely involved with a topic, it’s easy to overlook the obvious. For example, it’s astonishing how many websites for hotels and restaurants don’t include one vital piece of information: The address. Make sure your document includes the answers to the Five W’s and an H: Who, what, where, when, why and how.
Tip: Show your document to someone outside your department or company and ask whether anything is missing.
4. Banish buzzwords and clichés
Too much business writing these days is stuffed with clichés and over-used buzzwords. What business isn’t “service-oriented”? And if a company isn’t “solutions-focused,” what is it focused on? Creating problems?
Clichés are expressions that come out of nowhere and suddenly seem to be everywhere, to the point that they become almost meaningless. How many times have you read about low-hanging fruit, win-win solutions or pushing the envelope? Do they inspire you—or make you yawn? Thought so.
Tip: When you detect a cliché, try to come up with a fresher metaphor for the same idea. Instead of “thinking outside the box,” how about “breaking away from the herd”? But don’t work too hard to be clever. Often, simply saying what you mean—“thinking in innovative ways”—is best.
5. Junk the jargon
Every field has its acronyms and technical terms. They’re useful shorthand when every reader knows the lingo. But if you’re writing for people outside your field—which will often include your customers—get rid of the inside slang or you may create confusion.
Tip: If you absolutely can’t avoid using jargon, at least explain it. On a webpage, for instance, you can insert a hyperlink to the definition.
6. Keep it tight
Short sentences, short paragraphs and short documents have a better chance of capturing readers’ attention. That’s particularly true of e-mails and other electronic documents because we read more slowly on screen than on paper. Cut the flab to keep your readers. Here are a few tips.
- Delete redundant adjectives. All friends are personal; all innovations are new; all disasters are serious.
- Don’t disguise your verbs as verb/noun pairs. Don’t “make a decision” or “carry out an improvement.” Just “decide” or “improve.”
- Cut windy phrases. Why say “We are in the process of upgrading our IT systems” when you can simply say “We are upgrading our IT systems”?
Tip: Pretend the document you’re working on is a telegram and every word costs you $10. Edit accordingly.
7. Make it plain and simple
People often skim documents for key information before deciding to read the whole thing. Make it easy for them.
- Write a clear subject line for your e-mail (“Read this now” doesn’t cut it) or a clear headline for your article.
- Put deadlines and other vital points in bold.
- Break up messages with descriptive subheads.
- Put lists—like this one—in bullet format.
- Make sure the most important information is at the top.
And avoid using $20 words when 20-cent ones will do. Instead of “facilitating ameliorations to our customer service environment,” simply “improve customer service.”
Tip: Try to write the way you speak.
8. Leave the symbols and abbreviations on your phone
When you’re texting your kids, go ahead and use “&” “etc.” “e.g.” and other shorthand. But if you’re writing to impress clients, employees or investors, use full words. It’s simply more professional.
Tip: If you frequently use certain symbols, put a sticky note on your computer monitor reminding yourself to “search and replace” them.
9. Get active
What’s the difference between these two sentences?
- Rebates will be provided on all new purchases.
- XYZ Corp. will provide rebates on all new purchases.
In the first case, we don’t know who is providing the rebate. In the second, the company is the subject of the sentence.
In grammatical terms, the first sentence is in the passive voice and the second is in the active voice.
OK. But why should you care?
Putting sentences in active voice is a quick way to brighten your writing. Sentences in active voice are often shorter and usually clearer than those in passive voice, and inspire more trust in readers. Everyone wants to know who is doing what.
Tip: Ask yourself, “Who is acting in this sentence?” If that person or organization isn’t in the sentence, add it as the subject of the verb.
Spell checkers are useful tools, but they’re far from perfect. They’ll rarely alert you when you’ve used an actual word in the wrong context—just ask anyone who has ever invited customers to contact the “sales manger.” Proofread your documents before printing them or hitting “send.”
Tip: Read documents aloud to catch missing words. And if you see one mistake, read the rest of the paragraph particularly closely—typos tend to cluster.