Many business professionals communicate verbally with confidence, yet sound less certain when asked to correspond by writing. Why is writing such a daunting task? Is it that written words in an email or a letter seem set in stone, standing like sculptures to be critiqued?
Written communication skills are no less important today than they have been in the past. It is true that we have different channels with which we can communicate, such as texts, e-mails, blogs, and social media. However, writing remains a central skill requirement for these channels. Following some basic business writing principles will help alleviate concerns about putting our thoughts into written words.
Know Your Purpose.
All communications are initiated with a goal in mind. If we ask someone a question, we should need to know the answer. If we state a fact or tell a story, we should believe that the person with whom we are communicating is interested in the information or story we are sharing. Most business communications help us complete specific tasks, accomplish our daily work goals, and build or maintain relationships with co-workers and customers.
The next time you start a written message, take a few seconds to think about your communication purpose. Is the purpose functional or emotional? The answer may be “both”. Our words have tactical value in that they help us accomplish a task-oriented goal. Our words also have the psychological power to make someone feel better or to hurt their feelings. The message content and structure will be guided by our communication purpose.
Less Is More.
The smaller devices we can use to type messages may naturally inspire a more concise approach to business communications. However, brevity should be a business communications goal regardless of the medium. Too often, extra words are used to lead into our main point or “set the stage” for the question we are about to ask.
As you compose your next email, look for unnecessary extra words. Some of those words are in phrases stating an obvious fact. For example, “I wanted to let you know that I need to cancel our meeting” may sound like a thoughtful effort to alert someone to a schedule conflict. However, “I need to cancel our meeting” accomplishes the same communication goal. By writing and sending the message, I am (by default) communicating my interest in letting the message receiver know about the meeting cancellation; therefore, “I wanted to let you know that” is unnecessary.
To say that business professionals and customers are busy is an understatement. As the speed at which we can create and process information has increased, so has the speed at which we must engage with and respond to that information. Therefore, efficiency is a necessity.
The most streamlined approach to a written message is the direct approach. To be direct is to state the most important subject of the message in the first sentence or paragraph. Delaying the primary message topic risks obscuring that topic from the reader or initiating a series of responses to clarify the original message. A mistaken assumption about the message topic based on the first few sentences may cause the reader to skip over the true purpose of the communication.
The direct approach to business communications respects the limited time that co-workers and customers have to read and process received information. You help your readers when you “get to the point” as quickly as possible.
…Unless You Need To Be Sensitive
Most business communications contain information the receiver will react to in a positive or neutral way, which further justifies a direct writing approach. However, not all business messages will receive a positive or neutral reaction. Declining requests or claims should be handled with sensitivity, tact, and an indirect writing approach.
If you anticipate the reader responding negatively to your message, place the refusal or bad news toward the end of the message. Delaying the negative information allows you to ease into the message and present the reasons for the refusal or rejection with the hope that the reader will understand your justification. Someone reading the bad news first is more likely to react emotionally and less likely to continue reading the logical reasons for the decision.
With the reader in mind, business communicators can craft messages that best serve that reader. Understanding the purpose of the message, eliminating unnecessary words and phrases, and presenting the main topic according to the potential reaction of the reader will start you on the path toward successful business communications.
Michael Hansen is a professor of business at COCC with a background in marketing and communications. You can reach him at 541-383-7712