Do you want to ensure people read your messages? Do you want to convince people to do what you want? Some emails we can’t wait to read and we are excited by their content. Others, however, we start to read and immediately delete, or don’t even open at all. What is it that makes the difference?
First of all, let’s consider why writing skills are so important in business. It is essential to be
able to communicate your message precisely and concisely to avoid misunderstandings and wasting time. The majority of business communication is now written and there are many examples of misinterpretations. When we write to somebody we are establishing a relationship with that person.
It is very easy, because of the lack of visual and vocal communication, to cause misunderstandings or even offence.
Conveying your ideas precisely and laying out your documents effectively gives an image of you as a professional with high standards and this can impact on the general impression that colleagues and clients have of you. As well as improving your own career prospects, it can also improve the success of your business. Clients will often select a supplier based on the look of their correspondence and the ease of reading their documents or the tone of their emails.
There can be so many barriers to good written communication: incorrect grammar, spelling and punctuation; not considering your reader; misjudging relationships; not understanding the issue; tight deadlines; using an inappropriate tone or unsuitable words; being too emotional and lack of preparation.
Preparation is vital before sending any business communication. This may only take a few seconds for a simple email, but always stop before you send.
The first thing you must do is establish the purpose of your communication; it is easy to say the objective is ‘to obtain information’or ‘to arrange a meeting’ but if you keep asking yourself ‘why?’ you will usually come to the answer that it is for the success of the organisation. Every communication you send in business can impact on your company’s performance.
This doesn’t just apply to emails, it is relevant to letters, reports, minutes, tenders, proposals,
brochures ,websites and social media. Once you’ve established your purpose, the next part of your preparation is to think about the people who will be reading your correspondence. The more you know about your reader(s), the better you can tailor your correspondence to make it more effective. It
is always more difficult to tailor a message to more than one person.
What is their age, knowledge, language, culture, background, gender? How busy are they, how do they like to receive information, how important is your message to them? What is their personality type, where do they come in the organisation’s hierarchy, what is your relationship with them? Are there any special needs to be considered? These are just some of the factors which may influence what and how you write.
To continue your preparation, ensure you have all the information you need, anticipate your reader’s questions and provide answers in advance. Ensure you have a clear structure, particularly if your correspondence is complex. For emails, give your message an informative subject line so your reader can easily prioritise. When you have composed your correspondence, it is vital to proofread before you send.
Preferably leave the communication for a short while and go back it with ‘fresh eyes’. Don’t forget you are not just checking for spelling and punctuation, you are also checking for the tone, the content and whether it is written fittingly for the reader.
In most circumstances in business writing we are trying to persuade somebody to do something for us – give information, attend a meeting, send us money. It is, therefore, important to use techniques that will make your messages more persuasive. Here are some ways you could achieve this:
• Continually maintaining a high standard in your business writing is the basic rule of persuasive writing. If your correspondence looks unprofessional, people will not want to help you.
• Many people still write in a style more suited to the 1950s than the 2010s with phrases like ‘If you have any queries, please do not hesitate to contact me’ or ‘please be informed that the documents you require will be despatched in due course’. These sorts of phrases are known as business clichés and they are to be avoided. It is lazy, unimaginative and boring to rely on hackneyed business phrases. I am not suggesting we should use textspeak, but nowadays a natural style is much more effective, whilst maintaining an appropriate level of formality or informality.
• What’s In It For Me (WIIFM): Tell your reader why it is to their advantage to do what you want them to do. When a Sales Manager wanted his reps to give him their monthly figures so he could write a report for his Director, they were all ‘too busy’. When he reframed the question and asked for the figures so he could calculate their bonuses, you can imagine the very different response!
• Offer solutions rather than problems. This is particularly effective if you are trying to persuade senior management. They want their staff to assist them, not give them more problems. If you offer viable solutions you may also get the resolution you prefer.
• When we have to ask people something which we expect they won’t like, we tend to write in a manner that anticipates their dissatisfaction. Our style becomes very apologetic and negative, which can actually exacerbate their displeasure.
Where possible, try to turn bad news into good news. For example:
‘We are sorry to tell you that the information you need will not be available for at least two hours. We apologise for the inconvenience this may cause you.’ (cliché alert!).
Perhaps we could have written:
‘We are pleased to confirm that the information you need will be available within three hours and, if we can get it to you sooner, we will do.’ This is called ‘reframing’ and is generally a good principle. It will ensure a better reaction from your reader.
• Use appropriate vocabulary. People build rapport initially through non-verbal signals and tone of voice, but we also build rapport through the language we use. Obviously if two people speak the same
language they have a rapport, but we can take this a couple of steps further.
• In the evening, do you have ‘dinner’, ‘tea’ or ‘supper’? Do you have a ‘lounge’, ‘living room’, ‘sitting room’, ‘front room’, ‘parlour’ or ‘drawing room’? All these words give away a great deal about our background and we automatically ‘warm’ to people who use the same words as we
do. How much more effective then would it be to use the same words as your reader? How much more persuasive could you be? If you have good rapport with someone, they will go out of their way to help you.
• We can take this a step further, Neuro- Linguistic Programming (NLP) teaches about representational systems. We gather information through our senses and we all have preferences in the way we use these. Our preferences can be reflected in the vocabulary we use so, for example, a visual person may say ‘I see what you mean’ whereas an auditory person could say ‘that sounds interesting’. By using similar words in correspondence, to those used by your reader, you can build rapport and be more persuasive.
• Try and avoid negative words like ‘just’ (‘I just work for the MD’) and, where possible when giving feedback, replace ‘but’ with ‘and’. If you say to someone ‘you did a very good job organising the conference but there were problems with the car parking’,
the recipient may well feel rather deflated; everything before the ‘but’ is forgotten. Try rephrasing and say ‘you did a very good job organising the conference and, when we sort out the car parking problems next year, it will be a terrific event’.
So, what is it that makes the difference? The five Ps – preparation, purpose, people, proofreading
and persuasion. If what you’re doing isn’t working, do something else – choose to excel at business writing.”