You may have the best ideas, but you need to communicate them clearly and persuasively to get ahead. Strong verbal skills help, but outstanding business writing is often the best tool for doing so.
Remember the tricks you learned in classroom writing (e.g. use long paragraphs and minutiae to reach your assigned page count)? Those skills are now counterproductive because business writing requires clarity, conciseness, and an immediate call to action.
Strong business writers are woefully scarce, which makes this an opportunity for you to set yourself apart. Even if your job doesn’t regularly include writing formal reports, proposals, or memos, everyone writes emails to peers, superiors, or external customers.
Practice these tips beginning with your very next email or report.
1) Get to the point, immediately. State your key takeaways as soon as possible. Assume your readers’ time is in high demand and do not write them a mystery novel; put your conclusion at the beginning. If your readers make it halfway down the first page and can’t list your main points, you have failed.
2) Tell your audience exactly what you want. If you need a decision, offer a recommendation. Or offer 2-3 options, but state your preferred outcome. A clear recommendation shows your competence, demonstrates confidence, and clearly prompts a decision from your readers. State a deadline for approval or comment, after which you will proceed. If you just want to convey information and don’t need a response, say so.
3) Choose crisp language. Use short sentences with short words whenever possible. If a more informal tone simplifies your word choice, go right ahead. Complex words where simple ones will do make you look pretentious, not sophisticated. Long paragraphs make you seem like a lazy editor, not a fountain of knowledge.
4) Avoid unclear words. Use active rather than passive voice. Minimize use of “is” and “are.” Kill extraneous prepositional phrases. Avoid imprecise qualifiers (e.g. “very,” “really”). Avoid pronouns that might trip up your readers. Avoid acronyms, buzzwords, or jargon unless you’re certain your whole audience will understand.
5) Use as few pages as possible. Revise until only the essential remains. You may know the Twain quote: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” My former colleague uses a business corollary: “If you can’t communicate it in two pages or less, you probably don’t know what you’re talking about.”
6) Use data appropriately. Present relevant highlights only, but also make sure you do not mislead your readers with selective use of data. Do not force your readers to analyze or interpret if you can just tell them the punch line. Do not “show all your work” as it can distract your reader from the big decisions. Offer to provide the full data set upon request, or if you must, include an optional appendix. Support with examples if they improve clarity, but never try to make your case via anecdote.
7) Check your tone. Use exclamation points sparingly; I recommend one per document max as a rule of thumb. Always avoid profanity, snark, and gossip. If you require a smiley face to let readers know you’re being sarcastic, you have failed.
8) Formatting is your friend. Unlearn your professor’s bland essay rules. You can strategically use bold, underline, bullets, sentence fragments, font sizes, etc. These options often improve clarity and brevity by reducing large blocks of text.
9) Solicit feedback. Ask for input from someone who might be surprised by or skeptical of your ideas. Skeptics root out biases in your position. Also ask someone outside your target audience to proof your work. If your materials are clear to them, they will be even clearer to your audience.
10) Proof, proof, proof! Read your writing aloud to yourself once. It’s a good way to catch dumb mistakes like skipping a word. Run your words through the Flesch-Kincaid test. A 7-10 grade level is acceptable; 7-8 is excellent. If you score higher, see what else you can simplify. Identify one colleague whose writing skills you respect and ask them to be your go-to proofreader.
Want to learn more? You’ll find plenty of material on the internet, but if you read one thing, I suggest George Orwell’s seminal essay “Politics and the English Language.”