“The Essence of Business Writing” is number two in a series of ten “Essence of Management Articles”
You may have rattled off brilliant essays throughout school or university; however, business writing is tough. It’s full of subtleties and more dangerous than a minefield it is a make or break art which everyone in business really needs to be on top of.
If you cannot clearly and simply convey your ideas into business writing for others to follow; or write a concise, accurate and compelling business plan you are going to struggle to communicate with and develop the teams and structures you need to succeed in business.
Even in today’s seemingly casual environment business writing skills are vital. A well written email will deliver you a far better result than a weak one and a well written business plan, loan application or equity document can make your future just as surely as the reverse is true.
When as a recent graduate I was allocated to the office of the Finance Director a man of terrifying intellect and a reputation for the fiercest temper on earth. I recall in my early days that sitting in his large and plush office, which was always filled with clouds of cigarette smoke, scared me to the point that my mouth was too dry to use for speech and my bladder always appeared to be filled to maximum discomfort.
After a few weeks I was called into his office and he handed me a large clamp file of photocopied ledgers, notes, calculations, drawings and photographs and said “Can you turn this into a report on the cost savings to be made at the Victorian pipe plant? Nothing too detailed, say about ten pages; need it for next week’s board meeting” I nodded speechless and backed out of his office.
I froze, at last I understood “analysis paralysis”, I spent the rest of that day shuffling the papers and a large part of the next day doing the same. I could see and understand the data but I had no idea as to how I could even start to translate the complex data into a concise, meaningful and interesting report.
This was a test and I knew the cost of failure.
After hours of terrifying inactivity I thought back to my school days and how I used to piece together essays and I came up with the following written list of questions to myself.
- What is the purpose of the document?
- What am I trying to say?
- Who am I saying it to?
- How do I present the information?
- Have I quantified/qualified my facts?
- What is my conclusion?
- Does it make sense?
- Have it I proof read it?
My eight point format worked, the report was well received and importantly I still use this list today!
I think on that day I reached “The Essence of Business Writing” and it lives on. Let’s see how the 8 point essence can help you.
What is the purpose of the document: If you cannot answer this question clearly in three lines don’t write it because no one needs to hear it.
What am I trying to say: I literally write or type this question and its answer at the top of my first draft page of any complex document as I start to write. I limit both question and answer to four lines each and if I have difficulty with space I rethink the documents whole premise. This question and answer should be at the core of every single communication even a simple email – though I usually allow a mental Q&A for emails.
Who am I saying it to: Each audience has differing needs and expectations. Think this through; ask what will make a difference to your target audience. You are best to use a “different voice” depending on your intended audience. Therefore your writing style, words and authority should change accordingly. The facts are the facts but the audience changes.
How do I present the information: Remember when you start to write your report you know the subject backwards. Your reader is in your hands, take then on a sensible, fact backed and sequential journey finishing with a tight summary and sensible conclusion.
Have I quantified/qualified my facts: Your discovery that blue widgets outsell red widgets 10 to 1 is astonishing but when supported by respected research your discovery is in lights and your career is taking off. It’s all about cred! Yes research credibility brings respect.
What is my conclusion: In a well-researched, balanced and carefully thought through piece of business writing the conclusions will slowly emerge. Sometimes not the ones you or your audience wanted. Facts are facts and conclusions are drawn from those facts. Always call it as it is, don’t dress it up, a “bad” answer is much better than the wrong answer.
Does it make sense: In today’s world email a draft to a friend or mentor, their subject knowledge will usually be less than yours so see if it makes sense to them. Listen to input, take it on board but ultimately it’s your report and your decision.
Have I proof read it: The more important the document the more important the proof read and I don’t mean a computerised spell checker. Don’t tell anyone but I still have issues here. I check, I double check, my dog checks and yet every time I press “Publish” half a dozen errors flash in front of my eyes!