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Writing: Expanding Your Sphere Of Influence Through Better Business Communications
By Jane Watson   Printer Friendly Version

People of influence are the men and women within an organization whose opinions count - not necessarily because they rank high on an "org" chart but - because they have acknowledged experience or are associated with people of authority. This article is one in a series of five articles on how to expand your sphere of influence through better communications.

The media has recently devoted a great deal of space commenting on how various political figures are taking or have taken courses in etiquette and wardrobe selection to improve their image with their colleagues and the public.

The area that neither the papers nor the politicians seem to be concerned about is the written image. They ignore the fact that the image you project of yourself on paper is equal to the one you project face to face. In many cases, the written image is even more important because in the business world many company ambassadors (sales, marketing, support staff) may never meet the reader. The only image the reader has of them is the one conveyed through letters, reports, or e-mails.

And don't think this doesn't happen. When Alfred P. Sloan was a young man, he joined General Motors in a general entry position. After a short time, young Alfred wrote a memo proposing a re-organization of the company.

Well, first one manager and then another demanded to see this well-crafted memo until it reached the office of the president. Within eighteen months of his initial employment, Alfred was appointed assistant to the president and later went on to become CEO. Chances are Mr. Sloan's extraordinary abilities would have been recognized in the long run, but his writing skills hastened the process.

It is also interesting to note the number of people who believe, because of their high school academic writing classes, they are not good writers. So they opt for technical courses at post secondary schools to avoid writing. But then, surprise! They enter the workforce and must write memos, status reports or proposals. Someone should have told them earlier that it is not how skilled you are in a field that is important but how well you can communicate that skill in writing.

Another reason writing is so important is its longevity. If you behave incorrectly or wear the wrong outfit, you can change your behaviour or dress the next time. However, if you have written a report or e-mail that doesn't mean the reader's needs, is poorly organized, carries an inappropriate tone or is riddled with grammar errors, you can't recall it. It will hang around in files, on desktops or in someone's electronic inbox reminding people of you and your poor writing skills.

Improving writing skills is not a difficult task. Unlike creative writing, business writing does not require talent. It merely requires you to follow a number of easy-to-learn rules, to focus on the reader and to use common sense.

The following information reviews some problems with key documents and the writing process and offers some action steps:

Letters

Common complaints: too lengthy, too complicated, pompous tone, can't figure out the action required

Action step: Focus on what the reader wants to know and what you want the reader to know. Omit any other details. Keep paragraphs short (opening and closing lines no longer than three-four lines and nothing in the body over eight lines). For a warm tone, use the word "you" more often than "I" or "we."

Your last line leaves the lasting impression. Take special care that your last sentence tells the reader what he is to do after he has read your letter.

Reports

Common complaints: too long, too much information, too technical, too difficult to read

Action items: Focus on what the reader needs to make a decision. If you are writing to readers with different backgrounds, chunk the information according to chronology and degree of technical difficulty. Use descriptive headings so readers will only have to read the information they require.

Use design aids to make long documents visually appealing:

  • White space
  • Bulleted or numbered lists
  • Short paragraphs
  • Talking heads and sub-heads

Proposals

Common complaints: off target, too commercialized, emphasis is on the service/product, lists features not benefits

Action items: Identify receiver's problem/concern and his goals. Focus on how your product/service will assist the receiver in meeting his objectives. Don't assume reader will instantly understand how your service/product will meet his needs. Make a clear connection.

E-mails

Common complaints: too many, lack of etiquette, too demanding, poor tone, spelling and grammar errors

Action items: Only send e-mails to people when necessary. Don't send copies to disinterested people. Don't be chatty. Organize e-mails in a descending pyramid fashion. The first paragraph should tell the reader why he must read the message. Second paragraph contains a key point. The following paragraphs provide support. The final paragraph reiterates what the reader should do next.

Don't issue demands unless you are the chief "honcho." You are more likely to get a quick response, if you tell people why you need them to take action. Be clear on the action you want the receiver to take. Remember he is not a mind reader.

Use upper and lower case and correct punctuation. It is easier for people to get your message when it is written in the same manner as all their other correspondence.

Pay attention to grammar and spelling. Incorrect use of the English language detracts from your message. Reader's thoughts stray from your ideas to thinking about the correct word.

Style

Common complaints: outdated style, lack of clarity

Action items:

1. Write the way you speak - assuming you speak in a grammatically-correct fashion.
2. Never send your reader to the dictionary.
3. Keep your average sentence length to 15 words.
4. Don't write a sentence requiring more than 4 pieces of punctuation.
5. Use active voice sentences, whenever possible.
6. Use bulleted or numbered lists.
7. Keep paragraphs short.
8. Use linking words, such as in addition, however, first, to connect your thoughts and to deliver your ideas in a smooth, easy-to-follow fashion.
9. Be courteous.

Grammar

Common complaints: wrong punctuation, subjects and verbs don't agree, misused or misspelled words

Action items: Grammar rules change with the times. Review a recently published grammar book to ensure your knowledge is up to date. If you have been out of school more than five years, chances are it isn't.

If you want to assess your grammar abilities, try the grammar quiz on the J Watson & Associates' site. The answers and the explanations are also there.

Good luck and good writing!


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