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.
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:
too lengthy, too complicated, pompous tone, can't figure out the action
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"
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.
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
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.
too many, lack of etiquette, too demanding, poor tone, spelling and
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.
outdated style, lack of clarity
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
9. Be courteous.
wrong punctuation, subjects and verbs don't agree, misused or misspelled
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