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Effective Business Writing: How to Tango (not tangle) with your reader

June 1, 2008

I don’t mean to beat around the bush – after all it’s high time we call a spade a spade — but communicating effectively can be tough. In business, we’re continuously undertaking an analysis of the pros and cons, being careful not to sit on the fence too long. Upon initial re-examination and execution of a course of action, it’s common to bite off more than you can chew. Nonetheless, it’s important to ascertain when tides are turning – even if it means getting in over your head. Of course, sometimes you find yourself trapped between a rock and a hard spot and drastic times call for drastic measures. But, it reminds us that Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s a labour of love. Occasionally you’ve got to revisit the drawing board. It takes time and patience and once in a while you need someone to rock the boat, just to make sure you are practicing what you preach. Of course, paramount to it all is having passion and vision. With your eye on the ball, you will surely reap the rewards.

If you have made it this far, then I hope you will forgive me for subjecting you to – and I’m embarrassed to say – some of the most deliberately bad writing I have ever produced. While it was fun sabotaging a perfectly good sentence, it was also a lot like purposely making a fool of myself on the dance floor…painful, but necessary to prove a point. But before I tell you how not to break every cardinal rule for effective business writing, allow me to explain what prompted me to do so.

A few weeks ago, Laurie Clarke, COO of The Tatham Group walked into my office to ask a question about a client. As we were talking, it dawned on us that we had managed to carry an entire conversation with clichés. Although, we knew exactly what the other was saying, we couldn’t help but think…if we’re all guilty of talking in clichés, does that mean we write that way too? No wonder so much business communication is a bungled mess! So, in true Tatham fashion, Laurie challenged me to write an article using only figures of speech. As you can see, I failed miserably.

I failed because over the years, I’ve learned that effective writing means following a process. In fact, good writing is a lot like the tango: it’s a carefully choreographed dance between the reader and the writer that tells a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. If it is well executed, the reader might feel as though Eva Peron herself whisked him off to Buenos Aires. But one wrong step, and he’s landed in the middle of an awkward eighth grade dance – braces, bubblegum and all.

You might be wondering, how dancing, writing and process are related? Well, at the Tatham Group, we use a disciplined method (a choreography, if you will) to ensure that a process is efficient, clear and streamlined. But if a good process, like a well-choreographed dance, hinges on clear communications, then it is crucial to treat communication as a process in and of itself.

In other words, why not apply the same discipline to our writing? If we did, we might say that our audience is the customer, our message is their issue and how we communicate it is the process. We’d take measures by asking people to edit our work and we’d incorporate their feedback into a new version. We’d experiment with various drafts until we had a final copy, which, we’d publish. The end result would most likely be a strong and clearly communicated message with value to our readers.

But any process is only effective when we adapt it to work for us. William Zinsser, author of the book On Writing Well, offers the following advice: “There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say is the right method for you.” For some, this means dumping all the words on a page, and then combing through the mess; for others, it means tinkering with the first line, until it is perfect before moving on to the next. Nevertheless, clear writing requires clear thought. And clear thought comes from knowing exactly what you want to say to your audience – or your customer and using plain language to do so.

Still, for a message to be simple, clear and strong, some rules apply. Authors Zinsser, Venolia, Bello and Cheney offer some basic but crucial guidelines to ensure writing is effective:

1. Identify your message. What is the most important idea you want people to retain? A good way to test your message is to ask, “What’s the main point?

2. Use plain language. Business writing should not aim to impress the audience with fancy words. For example instead of “Our proposal follows the sequential itemization of points occurring elsewhere in your RFP, wherever possible, to facilitate your review…” we could simply write: “We will follow your outline.”

3. Avoid trade jargon. A marketing manager for Hewlett Packard (HP) once told me, “senior managers always tell us to cascade. Really what they mean is to pass on the message.”

4. Keep your writing unified. Each paragraph should have one general idea, and each sentence in the paragraph should only address one supporting fact for the idea.

5. Make each word count. Be ruthless in cutting wordiness. For instance, instead of writing ‘we should perform an analysis of’, simply write ‘analyze’.

6. Eliminate redundancies.There are many forms of redundancies, such as “twelve noon’ and ‘the future outlook’, but perhaps the most pervasive type is called a pleonasm. Such phrases are: the reason is because, based on the fact that, due to the fact that, in light of the fact that. These can all be replaced with ‘because’.

7. Use the active voice. Not only does the passive voice require more words, but it also weighs your sentence down. If the verb is a form of ‘to be’, try to eliminate it. For example: “The service is provided to our customers through Boot Camp”. Or, “We provide Boot Camp to our customers.” Short, sweet and to the point.

8. Know when to use a figure of speech and how to avoid a cliché. Everyone uses figurative language because it works – we think in images. Sometimes it takes too long to use a regular word. Instead, we replace it with a metaphor or a figure of speech. Yet, all too often we use (and misuse) tired old clichés that are better replaced with younger, fresher, plainer ones. In business writing, it’s essential to strike a balance between using language to inspire, cajole and motivate people to action and at the same time to be clear and concise enough for them to do so.

While this is not an exhaustive list, it’s important to remember that every writer has a purpose, a clear compulsion for putting words to paper. That’s why good writing – whether it is for business, fiction or even science — is not so much about the topic, but ultimately how well you’ve followed the process of finding out what your reader wants and engaging him to read on. Follow a process and a few simple rules, and you’ll be surprised at how well you can dance.