library: writing - effective business communications
Note: The following was originally published in Shop Talk, the monthly
newsletter of the International Mobile Air Conditioning Association   
Author: Paul M. Allen

One of the keys to success for anyone in business is the ability to communicate effectively. How well you express what you want or what you are trying to accomplish plays a major role in determining whether or not you'll achieve your objectives.

All communication can be conveniently broken down into four broad categories:

The spoken word

The written word

Visual images

Various forms of non-verbal communication

Although visual images and non-verbal communication are extremely important in the overall scheme of things, the spoken word and the written word are generally considered to be the cornerstones of effective business communication.

The spoken word is the grease that makes the wheels of business turn.

When things get serious, however, words start to appear on paper or in computerized documents generated by word processors or email software.

The problem is that too many people in business don't write very well.

As a result, the written communications they use to tie everything up into nice, neat packages frequently miss the mark.

The secret to turning back the flood of counterproductive documents is to write whatever needs to be written in a manner that contributes to the communication process rather than impedes it. 

The question is, "How do you do that?"

How to Become a Better Writer

We'll assume that you know the basics - grammar, punctuation, where they keep the dictionary in your office, how the spell checker in your word processor works, and all that stuff.

Start with the understanding that writing effectively is NOT an art. It is a skill that can easily be learned by any reasonably intelligent person who is willing to try.

The skill lies in the ability to create documents that reflect an understanding of the importance of the five characteristics of any form of effective communication:

A specific objective to be achieved

Specific information to be communicated

Logical organization of the material being presented

An emphasis on simplicity and clarity

Effective use of the language

When a systematic approach is taken, producing a needed piece of written communication is an exercise that is far more scientific than artistic. All you have to do is to apply the formula. It works on email messages, letters, memos, proposals, presentations, or whatever it is you need to write.

To test its validity, sort through some of the communications you've received recently and find a document you consider to be useful. Then, find one that seems confusing at best, or pointless at worst. The odds are that the good one follows the rules and that the bad one ignores them.

What Good Writers Know

If you don't consider yourself to be a competent writer, the good news is that good writers aren't any brighter or more gifted than people who don't write well.

The bad news is that they are perceived as being so because they effectively get their ideas across to their intended audience.

Good writers don't really have any secrets with one exception. They understand that writing is hard work.

Good writing really is "90 percent perspiration and 10 percent inspiration".

It involves completely thinking your way through something, writing it down, and then going back and revising what you've written until you're convinced you have it right. Good writers live by the rule that the art of writing truly is in the rewriting. 

Good writers are acutely aware that that style is no substitute for substance. They worry first about the message they are trying to convey and then let the way in which they word it take care of itself. They realize that flowery language and complicated sentences, more frequently than not, signal a lack of substance.

About Style

A writing style is a personalized stamp that a writer puts on everything he or she writes. Really good writers can adjust their style to suit their purposes.

The objective in most business communications is to minimize the impact of the writer's personal style to the greatest extent possible. As a result, most business writing is bland by comparative standards. And for good reason.

The style in which something is written tends to determine how the information is perceived by the reader. A friendly conversational style sends a far more different message than a detached, impersonal style.

The basic rule of thumb is to just stick to the facts and write them down using short words and simple sentences. Save the other stuff for when you start working on the Great American Novel.

The Ultimate Test

If you apply the formula that all good writers use and put in the necessary effort, how do you know you've gotten it all right?

There's a simple test. Ask yourself, "Would I feel comfortable reading the document out loud to the intended recipient?"

If the answer is, "I'd feel like a fool if I said that in person. Nobody talks like that." or - "I'd wonder if he/she understood a word of what I was saying." or - "He/she would probably fall asleep before I got to the end.", you can safely assume that it's time to go back to the keyboard and try again.

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