Why Most Business Communications Sucks
Effective business writing is a transferable skill you can use in any and every profession. But one of the most common complaints about modern business communication is that too many words are being used to convey too few real ideas. So in that spirit here is our brief list of the most common business communication errors, delivered in a focused and concise manner.
1. Start by telling your readers what’s in it for them
Never assume that your readers have the time to read or listen to your communication. You have to earn their attention and the best way to do this is to start with why the reader should care about your communication. If you really want your readers to engage with your message, tell them how they will benefit from the message you are communicating. Tell them what they stand to gain in practical terms.
2. Write the way you speak
Take a look at your letters and memos. Do they sound like you or someone else? Effective business communication doesn’t need to be formal and stuffy to communicate effectively. In fact, most readers understand what you’re saying much more easily when you use a normal, conversational tone. Do you ever, in real conversations, use phrases like “optimal capacity assessment’ or “maximum synergistic equilibrium?” (If so, perhaps that’s part of the problem.)
3. Write at the reader’s level
So you have a PhD. in nuclear engineering or a masters in psychology. Big deal. Most of your readers don’t, and you won’t impress them with big words. You’ll only confuse them. A business communication is written to communicate. To do that effectively, your readers must understand the message you’re sending, so be sure to use words your readers will understand.
4. Never send a business communication when you’re angry
Its okay to be angry. But communications written when you are frustrated tend to be accusatory or condemning in tone. Little things can slip into your writing that you wouldn’t normally allow, putting up walls between you and your reader or fostering ill will. In business, it is never wise to totally burn your bridges. So wait until you calm down before you send off that message and then choose your words carefully.
5. Anticipate questions
As you are writing a communication, try to anticipate what questions, if any, your reader will have. Then answer them right away. Your reader will benefit from being informed up-front and you’ll save on additional correspondence or communications to answer those questions later.
6. Be careful with acronyms and technical language
Common acronyms, words, and phrases within your specific industry may seem like everyday language to you. But what about your readers? If you’re writing to a colleague in the same field, it may be acceptable to use industry jargon. But if you’re writing to someone and you are not certain what their level of understanding is, spell it out in clear terms everyone can understand.
7. Remember that longer is not necessarily better
If you can say what you want to say in three paragraphs, why write five? Extra text doesn’t necessarily enhance the message. Sometimes it just buries it and bores the reader. Tighten up your text. Make each word count. Every sentence should convey something meaningful.
8. Faster is also not necessarily better
If you can wait an extra day before sending the communication, take advantage of that extra time. Write the communication one day, get a good night of sleep, and then proof it a final time in the morning when you are refreshed and ready to start a new day. Frequently, you will find small or subtle errors you might otherwise have missed when you were caught up in drafting your message.
9. Take a positive approach, even with challenging information
Even when you have to deliver a difficult message, a positive approach is usually more effective. “We can’t do that,” is tough to read or hear. “Let me share with you why we can’t do exactly what you are asking for, and also what we can do for you,” is much more likely to be the starting point of a productive conversation. So no matter what the message, even if it isn’t what the reader was hoping to receive, deliver the message using a positive tone and perspective.
10. Don’t kid yourself
Writing effective business communication is a skill that (to some degree) can be learned and developed. Are you a great business writer? Do you have adequate mastery of spelling, grammar and punctuation? If not, just acknowledge that fact and then decide what to do about it. You can either put in the time and energy necessary to become a great writer, or you can find people who are already great writers and leverage their expertise. Either approach is perfectly reasonable. You can take a class to enhance your skills and/or enlist a trusted colleague to proof your communications before you send them.