Dr. Sally Stanton, Senior Lecturer in English at UWM, is also a consultant, editor, and co-author of a clear, concise, audience-focused book on grant writing. Her educational background ranges from cultural anthropology and psychology to museum studies and online teaching and learning. Believing that excellent communication is a powerful tool that anyone can master, she loves teaching people how to write well.
Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, oh my! Today’s workplace communicators face more challenges than Dorothy did in the Land of Oz. With so many ways to connect, how do you know your messages are well written?
Despite the proliferation of electronic messaging in all its forms, be reassured: the basics of good business writing still apply, with some tweaking for the 21st century. Here are a few:
Know your purpose. Make sure your reader will know it, too, without a doubt. A good question to ask when writing any message: what do I want my audience to know, act upon, or believe after reading this? They’ll ask that question while reading it.
21st century tweak: Create very clear messages or they may be ignored because it’s too much work to decode them.
Understand your audience. What do they know, what do they need, and how they will receive your message — in an email on a laptop? On their smartphone while riding the bus? Use that knowledge to tailor your writing.
21st century tweak: Get to the point in as few words as possible without resorting to Internet acronyms like LOL. Active voice verbs work well.
Adapt your writing style to your reader. First, get to know your own preferred communication style – do you prefer facts and plain speaking or do you want to be eased into difficult topics? Do you need a good reason to say yes or are you ready to jump in? Then, get to know your readers’ preferred style. Find any differences? Use that knowledge to “flex” your writing style to match theirs – they’ll feel understood and appreciated.
21st century tweak: Millenials – folks now in or graduating from college and entering the workforce – are believed to process and transmit information differently than do older generations. Learn about them and be ready to flex your style.
Choose ordinary, plain language. Eliminate trite phrases, tired clichés, and lofty terminology. “Per your request” sounds stuffy and so 20th century. Unless you’re writing to an insider, use words that your grandmother can make sense of and will feel comfortable reading.
21st century tweak: Avoid vague “trendy” phrases like “these trying economic times,” “Let’s reach out to their staff,” and “we’re looking to.”
Be reader-centered, brief, and concise. Business writing isn’t like the essay writing taught in most schools and universities. No one at work wants to read a long page of text with 50-word sentences, no matter how lyrical. Choose words that engage readers’ attention, interest, and motivation. Keep sentences to 20 words or fewer; paragraphs to a maximum of 8 printed lines; and simple sentence construction. It’s all about your audience – and getting the work done.
21st century tweak: Millenials may need to work hard to adopt this focus themselves, but they love being on the receiving end!
Integrate these basic business writing strategies into your messages today and you’ll become known as an effective workplace communicator.