We’re all drowning in words.
So, as writers, we never want to add to the flood without good reason.There are certain things it’s good to think about before you write to make sure your words get read, understood and appreciated.
In this paper we share:
- The three things to think about before you start writing
- What to put in and what to leave out
- A couple of examples of how not to do it
The word flood
The problem with most business writing is that it rambles on. And on.
You’ll never hear your colleagues complaining that they’ve got too much time on their hands. In the age of content we’ve too much to read and not enough time to read it. We’re being flooded with words.
How do we stop it?
Some businesses have banned internal email to encourage people to get up and talk to each other. That’s great. And good for your health too. But often you need to contact people in a different office, or a different time zone, or to a thousand people. You need to write it down.
The flow of written words is never going to stop completely. So how do you up the odds of getting your messages read, and making sure your readers act on them? You get the content right.
The tale of the editor and the administrator
One of our team worked at a national newspaper, in the days when memos still went on noticeboards, not intranets. This is the tale of the editor and the administration manager.
The editor would occasionally write memos and up they’d go on the board. They affected everyone in the building, which is why he would pin them up. They’d usually be about three lines long and everyone would read them.
The administration manager would write memos frequently. He’d put them on the board even if they only involved the four people with a car-parking space in the back. Generally, his were two pages long, closely typed and as dull as ditchwater. No one read them, except his assistant. She had to read them because she had to call the people they were really for to tell them what they needed to know. Worse still, everyone thought this was funny.
The difference was that the editor wasn’t trying to impress anyone; he just wanted to get his messages read. The administration manager wanted promotion, respect, admiration and lots of other things, none of which he actually got by writing long notices. Quite the opposite.
Three things to think about before you start writing
First, ask what you want your outcome to be. When your reader has read whatever you’re writing, what do you want them to do, or think or feel? That’s your outcome.
Once you know your outcome, you need to choose the right words to direct your readers towards it.
And to do that, you need to be mindful of your audience and see things from their point of view. Asking yourself questions like these will help:
- How much do they know about what I’m writing about?
- What questions will they have about the topic?
- What will they be most interested in?
- Where will they be reading this, and how carefully?
Answering these questions will help you decide what to include, and how to structure and word things.
Let’s look at a little example – an email subject heading to all staff. You could write something like this:
Notice 428 Concerning the Immediate Implementation of the Board’s Decisions on Staff Rotation for the Duration of the 2017/18
Winter Office Partial Closure.
Your Christmas and New Year holidays
Now which do you think is going to catch the eye of the busy employee and make them open the email to read more?
You’d want to be as brief and clear with the rest of the message as with the title.
Content – what to put in and what to leave out
Once you’ve thought about your outcome and your audience, you can then plan your content – what you’re going to put in, and what you’re going to leave out.
Do put in:
- The points you really need to make your outcome happen
- Other useful things that will help you get your message across
- Things that are nice to know (if there’s space)
List all these points. Strip out anything that’s not on the list, because it’ll just get in the way. Then prioritise everything in 1 and 2, and make sure the points in 1 stand out to someone who’s scanning what you’ve read. That way even the busiest reader will get the key points, and your communication is more likely to do its job.
For example, don’t include:
- Things that makes you sound good, but don’t help your readers – a sales pitch at the end of a complaint response, for example
- Background you think your readers ought to know about, but that won’t help achieve your outcome – the everything but the kitchen sink’ syndrome
- Stuff that always goes in, but no one ever reads. These are often the blah blah blah sentences of business writing: we value your custom, we apologise for any inconvenience caused, and the like. If you really mean it, say it like you mean it. Otherwise, leave it out.
Ready to write
Now that you’ve thought through what you’re writing, you’re ready to start. Make your purpose and main points clear up front. Don’t make people dig their way through half a page before they get to the nub of things.
Make sure your tone of voice is in line with your brand and right for your audience, and be ruthless with your editing. That way you’ll get more people reading what you write and get better results faster. And all that leads to a more comfortable bottom line.
What do you think?
Do you have other techniques for getting your content right? If you do, please share them.
The best (and by that we mean worst) example of writing we’ve seen is a 57-page executive summary. Why? Because someone had heard that the CEO would only read the executive summary, so they decided to put everything in there that they could possibly think of. What the CEO really needed was a one-page summary of the important points so he could decide whether or not the rest was worth bothering with.
If you have an example that beats this one, we’d love to hear it.