Five Steps to Better Business Writing

There is a writing project in front of you … and a blank piece of paper. In a cold sweat, you begin to think it might be easier to hire a copywriter (after all, you didn’t go into business to be writer). Think again. With five straightforward steps and some practice, you can be your own copywriter and reinvest the money you would have spent on external help for your business.

Why Business Writing Is Important

The reason writing, or any sort of business communication, is important is the same reason we engage in business: to create positive business results. Effective business writing can promote positive business results in many ways, including:

  • Creating value for stakeholders
  • Helping to align stakeholders with company strategies and goals
  • Allowing the writer to engage in continuous learning

The writing suggestions below will improve the way you write at any length—from an informal e-mail to a full business proposal. (The only thing that will vary is the time spent on each writing task.)

Step 1: Know your audience.

Are you communicating up, down or laterally? Is your audience internal or external to your organization? These are the most basic questions related to your audience. If you stop here in your investigation, you probably don’t have enough information to go any further in the writing process.

Get to know your reader any way you can. If it’s one specific person, do they have an assistant that can give you some insight? Perhaps the person’s direct reports can give you some pointers? Is there a profile of the person that will help you determine their interests and communication style? If you are selling or communicating up the chain of command, the answers to these questions can be a crucial determinant of whether your audience reads and acts upon your writing.

Take a moment to consider your reader’s preferred communication style. Think about how they communicate with you and others. Do they want you to “get to the point,” or do they start by asking how your family is doing? The prevailing wisdom in American written communication is to get straight to the point; however; many business professionals prefer to build a relationship first, and they won’t read your e-mail if they feel devalued by communication that jumps right to business. Knowing your audience means knowing where to put your main point: at the beginning or the end.

The most important thing to remember when considering your audience is knowing what they care about. There is nothing wrong with the question, “What’s in it for me?” If you’re not asking it on behalf of your reader, your message may be overlooked.

Step 2: Decide on the communication channel.

Once you know your audience, you can make an informed decision about what channel to use. Channels, or modes of communication, can be divided into internal or external, formal or informal. Again, this is just the first step. Consider whether the reader will pass along your information. If so, to whom will he or she pass it along? These questions will help you decide whether you need a brochure, letter, memo, e-mail or other form of business writing.

An example: We’ll write to our supervisor to convince him a new policy needs to be put in place around requesting paid time off. Since this is a more formal, internal request, we’ll use a memo format. The memo will be written in such a way that the supervisor can take it to the Director of HR for discussion.

Step 3: Verbalize the desired action.

During workshops in business writing, participants often understand the audience and the communication channel, but at the point where they have to identify their overall objective, they think, “I want them to read it.” This goal falls short of the purpose of business writing – to change behavior. Verbalizing what you want from the reader encourages specific action. Do you want the reader to follow a new policy? Do you want them to call for a showing or trial offer? Are you suggesting a change, or making a request that needs immediate action?

If you are unclear about the ideal resulting action, your reader will be unclear, too–and less likely to act. On the flip side, by having a clear idea of what the goal of your communication is, you are more likely to convince your reader to act. Time is of the essence in business writing. You have only a moment to let the audience know that what you have to say is valuable and needs action.

Step 4: Think like a reporter.

Like a reporter, answer the “Five W’s”—who, what, where, when, why (and how). Remember that business writing is clearer when it’s to the point. Don’t give history and “interesting” background details unless it directly relates to what you want the reader to do.

If you have a reader who likes considerable detail, consider answering the following questions in your writing:

  • Why does the reader care?
  • How does the reader benefit?
  • What should the reader do?
  • When should the reader do it?
  • What happens if the reader does take action?
  • What happens if the reader doesn’t take action?
  • Who else will benefit? Why?
  • Where does the reader go for more information?

Step 5: Close the sale.

Ask for the sale at the end of your business communication. Request from the reader the action you expect and when you expect it. This is the “closing” technique that is most effective with U.S. audiences. If writing for an international audience, there are different steps involved; however, providing a compelling end will strengthen your communication.

Let’s take a look at an example which uses all five steps of the writing process.

To: Evan Datta
From: Soma Jurgensen, x555
Date: December 29, 2010

Re: Increasing efficiency of paid time off (PTO) requests

At a recent staff meeting I was moved by your desire to improve efficiency in our processes in order to prioritize our time and discover more work/life balance as an organization. Your thoughtful ideas that day inspired me to offer an idea of my own.

Please consider this memo as a request for change in a process that costs our company countless hours of inefficiency and rework. Armed with this change request, you can add another tactic to champion your strategy of focusing on people by streamlining processes.

The current policy is for employees to e-mail their supervisor for PTO. The supervisor then investigates the number of days the employee has and partially fills out a form for the employee to complete and sign before approving the request. As our company has increased the number of employees reporting to each manager during last year’s restructuring, the demand on managers’ time for PTO requests has increased exponentially. With only one assistant, the HR director is inundated with requests for individual employee PTO accrual requests. The result is considerable time spent researching and satisfying requests, which has led to numerous errors as well.

By using the company Intranet to distribute the forms and customizing the HRIS system with employee logins, much of the research and forms could be done by the employees themselves. The new system would work as follows:

  • Employee logs on to the HRIS system and verifies the number of PTO hours remaining
  • Employee completes the top part of the form with pertinent information and the verified number of PTO hours indicated by a verification number
  • Employee e-mails the form to the supervisor
  • Supervisor enters the verification number to check available PTO hours and approves or rejects the PTO request according to company policy
  • Supervisor e-mails the form to a custom e-mail that will be checked by the HR assistant and entered into the HRIS system

Adopting this procedural change will free up time for employees, managers and HR. The saved time could be spent in personal contact with employees who have more than routine questions, improving the customer service provided by HR.

Continuing with the current policy will result in lost time and resources. For more information on the frustrations regarding the current policy, the HR assistant and I are available to meet after the first of the year. We are available to provide specific details supporting this change in a meeting with the HR Director.

This new process can be implemented in the course of six months, allowing the company to benefit this calendar year (2011) and quickly highlighting your strategy of focusing on people by streamlining policy.

I will contact you within a week of the first of the year in order to discuss this opportunity further. If you have questions in the meantime, please contact me at my extension in the header of the memo.

Sincerely,
XXXX

Closing Remarks

Remember this – even dedicating a few seconds to organizing your thoughts using this five-step process can improve your work, regardless of the content. Following each mutually inclusive step can allow you, the business writer, to facilitate strong communication that has positive results for your business.

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Soma Jurgensen


Soma Jurgensen Soma Jurgensen is the School of Business Chair for Rasmussen College at the Brooklyn Park, MN college campus location. She has worked in business for more than ten years at companies including Minnesota Orchestra, Minnesota Parent Magazine, and General Mills. She also writes a blog called Authentic Me BizLog.

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