Strong business writing skills are good for your career
Business writing is a task that many people either avoid or perform reluctantly. Let’s face it, most business documents are pretty dry and don’t require a lot of creativity unless you’re in the marketing or social media departments.
This is good news for us.
It means that there is plenty of opportunity for those who can write clear, concise, correct business documents either for your career or for income as a freelance writer.
I have been a business writer for most of my career. I started as a human resources communications officer for a major financial institution. When I left the bank, I leveraged my experience into a successful consulting and writing business. I have written more business documents than I can remember from manuals to handbooks to policies and procedures and on and on. Few of them were exciting or challenging. In fact, most were pretty ordinary, but they contained information that needed to be communicated, and businesses hired me to do that.
It can be a struggle to organize, write, and edit business documents that people probably don’t want to read unless they have to. However, you can make the process easier and faster, and the end product, more successful.
You can build an entire career or business with business writing.
People don’t read business communications in the same way that they read articles. There’s no entertainment factor, and interest in the topic is usually pretty low. Most people only read what they have to for their job or business. Often, they are looking for a specific piece of information or the answer to a question, so business documents quickly become reference tools to be referred to as needed.
Start by defining your audience and what you want them to know, do, or decide after reading your document. When you understand the reader, you can more easily determine how much background or context they need and how much jargon you can use.
Set an outcome for the document. Keeping your outcome in mind as you organize, write, and edit helps you focus and make decisions about what to put into the document and what to leave out.
Information is just that. It’s telling the reader something they need to know. Usually, the reader hasn’t asked about the subject, nor are they expecting a communication about it. You’re hitting them cold with something they need to read.
When a reader opens a document, they want to know:
- What is this?
- Why am I getting it?
- Why should I read it?
- What am I supposed to do after reading it?
The challenge with information is establishing immediate relevance to capture their attention. Relevance means that the content is useful and has meaning for them.
As the writer, you need to fill in the blank:
“You need to know the information in this document because [add what makes it relevant and useful].”
This creates buy-in. Readers have a reason for reading it because they get a pay-off in the end. The more specific the pay-off, the greater the relevance, and the greater the likelihood they will read it.
Readers have only one question about instructions: “How do I [fill in]?”
Your goal is to give them a step-by-step process for performing a specific task as easily as possible.
Generally, instructions are written for the novice. More experienced people usually use the instructions as a guide or reminder of what to do whereas newer users need more detailed guidance
Formatting is important for successful instruction writing.
- Use imperative sentences for action steps.
- Use bullets for actions that do not have to be taken in order, such as the bullets in this article.
- Use numbers in sequence if steps must be taken in order.
- Write one action per step. Having more than one action per step increases the possibility of the reader overlooking one of them.
- Identify main steps and provide detail in sub-steps. Avoid multiple layers of sub-steps as this makes the instruction too complicated, and the reader is more likely to get lost.
- Start conditional steps with “If” or “When.”
- Use boldface and ALL CAPS for safety issues and warnings.
- Avoid hyperlinks within instructions since they make it more difficult to follow the process.
- Test the instructions with someone unfamiliar with it and adjust as necessary.
Your ability to write persuasively helps you get things done and achieve the results you want. You use persuasive techniques when you want to motivate the reader to take an action, such as buy your product or service, donate to your favorite charity, send the data for your report a week early, take your recommendation, and so on.
One of the most important things to remember is to understate, not overstate. A single exaggeration can destroy your credibility with the reader, so rely on facts, statistics, and authorities to prove your case.
- Motivate the reader to take the action you want by describing what they gain and avoid by acting. For example, they may gain a discount or avoid a penalty.
- Use benefits, not just features. People make decisions based on emotion and justify with logic. A feature is what something is or does; the benefit is what the feature gives them. For example, lane assist in a car is a feature; the benefit is safety — it prevents the driver from drifting into the next lane.
- Anticipate and respond to any objections the reader may have. This step is often overlooked; however, failing to address objections gives the reader a reason for saying no.
- Add a call to action (CTA) with instructions for taking the action.
- Make the CTA time-bound, when possible, to add urgency.
Business Writing Made Easier
Business writing rarely is exciting, but the ability to do it clearly and well is a huge plus for any professional. People with strong written communication skills are valued in most organizations who view this as a core competency. If you are in business for yourself, understanding how to write for your reader can make it easier to get the results you need.
If you have any questions about business writing, please share them in Responses or send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org and mention this article in your subject line.