Most verbal communication takes place off the cuff, so it often contains errors, is verbose, and lacks clarity.
With written communication, however, there is no excuse; the content can be planned, the document structure carefully crafted, and each word selected with care.
The ability to write clearly and concisely is an important skill for managers. There are many books on the subject. My favourite is Robert Gentle’s Read this! Business Writing That Works.
It comprises three modules: ‘The basics of short, plain language’; ‘Short, persuasive letters’; and ‘Short, punchy reports’. Note the word ‘short’ in each of these titles.
Here are some of the common myths about business writing:
People are keen to read what you have written
Wrong! Everyone is inundated with text messages and emails these days, not to speak of the overwhelming flow of business documents. They’d much rather be doing something else than ploughing through your report.
Use formal language
Nonsense! Business writing is not the time for formal or flowery language that your readers might not fully understand. Stick to clear, straightforward writing. For example, use ‘quickly’ instead of ‘expeditiously’ and ‘after’ instead of ‘subsequent to’.
People will read your report all the way through
Wrong again. Most people will get no further than the executive summary, which is by far the most important part of your entire report. Take great care in drafting it, as it’s your first and last chance of getting the reader interested in going through the rest of the document.
The conclusion should be at the end
Absolutely not. It should be eye-catching and up front, in the executive summary.
The longer it is, the more it will impress your readers
On the contrary, the length of a report is usually inversely proportional to its value. Keep it short, as Gentle advises. Few people have the time or inclination to plough through pages of obtuse verbiage to get to the gist of your argument. As former US president Franklin Roosevelt once said, “Be sincere, be brief, be seated”, which captures the essence of business communication perfectly.
And while you’re at it, write short sentences, making use of punchy phrases.
An easy-to-read layout
Another scourge of business writing is small print packed tightly on the page. This is often churned out by insurance companies and organisations seeking indemnities, and we usually sign these documents without reading them at all.
Never use a type smaller than 12-point; insert subheads to highlight the main themes; and use a simple layout with plenty of white space.
This will ensure an easy-to-read document.
Follow these guidelines and your report will be read with interest, instead of finding its way into a drawer to gather dust, or worse, being tossed into the nearest wastepaper basket.
Peter Hughes is a business and management consultant.