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26 August, 2010 by

Better Business Writing: Getting to the Point

This is the first in a three-post series on how to improve your business writing

Most business communication these days happens via written materials – emails, PowerPoint presentations, or reports. These communications are not used simply to pass on information but to articulate complex ideas that have often have serious consequences for the business. Despite the importance of this skill, many continue to struggle with it.

One of the most detrimental sins in business writing is the failure to clearly articulate a point. Far too many communications ramble on or hide the main point deep in the text. This may seem like a small mistake to the author but it can have significant consequences for the reader. A poorly expressed point can cause confusion, result in misinterpretation or even alienate an audience. In fact, poor writing can have broader impact on an organization too. Employees may waste valuable time trying to understand or decipher confusing communications. For individual managers, poorly written communications can translate into ineffectiveness and loss of credibility.

You can avoid these pitfalls by using the following tips next time you need to make a point through writing:

  • Decide the points you want to make. Before writing anything down, think about what exactly it is you are trying to say. It is very difficult to be articulate unless you are clear yourself what you are trying to communicate. Boil what you are trying to say down to one or two points. Know what you want your audience to do with the information you’re providing. If you have a laundry list of things that must be communicated, consider chomping them up into separate messages.
  • If your message is complicated, outline it beforehand. Figuring out the logic of your argument while writing results in messages that are too long, convoluted and ultimately fail to inform or compel the reader. Instead create an outline of what it is you are trying to say and what information needs to be included. If it is very complex, consider drafting a chart that shows the logic of your thinking. This outline or chart then guides your writing, helping to ensure you stay on point.
  • Put the answer first. Too often people bury the point at the end of the email. They use this logic: Here is reason #1, then reason #2, then reason #3, which all leads to this important conclusion. The problem is that by the time your readers reach the conclusion, they may have gotten lost, bored or given up entirely. It’s far better to state your conclusion up front before providing background information. Put your answer first. For example, if you are emailing your department to let them know that the vacation policy is changing, don’t start the email by explaining all of the reasons behind the change. Instead, start simply and clearly by stating the policy is changing and how. Then, outline the various reasons why. Be sure to rearticulate the conclusion again at the end of your message.
  • Make your call to action clear. Too often readers receive a communication and don’t know what to do with its contents. State up front what it is you want the audience to do with the information. Do they need to behave differently going forward? Do they need to respond? Do you want them to share the information with others? This should be clearly articulated at the beginning and again at the end. If this is an email, consider putting your call to action in the subject line. For example, you could write, “New Proposed Vacation Policy– Please Provide Input”. If you’re not sure what you want your readers to do with the information, consider whether the communication is necessary at all.

See the second part on avoiding the most common business writing mistakes, and the third part on writing an e-mail that gets read

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