Mentioning no names, but I was looking at a platform hosting thousands of online courses. Specifically I was looking at courses to teach people English. And I found this as one of the leading courses:
‘Proffessional Business Emails Samples’
It’s the easiest thing to sit around and criticise others while doing nothing ourselves, but to see a course targeted at improving people’s English with a spelling mistake literally in the first word, followed by poor grammar – as you know, it should be ‘Profesional Business Email Samples’ – is a bit of a shocker.
There’s no way I’d buy that course. And there’s the problem. Do you know how quickly people make decisions about your appearance when they meet you for the first time?
In that time they’ll decide whether they can trust you, how smart you are, how aggressive you are, how amusing you are. That’s a horrifyingly short time but it’s how we humans are wired. And we do the same thing when we see something written by someone.
That person might have spent hundreds of hours putting their course together, but in three seconds they had destroyed any chance of me and people like me giving it a chance.
Context in Writing
I’m a middle-aged man. Someone I don’t know sends me an email. It starts ‘Hi Guy’. Perfectly normal, but I don’t always like it. Although it’s better than ‘Hey Guy, just reaching out.’ That one gets set on fire, thrown in the bin and the grey ashes cast into the seething ocean.
Disappointingly, all I can actually do is press delete but you get my point.
So what was the actual problem with someone I don’t know writing ‘Hey Guy, just reaching out’? It’s that it’s obviously just a generic heading. The person writing it is thinking of themselves writing it, they’re not thinking of the person reading it.
And that right there is a major insight into writing for business. Think not of the context of it being written – you sitting there in your trackies in the quiet of your sitting room – but of the context of it being read – by someone well dressed in a busy office who is perhaps conscious of their position and the raft of things they have to get done, which doesn’t include reading random emails.
So keep it:
• Personal, where possible and appropriate
• To the point
• Written in straightforward language
Keep It Short
You may have a vocabulary of up to 40,000 words, you may well, but only use the straightforward ones. Write ‘this week’ not ‘in the next period of time’. Write ‘because’ instead of ‘due to the fact that’. Write ‘needs’ not ‘has a requirement for’.
There’s a good reason some of the most powerful and influential people use simple language when they write. Warren Buffet, the world’s most famous investor, writes his newsletters as if writing to a teenager. He has in mind his two sisters when they were young when he writes. Marketer and influencer Ryan Holiday writes all his posts as if they’re to be read by a 14-year-old. That’s how you get understood by a huge range of readers.
But getting your point across is just one of the issues with writing. The other main issue is actually realising that communication in writing, as with speaking, is two-way. Dialogue not monologue. You write something, the other person reacts and replies, or they start the conversation.
Either way, if you’re talking to someone you’d listen. But how many people don’t do that when it comes to a written conversation? I have a friend who’s had many senior roles in major corporations. Imagine telling him important information, but he just zones out about halfway through. He often misses important information because it’s towards the end of an email. Two lessons.
1. In anything other than a letter, write using an inverted pyramid shape, that is, put the important stuff near the top, and let it tail away quickly as the message goes on. Otherwise it’s all TL; DR (“too long: didn’t read”!) and there’s some justification in that.
2. Read emails and other messages, and read them all the way through. Yes, we often get too many emails but nobody actually is ‘too busy’ to read them. We want instant notes, messages sent by thumbs, not all your fingers. But read them, even quickly.
A Reddit conversation on this ended up with one person saying his co-worker reads the first four words of an email then responds based on that. And frequently of course they’re wrong. Which cues up more emails, and so it goes on. And on.
1. Don’t be stuffy and formal, but don’t be over-friendly unless you’ve at least met.
2. Keep it short and put the important stuff in the first quarter.
3. Keep sentences and paragraphs short. Like this.
4. Don’t use jargon unless it’s definitely an audience that will need that jargon.
5. Always think of who is reading - not you, who is writing.
6. Write as if to an audience in their teens.
7. Be authentic. Be you.
8. Try to tell a story, even in a note. We love and understand stories.
9. Use a spellchecker if you must, but remember most of them are American. The horror.
10. Go over it and read it slowly before sending. You’ll always find errors – find them before the recipient does.
Written in partnership with Graham Scott - an award author, publisher and staff writer who has been writing professionally for four decades.
Writing for business forces us to clarify our thoughts before we write in a way that speaking does not. Be clear, concise and persuasive.