Whether you’re an academic, a government employee or in the corporate world, effective business communication is vital to getting your job done. If you’re struggling to write a clear email or memo, try out our six tips on using plain English to transform your business communication.
1. Keep it simple
The essence of good business communication is providing people with direct, clear information they can use. You can’t do that if you’re stuffing your sentences with jargon or technical language.
What you need to focus on is your desired outcome from your audience, whether you’re trying to persuade them, inform them, sell them something, or encourage action. Don’t use tired corporate buzzwords: talking about ‘synergies’, ‘pain points’ and ‘low hanging fruit’ doesn’t help you win your audience, it’s just imprecise language which makes it seem like you don’t know what you’re talking about.
2. Identify your target audience
If you’re writing business communication it’s because you have a customer or audience in mind. Make sure you know, in detail, who they are. Thinking about their wants, needs and expectations will help you shape your writing to be as effective as possible.
“Never start writing a piece of business communication without having first identified who your target audience is,” says Valerie Khoo, author and Australian Writers’ Centre CEO. “Who is going to read it? And what do you want them to do, feel, or change in their behaviour as a result of reading it? If you take the time to determine these goals at the start, you have a better chance that your written communication will get the desired results.
“If you are writing to customers, you can even determine a customer avatar. You might write your communication to ‘Sally, 37, a professional executive who is now on maternity leave.’ Get as granular as you can and your messaging will cut through more.”
3. Prioritise your space effectively
If you’ve ever written a news story, you’ll know the pyramid structure for an article. It’s handy in business writing as well. You need to put your most important information up the top, because that’s where people’s eyes will go: that is your window of opportunity. Don’t waste it with a meandering intro!
Start with the juicy information – the success story, the offer, the outcome – because that’s your hook. If you do this well, people will read on to find out the backstory and detail.
4. Make all your words count
The shorter and more direct your sentences are, the clearer they will be. Use strong verbs and make every word justify its place.
Check your writing over for redundant words or phrases – like ‘at this point in time’, ‘in the month of June’, ‘we collaborated together’, ‘past experience’. Also avoid phrases like ‘in my opinion’ or ‘I think’: it weakens what you’re saying. Write with authority.
5. Be direct
Faced with a blank page, it’s tempting to fill it up with words. Particularly if you don’t have a writing background, it’s easy to over-explain and write long and clunky sentences with multiple clauses. Not only does unclear communication mean your message gets lost, it also increases the chance your reader will simply give up and go elsewhere.
To check whether your writing is direct enough, once you’ve written something, read it aloud to yourself. Pay attention to the places that feel clunky and verbose, and the sentences you can’t finish without taking a new breath: they’re the places where your audience’s interest will start to wane.
6. Seek outside feedback
Getting a second pair of eyes on your writing is always helpful. If you have a colleague or friend who has the expertise to provide useful feedback, that’s great.
If you’re doing a lot of business writing, taking a professional course that focuses on business communication – like the Australian Writers’ Centre’s Plain English Business Writing workshop – is a worthwhile investment. You’ll get templates, personal feedback and new skills to use throughout your career.