We might not all be writers, but we all write. You compose written messages all the time at work – client proposals, emails to co-workers and managers, internal memos. With all this writing, how much time do you spend ensuring that your written communication is clear, concise and effective? Carolyn O’Hara explains in the Harvard Business Review that busy, time-poor CEOs and managers often believe that setting aside time to improve their writing skills is fruitless. However, having command of the written word works wonders for workplace productivity, and business profitability. Regardless of how great your ideas are, no one will ever be able to understand – or execute – them if you cannot properly communicate. Fortunately, author of The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing, Bryan Garner, argues that everyone can improve their writing. Here is a collection of tips to improve your written communication in the workplace, as explained by O’Hara.
Think first, write second
Remember when your Grade 10 English teacher told you to plan your essay before you write it? She was onto something. Considering the purpose, and key message, of your communication prior to actually putting pen to paper is incredibly fruitful. Make note of exactly what you want your audience to take away from your email, memo, or proposal, and keep that in the back of your mind the whole time you’re writing.
There is a time and a place for long-winded, creative language – but the workplace isn’t it. Most of the people that will be reading your communication are time-poor, and need to know the key information right off the bat. So, write your key point at the very top of the document – don’t hide it somewhere in the middle. Include the key information succinctly in the email subject line if you can. Everything the audience reads after this will have more context, considering they already know the key message.
Trim it down
Don’t use five words to explain something that could be said in two. Re-read your writing back to yourself through the lens of a time-pressed manager to ensure each word is useful. As soon as a reader hits a sentence full of unnecessary words, they tune out. MIT Sloan School Managerial Communication lecturer Kara Blackburn recommends using contractions, removing prepositions, and replacing -ion words with actions verbs.
Keep it simple
Buzzwords, acronyms and other industry-specific jargon are rampant in business writing. Occasionally their use is inevitable, sometimes even helpful, but they certainly shouldn’t be relied upon. O’Hara explains that if you’re using too many buzzwords, your writing looks generated, ingenuine, and even uninformed. In addition, don’t use overly lavish language to look intelligent – generally, it stands out like a sore thumb.
Everything you write, you should read back to yourself. Be critical of your own writing. Is it clear? Does it follow a neat structure? Are your sentences too long or short? Put yourself in the shoes of your reader, and honestly determine if your argument is presented well. Reading out loud can be really helpful here. Every time you need to take a breath, there needs to be a comma or a full stop. Print it out, and read the hard copy – studies show we process information better when it’s printed. Welcome feedback from colleagues on your work. After all, how else will you learn!
Practice makes perfect
No one became an expert at anything overnight. Just like all skills, Blackburn explains that writing improves with practice. Reading well-written material as often as possible is a great way to improve. Pay attention to all written communication that you compose, taking note of sentence structure, flow, and word selection. Blackburn suggests readying The Wall Street Journal for a great example of written style. It’s worthwhile creating a style and grammar guide for your workplace, so every employee can improve their skills. Ensure you have time in your day to edit and revise all your written communication – the edits you make yourself on a regular basis are the ones that will really stick in your brain.
Key points to remember:
- Plan your communication
- Be direct
- Don’t fluff your language – keep it concise
- Don’t use unnecessary buzzwords and jargon
- Practice your written communication
- Read and edit your work
Written communication is a given in any workplace, hence it’s a good idea to ensure you’re doing it well. Clear, concise and well-structured written communication is effective, engaging, and will help you to achieve your business goals. You can read more about improving communication in the workplace here.