Guest post from Lisa Butler
How many times have you started to read a business document or email and found yourself frustrated and confused, wondering what the purpose is, and where the answers to your questions are.
Perhaps the structure doesn’t help, the layout, or the lengthy sentences and lack of good grammar. Whatever the reason, poor business writing wreaks havoc on efficiency.
We live in a time poor world, and we want information at our fingertips when we need it. We don’t have time (or often the patience) to sift through volumes of irrelevant information to get to the most relevant parts. Impressive writers take this into consideration – in the way they organise and prioritise their content, maximise visual readability, and structure their paragraphs and sentences.
There are many tips to maximise the readability of your documents. Below are three that, if used effectively, can have an immediate impact.
Tip 1 – Make your purpose clear
Steven Covey, in his work “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, says we should always start with the end in mind. This habit is critical for all forms of communication, and writing is no different. Consider your purpose in writing each document. Are you trying to inform, seek approval, or persuade? How will you convey this purpose to the reader?
I often hear senior executives vent their frustration with the documents they read, particularly when they have to read the whole document to get a sense of the purpose. Even then, the purpose is not always clear. As a writer, is this the impression you want your senior executives to have of you?
The answer is simple – know your purpose before you write, and make it clear and up front for the reader. You can even put it in your subject line. For example, to a reader there is a big difference between a subject line that says “Project X Update” and one that says “Please approve – extra $10k funds needed for Project X stage 4 success”.
Tip 2 – Consider your reader and structure your document for them
Before you start writing, consider your reader/s. Who are they? Why are they reading this document? What do they want to know? What order do they want to know it? This can help you to structure your document to meet their needs.
This might sound like common sense, but it is human nature to approach writing from our own perspective. We want to tell the story, to ensure the reader gets all the information and a good sense of what we did, or what we know. However, by doing this we are not writing to meet the needs of our readers.
Let’s use an example. To write a business case asking for more resources, the habit of many writers is to describe the process or the journey they took to get to the recommendation. For example, they might start with some background or history (what happened in the past, the issue, or what is the current state). They might then describe the research they did or analysis they undertook, and what they found, followed by what it means and the recommendations.
Readers, however, approach reading a document from a different mindset.
Consider the reader’s key questions when receiving this document. The questions might be:
- What’s this about?
- What do they want me to do?
- What are they recommending?
- Why are they recommending that?
- What are the benefits and costs?
You should answer these questions in the order the reader wants them answered. Deeper rationale behind the recommendations, and the process you undertook, are often less important to the reader, so you can put this information later in the document, or even in attachments.
Tip 3 – Make your document visually appealing to read
Given the time poor nature of business readers, they tend to speed-read. This means they need to see critical information at a glance. Documents that are easier to speed-read tend to have several key elements – white space, grouping of key information, and meaningful headings and sub-headings.
If you had the choice of reading a document with lots of white space, or one with words filling the entire page, which would you read? Assuming both contained the relevant content, I am sure you would choose white space. We can achieve white space on our page by grouping our content using either bullet points (for lists or similar content), or even tables and graphs.
Consider the difference between these two headings –
“Market update – expect ABC to rise by 2%”.
Give your readers enough information in your headings and sub-headings to help them to decide if they want or need to read on. Many writers assume that their headings need to be short and snappy – they can be, but remember that your purpose is to give the reader enough information and choice.
Lisa Butler is the Managing Director of The Talea Group, offering tailored learning solutions to enhance communication capability. Working with large corporations and professional services firms, Lisa helps her clients to write, present and network more successfully.