Good Business Writing is Not a Mark Twain Novel

In the world of business, you only get one chance for a great first impression. The stakes are high – you are asking an investor for money, a customer for an order, or another executive for a partnership. Badly written letters, long rambling or emotional emails, or an obvious lack of spell checking will brand you as a poor business risk before the message is even considered.

No one is born with business writing skills, and everyone can learn them. Yet this seems to be one of the most common failures I see in business professionals. I get serious letters to investors, requests for assistance, and business plans almost every day which violate the basic rules of business communication. We both lose when that happens.

Thus, I thought a quick refresher on business writing basics might help you more than any tip on the next big thing on the business horizon:

  1.  Select clear purpose and focus.  Before you start writing, it’s important to ask yourself what you intend the document to accomplish. What action you want the reader to take as a result of your message?  Make every word focus on that purpose. Get to the point in the first sentence, and restate it in the last.
  2. Tailor writing to your audience. The audience makes all the difference. People subconsciously tailor their conversation, and same rule applies to writing.   Consider your recipient’s motivation, culture, socio-economic status, education level, gender, and relationship to you. If you don’t know this information, aim high rather than low.
  3. Organize toward a specific outcome. Think about the conclusions you’d like your readers to reach by the time they finish your writing. In general, you will either inform or persuade, and you should have one of these two approaches in mind as you write. Always use the same basic elements of opener, body, and conclusion.
  4. Make it look good.  A poorly formatted document, unsightly fonts, and lack of white space will kill even the best writing. Place all the parts of the message in the correct positions. Use short paragraphs for readability and spacing. Put information where your reader expects to see it. Show your readers respect, and you’ll get respect back.
  5. Action items should be highlighted and positive.  Underline action items, or even separate them in bullets to give visual cues to their importance. Readers will focus better on positive words rather than negative, so state negative messages in the most positive light to make them more palatable. Focus on what is, rather than what is not.
  6. Develop a friendly business writing voice.  This will create a sense of familiarity for readers, making them more open to what you have to say. Inject confidence, and courtesy, always using non-discriminatory language to avoid offence and apparent bias. Write at the audience reading level or below.

In general, I don’t recommend phone text messaging or Instant Messaging for business purposes, unless the recipient already knows you well.  Emails are acceptable, but keep these to one page, addressed to one person, with meaningful subject lines, and use that spell checker.

Always remember that even the best written message can’t convey the body language and emotions of the sender. If the subject is sensitive or the message can be easily misinterpreted, don’t use email or anything written, but pick up the telephone or meet in person instead.

Who you are and who you can be, depend on the image your writing communicates to the mind of the receiver.  That image is set more by the way you write, than by the content of your message. For business, skip the story telling and the colorful language of Mark Twain, unless you want to date your company and you’re savvy to his era.

Martin Zwilling , Founder and CEO, Startup Professionals
October 24th, 2011