by Lauren Wise
Regardless of your industry, there is one universal aspect that connects us all: written communication. E-mails are every bit as important as phone calls, and a customer often decides within 30 seconds if they feel a connection to the content on your web site, brochure, or newsletter.
Nowadays, it’s nearly impossible to complete all of your business interactions face-to-face—but digital communication can still offer an introduction as impressive as a firm handshake and eye contact.
As an editor, I tend to notice even the most obscure grammatical errors. However I’m guessing there are a lot of other business owners out there who have encountered their fair share of hasty emails and unpolished proposals—and I’m not just talking about mixing up “their” and “there.”
But don’t worry.
You don’t have to be a professional writer to come off as polished and effective. It’s all about overcoming a few bad habits, while incorporating a few good ones.
1. Be Considerate of Your Tone
“Tone” is an element that can easily get muddled in email correspondence. A statement that one person might think is clever and comical may come off as sharp and sarcastic to another. Pay attention to the email style of your clients or superiors. Are requests or responses in-depth, or quick and to the point? Are they goal-oriented or deadline-driven? Many people deal with multiple clients and superiors, and understanding the tone of their regular correspondence helps you understand the way they work, in turn making you more efficient.
2. Practice Email Etiquette
Your email correspondence, whether it’s an introduction or 50-message thread, should always be professional and courteous. This may sound obvious, but it’s the biggest hurdle I encounter on a daily basis as a business owner. Are you using blunt language or run-on sentences? Are you addressing any concerns/questions, or dismissing them until “you know for sure?” All of these things make you seem lazy and insincere. It does not make a good first impression. One more thing: it’s best to keep your language professional and proper, even if you and that co-worker are buddies.
3. Clarity Over Creativity
Think of it this way: In 99 out of a 100 business documents, you should touch base on your bottom line within the first three sentences. Even better, answer it in the headline. In the days of overloaded inboxes and press releases filled with fluff, your message might be deleted if you take too long getting to your point. Always re-read your content, pitches, blogs and more in an effort to cut out unnecessary words.
For example, instead of “This new line of self-help audio CDs called Principles provides a cutting edge path to success for the listener, focused on opening a whole new world of tips and tricks for efficiency, time management, balance, financial gain,” say, “The CD series Principles focuses on providing cutting-edge tips on managing time and finances, and increasing efficiency for ultimate life balance.”
4. Answer the Essential Question…
What’s in it for your audience?
In every piece of business writing, you need to answer this essential question, or your work won’t get read. If your company is launching a new marketing program, don’t go into detail about how the ads will look, sound and feel. Instead, tell your audience how they’ll drive business, promote your product and boost the bottom line. Plan and structure your document based on what the client needs. Only then should you begin to write it.
5. DON’T YELL
DO YOU STAND IN PUBLIC IN SCREAM OUT YOUR THOUGHTS FOR ATTENTION?
I can’t stand when people put their email subject lines in all caps. Some believe it increases your chance of getting the other person’s attention, but it often does more harm than good. Keep your subject line short, to the point, and with normal-sized letters. As long as your words are clear and attention-grabbing, you’ve done your job. Similarly, multiple exclamation points or question marks can often send the wrong message.
6. Be Smarter Than a Third Grader
Avoid common spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes. You don’t have to be a professional writer to create polished, efficient content—but there’s no reason an adult should mix up “your” and “you’re” in a business proposal. It can make the reader pause to evaluate your professionalism, possibly thinking If this person doesn’t care enough to check what they’ve written, how much will they care about my business?
Read through everything. Check and then recheck and then ask a colleague to check again.
Here is a list of similarly common—yet inexcusable—word mix-ups:
- There / they’re / their
- Its / it’s
- Effect / affect
- Except / accept
- Between / among
- A lot / alot (tip: “alot” is not a word!)
7. Don’t Write Lengthy Email Responses From Your Phone
Ah, the frenemy known as auto-correct.
When you read an important e-mail from your phone, resist the urge to immediately respond. There is nothing worse then shooting off an excited or hasty response, only to blow your chances because you incorrectly spelled a new client’s name wrong (or even worse, a word like “don’t” turned into “damn”… I still don’t know how that happened).
Nine out of ten times, it can wait until you’re at a computer. If it absolutely can’t wait, then type slowly, read it over, and re-read right before you send.
8. Know When to Use Complexity and Buzz Words.
On one hand hand, when talking to your target audience, readers can actually feel empowered by the explanations of terms they already know.
On the other, if you explain every acronym and try to look intellectual to your co-workers, that can come off as actually speaking down to them. Assume that your message needs to be clear and concise; intellectual doesn’t have to mean incomprehensible. Even the world’s top engineers probably get sick of digging through jargon-packed documents full of words like synergy and innovative, as well as complicated words and phrases they most likely already know.
9. The 50/50 Rule
If you’re writing a presentation or proposal that includes images, follow the 50/50 Rule. You don’t want too much text or too much white space; ideally a document should be 50 percent text and 50 percent images or white space. Too much text, a bad choice of fonts and font size as well as insufficient line spacing can prevent a reader from reading content. San serif fonts such as Arial, for example, make larger bodies of text easier to read.
10. Not Hiring a Professional Writer or Editor
This rule is a give-in from a professional editor (*shamelessplug)
Quality is essential; quantity is preferable. So, with this in mind, is the content we are producing actually any good? The sad truth is that many companies require employees to write content, and these employees struggle for hours to produce badly written and structured documents. In the long haul, if a company hired a freelance writer or editor, it would save time and money, as well as make them stand out to their target demographic.
Depending on your industry, find writers who specialize in your product or field to write your web site, newsletter, and blog content. If that isn’t possible, at the very least hire an editor to clean it up and make it as professional and tailored to your audience as possible.
Lauren Wise, Editor, Writer and Self-Publishing Consultant at Midnight Publishing.
Lauren Wise, Head of Editorial, has been a writer, book editor and magazine editor for over 10 years. In 2009, she established Midnight Publishing to help other writers just like her in the struggling economy. Midnight Publishing provides editing, writing, proofing, publishing, website and consulting services to dozens of customers in Arizona and throughout the country.
A graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, Lauren has worked as a magazine editor and contributed a few hundred articles to publications on the topics of publishing, travel, music, cooking and wine. Lauren Wise lived all over the country and traveled throughout Europe, Vietnam, Taiwan, The Virgin Islands, Cambodia, Canada and Mexico, making her open to several cultures, ideas and editorial styles.
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