What and how we write can have a huge impact on our success in business. The image we create on paper is just as important as the image we create by our wardrobe, posture and handshake. Is your business writing as effective as the rest of the marketing you do?
You want everything you write to be powerful and have impact. There are several things to consider in order to achieve this.
Firstly, know your audience. Whether you are writing a cover letter or a business development proposal, the most important factor of your business writing is your reader. One good strategy is to imagine you are the reader. Ask yourself, “As a reader, what’s in this for me?” ( . . . a prospective new employee, a bigger bottom line, good publicity, etc.) Try to answer that question as you write.
Secondly, keep your sentences short and to the point. This will help you maintain good sentence structure and makes it easier for your reader to understand what you are saying. A good rule is to write to a grade seven or eight level. Although this may seem like you’re aiming low, remember that many readers will scan your work, not read it closely. Author Tom Sant points out that “one of Lincoln’s greatest speeches was his Second Inaugural Address. Of its 701 words, 627 have just one or two syllables. (That’s 89.5 percent.)” If the “short and simple strategy” worked for Abraham Lincoln, couldn’t it work for you?
Avoid jargon unless you are certain that your reader will understand every single word. It could be that English is not be the first language of everybody who reads your work. If you avoid jargon and slang, you will reach more readers. That could make the difference between winning or losing a contract.
Be yourself. If you don’t speak and act with a stuffy, intellectual tone, why would you write with one? What is your personality and how can you incorporate it into your business writing? I know one person who signs her e-mail with, “Smiles, (her name)” instead of the traditional “Sincerely, (name).” It works for her precisely because she lights up a room with her vibrant smile. She’s always smiling — it’s her signature and it works for her. If you’re not sure how to do this in your writing, read your work out loud. Does it flow with a natural rhythm? Does it sound like you? You can also ask yourself, “How would I say this if I were sitting right in front of the person reading it?” Then, write it that way.
Finally, take the time to check over your document. Most word processors have spelling and grammar checkers. While they may not be perfect, they can help to catch typos and other common mistakes. By taking the time to do this consistently, you become your own quality assurance manager when it comes to the image you are projecting with your business writing. This is a crucial step that many people overlook.
It’s important to check the final version of the document. It has happened to most of us that we spell check something, make revisions and send it out without a final spelling check. Then — oops! –somehow that silly mistake jumps off the page after it’s too late to change it. Once I had to throw out 500 brochures because they came back from the printer with a spelling error. Talk about a costly lesson!
There may be times when it works to your advantage to hire a professional writer or editor. Even as a person with two university degrees in languages who writes and edits professionally, I often ask others to proofread my work before I send it out. I do this especially with marketing materials, as I know that others will judge my competency by the image I project in my marketing materials. I have learned a lot from doing this.
Writing is like any other skill: it can be learned. If you already know how, chances are, there’s room for improvement. Ask yourself, “How can I make my writing the best it can be?” That’s what professional writers do on a daily basis. That’s what entrepreneurs and other business people can do to polish their image, enhance their credibility, win customers and increase sales. It’s about presenting the best of yourself – both on and off the page.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.