Writing Skills

Business Writing Skills: Eight Kinds Of Business Writing To Do Well

Business writing



The Economist's method: The Economist is arguably the most respectable weekly 'newspaper' in the world.

The story goes: a long way back, a new journalist approached The Economist’s editor and asked guidelines about writing.

Here’s what he was told,


- Write what you know.

- Write what you think about it.

- Add a bit of humor somewhere in between.


#1 rule of business writing: Write like you are talking.

- Seth Godin


Types of business writing we do most often: Resumes - Email/letters - Memos - Sales letters - Proposals - Press releases


Whether you're writing a report, a letter, or a presentation, ask yourself:

- Who's the audience? (the big rule of communication: Always be relevant)

- What are they looking for?

- How much detail do they want or need?

- How will the information I have help them in going forward?

- How much background information do they need?

- Is anyone likely to be hostile toward what I have to say?

- Are they familiar with industry jargon?

- What kinds of examples and analogies will be most helpful to them?


(Source: 'Cut to the Chase' by Stuart Levine)


1. Writing Letters and E-mails


Now most communication done by email anyway, so the best tips for letters apply to emails as well.


- Follow the 'one page rule' as much as possible: If you can't fit it all onto one side of a standard business sheet of paper, start again. In your emails, don't let the reader scroll down a lot.


- Keep it brief: It doesn't what you are writing (complaint, proposal, introduction), you must make it brief. Avoid needless words/information. Use a simple words over a fancy phrase.


The optimal length of an email message is five sentences. All you should do is explain who you are, what you want, why you should get it, and when you need it by.

- Guy Kawasaki


- It should be understood in under a minute (Or, maybe in less time than a minute): If you want it to be a success. Why should anyone pay more attention to you?


Why am I writing this? What exactly do I want the result of this message to be?

- Merlin Mann


- Focus on one (only one) purpose in each letter: For example, don't selling something in middle of a letter complaining about something. Doing so might surprise the reader, but it often ends up bewildering the reader as to what the letter was all about.


- It should be simple: Write in a natural, confident style - short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. Effortlessly more from one point to another, by making them logically related/consequential.


- Make it strong: Use specific, concrete words. Use active verbs. Give answers straightaway; then explain if necessary. Don’t hedge. Avoid vague expressions - e.g. 'it appears.'


- Make it sincere: First, write like a human being, not a machine. Use words that connect with the reader, use pronouns (you, I, we etc). Admit mistakes readily and genuinely (no need to hide behind meaningless words, and in active language (don't say like politicians, 'mistakes were made'). Just do it all with sincerity and dignity.


- Specify the response you want: What do you want? What are the next steps?


- Responding to an angry letter/email: Begin with expressing that you understand the person's problems (after looking at things from her/his point of view - aka empathy). If they are right, tell them so. If you are right, show that you get their point about 'larger issue X'. Thank them for bringing it up for attention. If it was a mistake, explain why it occurred, where you went wrong, and what your next steps will be to rectify it as soon as possible. Never get bogged down by small disagreements.


- Giving information about meetings/updates/other business items: If it is a long letter, start with an elevator summary 20-40 words, and then a brief table of contents should introduce the main body of the letter. You can also offer a pdf version of the document, if it is something the reader has to go through in detail.


- Giving bad news: Just say it. Don't be ambiguous. Don't blame people/things. Show your sadness but sandwich it between your strength and resolve.


- Writing a complaint: State the problem, give background history (how long, consequences of the problem, who else/what else affected). Let them know what you did to solve it (if anything). Give your suggestions, but ask for their help and support. And, please check that you have written to the right person/s.


Tips specifically meant for emails:


- Subject line is the headline (and, make no false promises)


- Use a signature with a real phone number.


- Attachments: When you are sending an attachment, tell your respondent what the name of the file is, what program it is saved in, and the version of the program - E.g. 'Please find attached my resume titled JohnConnorResume. It is in PDF format.'


- Avoid getting into hot arguments (aka 'flaming') in emails: The golden rule for venting your anger via email is, before you send an email message, ask yourself, 'Would I say this to this person’s face?'


If you receive an email that is making you worked up, wait before you respond. Read the message again, and again (if you haven't got all the main points, avoiding misinterpretations.)


- Do not use BCC or MAIL MERGE. Try to write separate letters to each contact. It is about showing respect to the recipient.


- If you want to email to a list, don’t discuss private concerns and issues. Stay on topic. When conflict arises on the list speak in person with the one with whom you are in conflict.


2. Writing memos


Memos, short for memorandums have been used for internal communication (inside the organization) for a long time. Now emails have replaced the memos, but many people send memos via email, finding the memo structure a useful format to present their case best.


1. The Idea. What are you proposing?

2. Background. What conditions have arisen that led you to this recommendation?

3. How it Works. The details. In addition to How, also What, Who, When, Where.

4. Key Benefits. This is the 'Why?'

5. Next Steps. Who has to do what and by when for this to happen?


(Source: Proctor & Gamble)


The One Page Memo

5-6 short paragraphs: This is the style used at large (successful) corporations as well as increasingly by government bureaucrats.


Opening sentence: Tell the reader what to expect - why should you be interested in what I have to say?


Second paragraph: Give some background - history, facts, point to a trend, and the consequences of the problem/promise of the opportunity.


Third paragraph: Your detailed recommendation - the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, but don’t confuse the reader here with the ‘why’.


Fourth paragraph: Gives the reasons (based on evidence) - the ‘why’ - e.g. ‘Here are three reasons why you should look into my solution’ - and list precedents, benefits (financial and otherwise) , as well as risks.


Fifth paragraph: Tell the reader that you have looked at looked at alternative courses of action, but why this is the best.


3. Writing Reports


The only report we ask from all our units is one page per month.

- Alfred P. Sloan Jr.


The best reports in the real world are one page or less.

- Guy Kawasaki


Types of reports :

- Incident reports (e.g. accident)

- Periodic reports (e.g. monthly departmental report)

- Progress reports (e.g. project status report)

- Event/trip reports (e.g. business trip report)


Format of a typical report:


1. Title page: Subject of the report, author, date

2. Terms of reference: Who ordered the report, when and why, any conditions

3. Contents page: All section numbers and titles, using exactly the same wording as in the report

4. Executive Summary/Abstract: Brief summary of report - task, summary of conclusions and recommendations

5. Introduction: Background information

6. Main body of report: Findings, description, facts, opinions, etc. This must be well structured

7. Conclusion: Summary of results

8. Recommendations: Usually in the form of a list

9. Appendices (not always necessary): Additional details, tables, graphs, detailed analysis. These must be numbered and cross referenced in the text.

10. Glossary (not always necessary) : Explanation of any specialist terms


- Bibliography: References to any books, journals, etc. which were used either for background reading, or directly quoted in the report. They should be arranged alphabetically by the author’s name

The reference should include: author, date of publication, title, edition, place of publication, publisher.


4. Writing Business Proposals


They are either solicited (warm) or non-solicited (cold).


The Rule of 3. Whenever you’re trying to persuade a senior person to do something, always present 3 reasons. Not 2, not 4, but exactly 3.

- Anonymous


- Know about the client/prospective client's requirements.

- Find out before hand how much your services/products actually cost


Template for a sample business proposal:


Executive Summary: Where you charm the client by pointing to the benefits of your solutions/products. Always focus on the benefits.

Scope: This is a detailed description of your solution. If you are writing the proposal after getting the client's go ahead, make sure the scope follows the agreements fully.

Cost of Solution: An estimate

Delivery: Date/time and method of delivery, as well as a summary of the deliverables.

Terms: Payment terms and other legalese. (please also see 'contract' in 'freelancing guide'.)

Expiration Date: That is, you should say your offer is valid til...


Next up: Present a good-looking, cleanly laid out proposal.


5. Writing Sales proposals


A sales proposal is almost like any business proposal, except there is more emphasis on pushing the benefits and a sale.


Sales proposals start with benefits, continue talking about benefits and end summarizing the benefits.


'Don't just tell people the benefits - show them how it will benefit their lives.

BAD: 'This car has antilock brakes and passenger-side airbag.'

GOOD: 'This car will save your life.'


(Source:'Cut to the Chase' by Stuart Levine)


They also use other tricks to convince the prospective buyer:


- They compare their offerings with others, using a table, preferably.

- They will often three choices, one higher priced offering, one lower priced, and the one in the middle is presented as the 'most popular' offering, which is somewhere in the middle on the pricing scale.

- When they are selling a range of products, they will always start with higher priced items first and then go downwards, thus cushioning the 'pricing shock'.

- They will always be specific - for example, they will list a definite price, never a price range, which is very ambiguous.

- They are very careful with word usage - for example, instead of 'fee' or 'charge' they will talk about 'investment'.

- They will talk in terms of you (as all business communication does) and will also tailor benefits to fit the needs of the target buyer.


6. Writing Instructions


How to carry out specific bits of work.


Use specific 'command verbs' that are easily understood by the reader. Command verbs are verbs that tell the reader to do something, and owe their name to computers - 'open', 'save', 'print', 'copy, 'paste', 'send', 'submit', 'cancel' etc.


Whenever you write instructions, always assume that the reader is a novice. This way you will choose your words well.


Do not omit any steps.


And when you are done, see if you are able to follow the instructions or not.


7. Writing newsworthy press releases


You are giving out information for the press to use, and the press only puts out stuff 'fit to print'. To be newsworthy,


Seven ways to be newsworthy

- Announce something new: A new product, winning an award/contract, posting record profits, new address, adding new services or personnel. The more momentous the 'new' part, the greater your chance of major media coverage.


- Your USP/Your 'Way’: An upcoming event the media can catch on to - Free talk/seminar, trade show etc. If is an unusual or especially colorful event (world-beating would be nice), proves irresistible to the media.


- Celebrate a special day, week or month: E.g. The first annual no-car day.


- Piggyback on what’s in the news right now: Everyone is talking about X, so find something in your product/company relevant to the news - E.g. 'With our product X, you won't need an air conditioner this incredibly hot summer.'


- Piggyback on a larger trend: E.g. 'Finally e social network that respects your privacy.'


- Have a 'human interest' story to tell: A funny/dramatic/surprising story related to your company/founder/product

E.g. 'Meet the 16 year old founder of a billion dollar company.'


- Tips/Tutorials for a target audience: E.g. 'How you can save your smartphone battery even after heavy use.'


The Press Release template:

- Stick to a single topic in each of your press release to ensure that your message packs punch.


- If not printing the release on your company stationary, begin with a 'from' line indicating the source of information.


- The next line provides the name and phone number of the person you have designated to furnish further details to the media.


- Then comes the headline: Up to 3 lines. Present the newsworthy angle of the release.


- First paragraph with a newspaper-style dateline, and fill it with the main facts about your angle.


- Second paragraph: Bring the facts to life or put them in perspective with a quote from a named person.


- The Remaining space: Further explanations.


- Ending: Practical how-to-get-in-touch or where-to-go-details.


- Size: Only 1 page if possible. Max - 2 pages.


- No errors. Get others to proofread and okay it for being attention-worthy.


- Photographs/graphics greatly improve the chances of press picking up story.


When your press releases are meant for Radio and Television, approach show producers, not hosts.

Always focus on publications and programs that reach the market for your goods and services.


Google 'press release template' for latest tips on an ideal format.

Also search for 'free press release submission'.


8. Writing Thank-You Notes


1. Greet the Giver: 'Dear Aunt Sally'

2. Express Your Gratitude: 'Thank you so much for the slippers.'

3. Discuss Use: 'It gets very chilly here in the winter, so they will get a lot of use when winter comes.'

4. Mention the Past, Allude to the Future: 'It was great to see you at my birthday party, and I hope to see you at Dad’s retirement in February.'

5. Grace: 'Thanks again for your gift.'

6. Regards: 'Love,...'


(Source: TheMorningNews)


(Bonus tip) 9. Visual communication basics


The basics of charts and graphs: X (horizontal) and Y (vertical) axis - Known value goes on X - Unknown (or measured ) value goes on Y.


Line graphs: Used for trend data, correlation etc.


Bar graphs: The height of bar represents measured value ro frequency.


Pie charts: Shows a%age distribution - compares parts to a whole - whole pie is the total data set.


Venn diagrams: Shows overlaps between sets (each set represented by a circle).


The idea of visual thinking

Which says we can make any drawing using five basic shapes - square, circle, triangle, blob (any irregular shape) and a line.


- Portraits: To show 'who' and 'what'.

- Chart (bar, pie, etc): To show the 'what'.

- Maps: To show 'where'

- Timelines: to show 'when'

- Flowchart: To show 'how'

- Graph chart: To 'plot' (trends, growth etc)


Please search Google for 'visual thinking tips', 'data visualization tips'. Etc.


Thank you for reading.
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