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Persuasive business writing: how to make it stick.

Canadian Managers are in a bind. To beat recession and reduce international competitiveness, managers are being forced to slash training budgets. The bigger the slash, the more often business writing becomes a footnote.

Actually, most of the time, business writing isn't part of the training budget but rather a sadly neglected chapter. It just takes too much time and effort to teach people how to write well.

But unclear writers are unclear thinkers. And well staffed departments of unclear thinkers is not what is going to push us out of this economic slump. Equally, we will continue to deal with inflated consumer prices to cover our mistakes.

Equipping managers with persuasive writing strategies is the introduction. Training their staff to write effectively and persuasively is chapter one. We need this commitment to create a Canadian business biography worth reading.

Good business writing is descriptive and competent. It consists of three stages: good planning, clear writing and objective editing. Business writers don't write like Farley Mowat or Margaret Atwood; they don't need to. What they do have to do is "Say What They Want to Say and Stop."

The planning stage has three parts: purpose, content and audience. Step one is to identify one clear purpose for writing. Not two or three - but one. How many times have you read a memo and got to the end and asked yourself, so now what am I supposed to do? And what am I supposed to do first? Memos with multiple hidden messages create frustration and waste time in follow-up.

Step two is to decide on the kind and amount of content. After you've done your research, you need to take the time to evaluate, categorize and organize your material. Ask yourself these three questions:

1. Do I have all the information I need to persuasively make my point? 2. If yes, do I have too much? Can something be left out? 3. If no, what else do I need to help me make my point?

Again, say what you want to say and stop! Give your reader only the necessary information he needs to make a decision. If you give extra information, the reader will get lost on point 3 when point one is what you want him to focus on. Equally, if you leave out information, the reader will become confused and time will be spent on follow-up questions.

Step three is careful analysis of your audience. some questions you need to ask are:

1. Who is going to read it? One decision maker? Several? If so, how do I make all my audiences comfortable?

2. What's that person(s) behavior style, and how can I best get through to him? Will he appreciate a short and direct memo? Will an indirect approach be better as he is not easily persuaded and appreciates thoroughness? Does he respond well to enthusiasm? Sincerity? Will his response be positive, negative or indifferent?

3. What is my relationship to the reader? Do I need to be more formal or can I be informal? Impersonal or personal? Should I take an I-focus (focus on the writer) or a you-focus (focus on the reader)?

4. What's his experience and knowledge base? His occupation and education? Do we write the same language? Can I write in jargon, and will he understand?

5. What is the reader's language and cultural background? People who speak another language think in another language. And language transmits culture. These variables are intertwined and allow for a variety of interpretations of words and their meanings.

These are just some of the important questions you need to ask yourself about your audience. The more thorough your knowledge of the audience, the better you will able to zero in on how to best get your message across.

Stage two is clear writing. The key here is to let yourself and your ideas flow and not to create any kind of "writer's block". Don't try to be writer and editor at the same time. Just write - you'll edit later. Following is a first draft of a section of an employee benefits brochure. It has an informal style, is personal with a strong you-focus. The style and tone in this text are appropriate for the purpose, content and audience.

Example 1:

If you or one of your insured family

members becomes pregnant, the Plan

will pay for medical care in the same

way that it pays for any other

medical condition.

Stage three is objective editing, and you need to edit for both content and style. Once you've written the first draft, leave it for as long as you can. I know this is difficult with some of the gruelling deadlines we are under but this is crucial to going back to the text and being objective. Here, is the same text edited.

Example 2:

If you or an insured family member

becomes pregnant, the benefit plan

will cover costs as in any other

medical situation.

In the first phrase, two unnecessary fillers have been deleted so word count was reduced from 11 to 9. "Plan" became benefit plan to improve clarity and is in lower case script. Readability studies show that lower case script is easier to read so use capitals sparingly. "Cover costs" replaces the lengthy explanation in the first draft. Technically, a plan doesn't "pay" but "covers". As well, several redundant words have been omitted here. The last point is the change to "medical situation". Pregnancy is a situation. This generic term allows you much more freedom than a specific term like "condition". Upgrading your reading glasses every two years is not a condition, etc. Finally, overall word count was reduced from 29 to 21.

Following is an excerpt from a business proposal. What kind of an impression to you think it makes on the audience? Does it inspire the reader with confidence? Remember, the first question the reader asks is "What's in it for me?" (WIIFM) Why should I go with your firm on this project?

Example 1:

We believe that a comprehensive

assessment of the community needs

and a careful selection of programs

is critical to the ongoing success of

the organization.

Example 2:

To ensure your ongoing success, we

recommend a community needs

assessment followed by in-depth

planning and programming.

In the first example, the writer is formal, impersonal and has taken an I-focus. The features and benefits to the audience are hidden. Example two, is still formal but is personal and you-focused and puts the benefits and features up front where the audience can readily see what he will get. Finally, word count has been reduced from 25 to 17.

My final example is from a client transmittal letter. Example one illustrate cumbersome language, bulky nouns, info-dumps and gushiness. Example two, is clear, brief, uses active verbs and is sincere. Both are formal, personal and you-focused. Word count has been reduced from 59 to 33.

Example 1:

Thank you for the time you spent

with me on Thursday discussing

your information system activities

and sharing with us your aggressive

expansion and franchising plans.

As a result of that meeting we are

pleased to present our proposal to

assist _____ in the

acquisition and implementation of

your next generation of information

system to meet that revised need.

Example 2:

Thank you for outlining your

expansion and franchising plans

at our Thursday, Dec. 10, 1990

meeting. This proposal outlines

ways we can help you to acquire

and implement your next generation

of information system.

To wrap up, business writing has three stages: good planning, clear writing and objective editing. The business writer first has to be clear on his purpose, content and audience. Next, he has to go through one or more drafts to a final objective edit. Here, he will focus on clear content and appropriate style and tone. The features and benefits of the product, idea or service need to be clearly outlined for the reader.

Good, clear business writers are a must if we are to make an impact in business. We need managers who are committed to improving their writing skills, and to helping their staff improve theirs. If we stick to it, we can build a Canadian business biography worth reading.

Vera N. Held, M.Ed. is a writer and teacher. A diverse communicator, Vera designs and delivers writing and presentation workshops for business and government. If you have any questions, you can reach her at Vera N. Held Communications, 2515 Bathurst St., #403, Toronto, M6B 2Z1 (416) 785-3556.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Canadian Institute of Management
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:developing good business writing skills
Author:Held, Vera N.
Publication:Canadian Manager
Date:Jun 22, 1991
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