You’re great at oral presentations, adept at one-on-one sales calls. You’ve even mastered the dreaded cold call. But when it comes to writing — putting your thoughts down on paper — you panic. How should I start? How can I get all my ideas on one page? How will I write this so busy people will read it? How do I persuade them to buy my product?
As teachers of business writing, we find that whether they’re writing sales letters, proposals, memos or e-mail our course participants share these concerns. And we use a simple method to help them solve their writing problems. We teach them to take their reader’s point of view while they plan their documents.
Try it yourself. Before writing, jot down everything your reader might want to know. If you were meeting in person, what questions would she ask? If you’re writing a marketing letter to potential clients, what questions will they have about your product and your company? A memo to your boss requesting a raise? What will he need to know about your performance and responsibilities? By putting a face on your reader, you can organize your thoughts and choose your words with her most important questions in mind. Writing becomes easier.
By answering your reader’s questions, you’ve handled content — what to include. Now your task is to organize your ideas and present them clearly and concisely. Easier said than done? Not really. Keep these basic principles of successful business writing in mind and you’ll write documents that really make a point.
What’s Your Bottom Line?
Use the BLUF Principle when organizing your documents: get the Bottom Line Up Front. Place your main message in the first paragraph of a sales report, the lead of a letter, the subject line of a memo or e-mail. This is prime real estate. Don’t squander it with a weak lead or long greeting. “We can show you how to increase your profits by 20 percent” is more powerful than “We have a new service we’d like you to know about.” The job of the opening sentence of your sales letter, memo, or proposal is to hook your readers. Many writers wait until the end — the last paragraph of their document — to give their big pitch. But without a reason to read on, your potential customers may never get to the end. Use your lead to tell them that you can increase profits, then use the rest of the document to tell them how.
Express, Don’t Impress
Your product is cutting edge, the technology complex. But your writing should be simple. Don’t try to impress your reader with jargon. Keep your sentences clear and direct. Your purpose isn’t to overwhelm your readers with what you know, but rather to show what you can do for them.
Make Your Writing Reader-Friendly
Your clients are busy people. Their desks are piled high with letters and reports, their e-mail boxes are crammed with messages. Is your document easy on the eye? Have you used white space, bullets, and short paragraphs to chunk information and make your communication easy to read and navigate? If you are sending a long proposal, memo or report, have you used headings to break the text into meaningful segments?
Make sure your communication is enticing. Do your letterhead and logo present a professional and pleasing image? Can you use other visuals — photos, illustrations, sketches, charts — to carry part of your message or story?
How You Say It Is As Important As What You Say
The tone of your writing — your attitude toward your subject and your readers — is as important as the content of your communication. Don’t confuse bureaucratic with businesslike. Make your writing professional and personal by using pronouns such as I, we, you. Use the active voice to maintain a direct, personal tone (I will call you to set up an appointment) rather than the passive voice (You will be contacted).
Spell It Write
Spelling and grammar errors give potential customers reason to question your competence. Does your inattention to spelling reflect your company’s inattention to its customers?
A spellchecker is the first line of defense. But it won’t flag correctly spelled words used incorrectly (right, write). Find a friend, colleague or employee who’s a spelling and grammar champ, and ask him to read important documents. Or make a list of your own spelling demons and check the list before sending anything. Most important, make sure you spell the name of your recipient correctly. Nothing’s more insulting than a “personal” letter from someone who didn’t bother to get your name right!