How to get (really) good at business communication

It's easy to roll your eyes and moan about the state of business communications, or you can do something about it.

It’s easy to roll your eyes and moan about the state of business communications. Everything from incomplete, inaccurate and confusing emails and memos to meeting minutes and reports that don’t make sense. Ineffective business letters, most of which are peppered with the first person singular pronoun, are fodder for the recycling bin.

All this results in errors, causes confusion, wastes time, creates aggravation, and puts even capable workers at an advancement and career disadvantage, not to mention the negative implications for their employers.

It’s any wonder that productivity, which is dropping, isn’t collapsing. However, it’s irrelevant whether or not the ability to express oneself clearly and accurately is at an all-time low. It’s not enough to identify a problem; the test is what can be done about it. Here are suggestions on how to get (really) good at business communication:

1. Put it in writing. It’s easy to ‘talk stuff’ or text and assume that’s sufficient. It isn’t. Just ask Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who says, “There’s no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.” Few people can accomplish the task.

“Writing is the primary basis upon which your work, your learning, and your intellect will be judged — in college, in the workplace, and in the community,” states Marquette University, along with others.

Writing clarifies thought, uncovers false assumptions, helps articulate worthwhile questions, and stimulates feedback. All of which are essential qualities for success in business.

2. Start at the beginning. The worst mistake is to assume that the reader or listener will figure out what’s important about your message. They won’t.

For example, wading through a half-dozen long paragraphs of a newsletter’s lead article before getting to the main point asked too much of any reader. Simply moving the last paragraph to the beginning would make it interesting and compelling. The way to capture the attention of readers and listeners is to start at the beginning. 

3. Have a plan. If you don’t have a plan, the reader or listener won’t bother with it. Although we’ve all had too many experiences like this, few learn from them. 

Too often we start typing with only some vague idea where we’re going. And we never get there. To avoid a ‘stream of consciousness’ calamity, here’s a sure-fire outline that works wonders in any type of business communication: Problem/Solution, and it’s useful for almost every subject. For example, “Why we need to make a change in our product line” may be your topic.

  • Problem. A discussion of reasons how and why the problem developed.
  • Solution. After laying this groundwork, present the solution to the problem, which includes why it overcomes each of the reasons that caused the original problem 

Then comes the call to action, the steps to take to move forward and resolve the problem.

4. Put your work to the test. If experienced and even the most famous writers require an editor, it only makes sense that the rest of us do, too. The only way to improve and to make sure the message is clear and on target is to find someone who can help. And it doesn’t need to be a ‘professional’. It can be a co-worker, friend, partner or spouse, anyone who is meticulous and likes language.

There are other benefits, too. Your ‘editor’ should be encouraged to point out inconsistencies, errors of fact, lack of clarity, and make suggestions for improving your work. That’s the gold standard, so be sure to come up with ways to say thank you.

5. Rewrite. However much you do it, it’s never enough. Someone said, “Hey, this isn’t the Gettysburg Address, it’s just a monthly wrap up.” That’s the problem: business communications are not worth the effort.

The designers could have said that about the Apple TV remote control. Hold one in your hand; it’s simplicity and elegance are compelling. Just three buttons, not a dazzling array of dozens. It took time, effort and commitment to go from 50 or more buttons to three. Forceful and persuasive business writing, presenting and speaking takes rewriting. We never do our best work the first time.

 6. Slay the good business communication killers. They may seem minor, but they can do big-time damage:

  • Needless words. Extra words are ‘filler’ and obscure the message. They’re like plaque in arteries, clogging the flow of ideas. It takes practice (like playing the guitar), but getting rid of unnecessary words is a big step for improving communication.
  • Jargon. Stay away from it; if in doubt, don’t use it. It’s showy, sophomoric, and off-putting. Those who are insecure use ‘in’ words, attempting to convey that they know what they’re talking about. Actually, they don’t.
  • Adjectives and adverbs. Avoid adjectives and adverbs. Like lights in Las Vegas, they add glitter and call attention to themselves. Practice writing without them and watch your writing improve.
  • Active vs. passive voice. The active voice is easier to understand. Here’s the difference: Active: “The supervisor stole the product report.” Business writers use the passive to soften a statement: “The new product report was stolen by the supervisor.” Also, the passive usually adds words.
  • Short paragraphs. The eye rebels at the sight of a long paragraph. Two or three sentences work well. At times, even one will do it.
  • Exclamation points. Mostly ineffective and pointless. Never more than one; preferably none. Let what you write give the emphasis.
  • Short words. Using them makes writing and presenting more natural, and easier to understand and follow. Sprinkling a text with long words interferes with clarity.
  • Simplicity. Ask yourself, “Will anyone misunderstand or be confused by what I’m saying or how I’m saying it?” Be ruthless. Unclear thinking causes confused communication.

Putting our words in front of others or making presentations involves risk and puts us to the test. Yet, whatever our aspirations and wherever we find ourselves, success depends on the well-honed skills of writing and speaking, of being really good at business communications.

John Graham of GrahamComm is a marketing and sales strategist-consultant and business writer. He publishes a free monthly eBulletin, “No Nonsense Marketing & Sales.” Contact him at [email protected], 617-774-9759

or johnrgraham.com

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