To write well at work, forget what you learned at school

TypewriterInfluencing others through the written word is more important than ever in modern business. The content you write – whether email, web page, PowerPoint deck, report or policy – has to cut through the maelstrom of other written communications that assail employees every day.

Yet so few of us have ever received any training in business writing. Instead, we’re forced to rely on what we learned in school and college. The trouble is, it simply doesn’t apply when it comes to writing in business – in fact, it can be downright unhelpful.

Remember what you were told about essay writing? Start with the background, provide context, define your question. Then in the middle, demonstrate what you know – and pad out if necessary with lots of detail and big words. Finally, end with a conclusion that answers the question. That was the recipe for good marks.

But take that approach with your business writing and you’ll flunk out. It’s unlikely anyone will get much past your first paragraph. You won’t deliver your message or make a good impression on your readers.

You have to turn the thing on its head. Because people are all so busy and overloaded, you need to grab attention with your very first words – your headline. Then you have to tell your story, convey your key message, in your very first sentence – ideally in the first few words. Don’t leave your best stuff until last. Unless you’re Charles Dickens, most people will have bailed out by then, anyway.

Nor is there a need to try to show off the range of your vocabulary or your ability to construct complex sentences. That just make it less likely you’ll communicate effectively – and more likely you’ll sound pretentious. Instead, aim for clarity, brevity and directness. Write about your initiative or project as if you’re talking about it to your neighbour over the garden fence.

Because so few of us – even those in relatively senior positions – have ever had a chance to learn the fundamentals of business writing, some basic guidance can make a lot of difference. That’s why I’m putting more of my time and energy into delivering my in-house training in business writing skills.

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