White Paper: Writing for the 21st Century Reader
Technology and a global economy have changed the business world tremendously in the past few years, and business writing has changed right along with it. While business writers used to focus on niceties, formalities, and details, writers today find that the 21st century reader is more interested in writing that is quick, easy, and to the point.
There are several steps business writers can take to make their writing more user-friendly for today’s time-pressed readers.
1. Know your audience. While you might not know them personally, find out as much as possible about the people to whom you are writing. This allows you to adapt the tone of the document, identify persuasive elements that might work with your particular readers, ask pertinent questions, etc. Researching your readers lets you address them in such a way that you can establish immediate rapport — a big part of getting them to care about what you have to say.
2. Identify your audience’s needs. Sounds simple, but far too many business writers attack documents from their own perspective, rather than considering the needs of their readers. Keep WIIFT (what’s in it for them?) at the front of your mind as you make and support each main point. Give them the need-to-know information. Identify benefits for them throughout the document. Benefits help readers buy into what you are saying.
3. Keep it clear and concise. Follow this simple formula:
• State your point.
• State why your reader needs to know.
• State what your reader needs to do.
• Weave benefits in where possible and pertinent.
Some other tips for keeping it clear and concise:
• Use the fewest number of words necessary to convey the message. Gone are the days of big words and “business gobbledygook.” Fancy language doesn’t impress — it depresses the poor reader who has to keep flipping through the dictionary to figure out what you are saying.
• Choose short words over long. The fewer syllables the better. If a document is filled with long words — even if they are everyday words — it looks daunting to your reader. Keep it short and simple.
• Use strong action verbs and an active voice. Put the subject at the start of the sentence and let it do the action — rather than being acted upon. Look at the difference an active approach makes in the following example.
“Managers should instruct their chief administrative official to compose a written communication to the industrial creators in the manufacturing building.”
Clearly and concisely written, the sentence would say:
“Have the supervisor send a memo to the line staff.”
See the difference? Not only is the sentence cut to less than half of its original length — saving the reader time — but it is much clearer and more understandable.
4. Make your documents “scannable.” Today’s readers want to be able to glance at a document and pull out the key points — the points that matter to them. Use headings and subheadings in longer documents, so readers can pinpoint where their need-to-know information is. Use bullet points and numbers to delineate key points. Use boxes and shading to highlight important supplemental points. Use graphics to illustrate hard-to-describe subjects that are better explained with visuals.
5. Keep e-mails to one main point, on one screen. If an e-mail is longer than one screen, write a memo, letter, or make a phone call instead. If you must cover more than one main point in an e-mail, be sure to number or bullet your points so your reader can follow your train of thought.
6. Attach supplemental material; don’t make it part of the main document. Some of your readers are detail-oriented and they want the extra information that most of your readers couldn’t care less about reading. Include supplemental material (data, charts, graphs, testimonials, etc.) as attachments in electronic communications. Save paper and printing costs by offering the supplemental material as an option in paper documents, asking readers to let you know if they would like a copy.
7. Don’t let electronic correspondence get too casual. Just because you are chatting back and forth electronically does not mean you can drop all business formality. E-mail is especially vulnerable to overly casual business writing — and being too casual with business colleagues can get you in trouble for a variety of reasons.
• Attempts at humor often fall flat and backfire, as your reader tries to figure out if you are joking or being serious.
• Politically incorrect comments are more likely when you let your guard down and are less formal.
• Emoticons and chat room abbreviations are never appropriate in business correspondence. Save them for friends and family.