By SueCanyon | August 30, 2007
I recently visited with a client who had reason to write a letter to one of his long-time customers. He was angry about some changes that had been made and was looking for an explanation and relief from some of the changes. He asked me to review his letter. His final draft, prior to my review, might have served to end his relationship with this customer.
His experience prompted me to revisit some work that I had written years ago that was aimed at employees at a large company, but was valid for small business owners as well. So here, I offer you an excerpt from a book I wrote back in the late 80’s entitled “Pocket Mentor”. I offer the chapter intact but for an occasional reference to e-mail, which was not widely used at the time.
The writing of memos, reports, and e-mails is a clever craft that can allow you to stand out among your peers. It is often the vehicle by which your reader gets a fist impression of you. You can make a lasting good impression – or a lasting bad one, depending on how well you write. The importance of good written communications skills to your growth within the company should not be underestimated. Your success depends on how well you communicate!
To write a memo, instructions, or a letter, clearly, concisely, and get your point across, is an art in itself. The subject of written communications deserves an entire book, and many excellent books have been written about it. Here I will simply highlight what I believe to be the most important aspects of written communication when used within a company, those that will help you to look more polished, those that will help you get your message received. You see, to write a memo and mail it does not ensure that your audience will actually read it. After all, how much correspondence crosses your desk that you don’t read?
Your company may have a standard form or format that you can use. If not, you can follow these simple guidelines until you adopt a style of your own. At the top of the memo, write the date, to whom the memo is addressed, your name, your title (if appropriate), and the subject. After a suitable greeting, write the body of the memo, followed by a closing statement, your name and signature. Some have discontinued the use of the greeting and the closing, especially in e-mail, but I consider the use of ‘Thanks’ or Thank you’ to be a courtesy to my audience.
What is Your Subject?
It is very important to have a firm idea of what you want to write about. One has a tendency to ramble on when there is no clear subject. It is difficult to hold the interest of your reader with ramblings-on. Be specific about what you want to say and then create enough interest that the recipient will want to read your memo.
If you wish to write a report on the results of a study you have done on the number of hockey sticks that were sold at each of four stores that offered different sale percentages, don’t title the report “The Sporting Goods Sale.” Rather title it, “Sales Results of the Different Sale Percentages on Hockey Sticks at Four Stores.”
If you want to explain to your supervisor the effects an increase in the output plan has had on your department, call it “Service Department – Effects of Increased Output Requirements.” If, however, you are using this memo to request and justify more workers as a result of those effects, call it, “Request and Justification for Increased Headcount in the Service Department.”
As you write, test each paragraph against your subject. The better you become at sticking to the subject, the easier it will be for you to get through the problem identification process.
Who Is Your Audience
Who will be reading this memo? Just as you must test each paragraph against your subject, test it also against your audience. If you are writing to the department, write as if you have that group in a room and are speaking to it. Don’t single out one member to talk to for one paragraph unless you want everyone in the room to hear it, as you would in a congratulatory note of praise. For example, “We’ve all done very will this month! Pat Chints has done an outstanding job increasing the area output two-fold. Bill Jenkins contributed…”
If you are writing a monthly report to your supervisor which will be distributed to others, write as if you were speaking directly to him in a room with the full attention of the others. Write to the same audience throughout the entire communication. In this case the “To:” would be the supervisor and you would “cc:” (carbon copy) the others.
Who Needs What Information?
If you are writing to your supervisor, she needs more detail than your manager needs. If your supervisor is directly responsible for the area you wish to discuss, she will need to know all the details about the problem, solution, or proposal.
But the higher up the management chain you address, the less interested the reader will be in the details of your subject. Managers manage a function, they do not perform it. Your manager doesn’t care that Johnny said this, and Martha tried to fix it by…as your supervisor would. He wants to know the problem, the impact, and the solution. He wants to know the answers to three questions: how many production parts were scrapped, when will the shortage be made up, and how much is it going to cost? If he wants to know more, he will call or come see the person directly responsible for the area (your supervisor), who had better understand the problem in detail lest you deliver her the slam dunk.
There is a phenomenon I like to call the ‘one-page fetish’. There is a legitimate need, by those readers whose desks are littered with memos and whose computers are clogged with e-mails each day, for the writer to be brief. If you have something to say and can’t say it in one page, you should probably say it in person.
Would you rather read a one page synopsis of your stock report, or the three page detail report? Most people simply want to know if the stock went up or down, by how much, and when they will see the next report.
If the stock went up, you probably won’t read any further. But if it went down, you might look for a comparison to last year, and the explanations as to what is to be done about it. That is all. The rest of the report generally isn’t read by busy people like you. So, if you want your report to be read, tell your readers what they want to know, using only one page.
Use White Space
Using white space is another way to persuade your audience to read your memo, report, or e-mail. Why is it easier to read a book with many pictures and drawings in it than it is to read a textbook with page after page of words? It’s easier because our eyes and our minds appreciate the white spaces on the page or screen. We don’t like monotony, so any kind of a break feels good.
We would all rather read a one page document that has white space rather than one that is margin to margin words. A page that includes pictures will attract even more attention.
Use plenty of white space in your one-page document. Double space between each paragraph. Write only three to five lines per paragraph and complete your discussion of the subject of that paragraph within those lines.
It will also help to underline the subject word in each paragraph of a report so your reader can see your subjects at a glance. He can read those subjects that interest him, while not having to bother with the others. If your manager is your audience, he will, at first glance, have ten or so words clearly speaking to him as he looks at the page. You can be assured that those ten words will get read, and that his interest will be piqued on two or three of the subjects. Those two or three paragraphs will be absorbed. Remember that your reader is a time manager also. Give him the opportunity to decide at a glance what is important to him and what is not.
It is easy to tell when someone is writing upward in a management chain for the first time. They use eloquence – long, fancy words – and write as if they’re trying to be someone. We already know that you are someone, and you don’t want to appear as if you are new at this. You want to look as if you have written a memo or report before and are comfortable with the process, as if it’s no big deal, even though it is as big as your career. You want to write a short interpretation of the problem, its impact, and the solution.
You cannot be brief using fancy words. Big words are not necessary and require more words around them. Your memo will be shorter and clearer if you use simpler language.
I once received a memo addressed to the entire upper management level of a large company, written by a fellow with a PhD and a penchant for eloquence. The next week, in staff meetings throughout the plant, his memo was discussed – not his subject – no one remembered his subject. Everyone remembered the fact that he used the work ‘ameliorate’. Everyone had to look it up. We all remembered the word, not his subject. And this fellow, sadly enough, lost many points in the management community of the firm for a very long time. He was viewed as having looked down his doctoral nose at the rest of the management team. Without a PhD, you’ll fare even worse. Improve your correspondence by editing out fancy words, and use short, clear, to-the-point sentences.
Try Not To Use It
Use of the word it can confuse your reader to a point where your meaning gets lost. Consider using what the it stands for, instead of the word it. For example, the sentence, “It would be better if it were taken out,” sounds as if the subject is the garbage or your tonsils. The sentence means something entirely different when written, “The memo would read better if the paragraph were taken out.”
One quarter of communication is in getting out what you want to say where people can hear or read it. The other three quarters of communication is in understanding what is heard or read. Give your reader his greatest opportunity to understand you. Whenever you write it, replace it with what, answer the resulting question, and write the answer in place of the it.
“It will be clearer…” becomes “What will be clearer?” which answered becomes “Communication will be clearer if we don’t use ‘it’.”
This technique works as well with other ambiguous words. Be specific about whom you are writing. Replace he, she or they with who – answer the question and fill in the answer. “He said…” becomes “Who said…” which then becomes “Bill said…”
But of course, don’t overdo it. If Bill is the only person/subject in the paragraph, then, after an initial introduction (“Bill said,”) the use of he is appropriate. Make certain, in sentences where you’ve used ambiguous words, that the reader is clear as to whom or what you are referring.
Serve No Wine Before Its Time
Let’s assume that you are very good at what you do. Have you ever tried to teach someone how to tie a shoe, drive a car, or bake a cake, when your student has never seen a shoe, a car, or a cake?
When speaking with those who are not as familiar as we are with a subject, we find ourselves constantly back-pedaling, trying to find some common ground from which to start, which makes the first draft appear backwards or inside-out where the original subject actually appears near the end of the document. We know our subject so well that many times we forget that the audience does not understand it nearly as well.
When we write to someone, we don’t have the same opportunity to back up and begin again, as we do when we are speaking to them. So always let the memo ‘cool’ before you send it. Set the memo aside for an evening. In the morning, you will have a better chance to add those few words or that little explanation, or even reverse the order of the paragraphs, that will bring the memo into focus for those not nearly as up on your subject as you are.
If you write as if your reader knows nothing of your subject, yet can keep your correspondence short and clear, without talking down to your audience, your documents will be well received.
I estimate that 40% of memos written by fledgling writers are written out of anger. Many times, when we write these angry notes, the whole point escapes the reader because the message doesn’t focus on the subject, or we assume that the reader already knows the problem, when, most often, she doesn’t.
Let’s say that Ken reclaimed his microscope from Jan who was using it. Jan feels the need to write an e-mail to her supervisor Tom. Jan must remember that Tom does not know what happened yet. Jan wants to tell him what happened. But, does Tom want to read, in e-mail form, that her feelings were hurt, that maybe Ken didn’t use the proper channels, or that there was a shouting match before she gave it up? No.
Always remember, your audience wants to know the problem he has, not the problem you have, how much it’s going to cost him, and what is being done to correct it. I cannot stress this enough. But, if you were Jan, that’s not what’s going through your mind right now. Right now you’re angry and hurt.
So, write the e-mail but don’t send it yet. After you’ve had time to concentrate on something else, after your anger has subsided, read the e-mail again. Then make sure you said what you really needed to say. Will your reader understand it at his experience level? Communication is always more effective when cooling takes place.
If you let your words cool, and then rewrite them, a bitter, angry tirade might, instead, read, “At this time, the XRT shipment will not go out tomorrow as planned. Ken, in Dept. B, reclaimed their microscope before I finished with it. Please advise.”
It is perfectly acceptable to rewrite or do major editing such as this, after cooling. The more often you write, the better your first drafts will be, but don’t expect first-draft perfection. Even the most professional writer edits her work after a cooling period.
Spelling and Grammar
There can be no excuse for correspondence containing misspellings to reach its reader. If you are sending a handwritten note, let someone proofread it for you. If you are creating a document on the computer, use the spell checker and grammar checker that comes with the software. However, please pay close attention to your usage of the different forms of there, their and they’re; to, two and too; for, four and fore; and of misspellings that will pass spell check like sue for use; word for work; fro for for; no for on; you for your; and manger for manager. We all make mistakes.
If you are including something written by someone else, proofread for spelling, grammar and readability. And please, ‘alot’ is two words. Find other words to use so you don’t use them a lot (Yuck!). Use the Thesaurus feature available in most software packages and on the internet. Have someone proofread your document for readability before you send it, and don’t forget to let it cool!
Your reader will be more likely to read the entire document if you practice these tactics. Show your reader that you are organized by using only one page and white spaces. Get to the point, use simple language, and solve the problem. Organization, ability to cut though the bull, and problem solving talents are qualities in demand when management seeks to promote individuals. These are the very qualities exhibited in good written communications.
Having practiced clear, concise, simple language on paper, you can apply some of these concepts to your verbal communications, too. In a future blog entry I will discuss a few tactics that will accelerate understanding when you talk with others.
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