Is Your Professional Writing At Its Very Best? Tips for Making Your Everyday Writing Stand Out
by Sue Plaster, M.Ed.
Are you happy with your business writing? Or do you feel like you don’t always get the level of understanding and response you’d like from your written communications? Many of our business cultures rely heavily on face-to-face communication, teleconferencing, and Skype, but when it is urgent, written communication is often needed. Whether our daily writing is email, PowerPoint, business proposals, texting, or social media, we influence, inform, and activate others by communicating well. But how do we get our skills to the next level? For some valuable tips, I went to several colleagues whose writing I most enjoy and emulate. Let me tell you what I heard from some favorite business writers when I asked about their writing mantras.
Find a Unique AngleDenis Woulfe is director of marketing for the newspaper division of deRuyter-Nelson Publications, a design, communications. and publishing agency based in St. Paul, MN. His livelihood for many years has been writing and editing. Because he is a journalist writing about the communities he serves, it shouldn’t surprise us that Denis says he gets his best writing by searching for the unique way to look at his topic – whether his writing is about a person, an event, or a place. “I search for that hook that makes the writing have more impact,” says Denis. “Writing is persuasion, and persuasion must find and use powerful images. This means that I don’t settle for the first phrase that comes to mind. I find a new approach. Usually I’m writing pretty quickly, on a deadline, but even with a deadline, I always pause to make sure I find the specifics — the timely fact or the unique point of view that will make that email, LinkedIn post, column, or marketing proposal more interesting, lively, and readable. Many times, it means I make one last phone call or send one more email to dig further, but it always makes for better writing.”
Have a ConversationCarol Kaemmerer, president of Kaemmerer Group, LLC, is an executive coach, writer, and public speaker. One of her specialties is creating LinkedIn profiles for executives. Her clients span the United States, although her business is headquartered in Minnesota. Carol had no hesitation when I asked her what principle guided her professional writing. “I always picture myself talking directly to my readers,” she said. “Sitting right next to them, or being face-to-face. That way, I am sure to use conversational language that is more compelling, has the energy of real-life speech, and uses strong verbs.” How can we incorporate the power of conversational writing in our everyday communications? Here are three ways to put Carol’s advice to work for us:
- Use strong and specific subjects, verbs, and direct objects. When looking for what’s missing in a sentence, one of these is often the culprit.
- Use examples and comparisons. When we talk to each other we often use concrete examples, metaphors, and similes to demonstrate what we are talking about. That’s why “like” is one of the most-used words in everyday speech. “She pursued that goal like a tiger on the prowl” is ever so much stronger than “She tried hard to meet the goal.”
- Tell a story. Whether the tool is email, PowerPoint or LinkedIn, we have the opportunity to tell stories in our business writing. The best stories contain information as well as an emotional pull. Stories connect us to our audience more directly than many other forms of communication. In business, stories about clients, employees, and leaders are memorable. But, we may find equal or greater power in stories about people outside the realm of business – our children, spouses, parents, and teachers.
Answer The Question Posed – And Then Go BeyondI greatly value the writing of Karen DeYoung, president of DeYoung Consulting Services. Her firm offers learning and development help to nonprofits and government in particular. And she has taught and designed business writing courses herself. The writing of Karen’s that I see most often is proposals in response to RFPs. Karen’s work depends on her ability to respond to RFPs, and she has mastered the art. Sound boring? Difficult to write? Constraining, because all the client requirements must be met in order for the proposal to be considered? Karen finds a way to break though the constraints and produce effective writing. “I greatly respect the process of a proposal submission,” Karen says. “It exists for a reason: the client has a need. I value the client’s requirements and do my best to digest and really understand them.” And then she goes a step further: “My job in preparing a proposal is to show how my team would add value. So I always consider how I can meet and then exceed the client’s wishes. We may exceed their wishes by exhibiting deeper understanding of the subject matter, or having more contemporary methods of facilitation, or unique processes for involving stakeholders, etc.” Put simply, Karen creates great writing through crisper thinking. “Once I know how we can add extra value, it is easy for me to put that into words. Knowing that we have come up with a unique, client-centered approach gives me the energy to write about it believably. And being credible is what proposal writing is all about.”
Edit . . . AgainDenis Woulfe also shared with me his perspective not just as a writer, but as an editor: “Keeping it spare usually gains the writer more readers and happier readers. Denis says, “I can honestly say as an editor that if a once-over is good, a twice-over often yields new areas that can be trimmed or improved to strengthen the writing.” The second look may be your own, or it might be another set of eyes, a colleague or friend who is not familiar with the subject area but can spot good thinking and good writing. Says Denis, “If it’s worth writing, it’s worth editing well.” Carol Kaemmerer agrees and adds “Read the article aloud to identify where you stumble. That’s a flag that something is not clear. Did you stumble because you were expecting one word and another was used? If so, construct the sentence differently. Did you stumble because the word you tripped on has two meanings? If so, use a different word to remove ambiguity. Did you stumble because the pronoun you are reading could refer to more than one person? If so, make it clear.”
Use a Great Subject LineMy contribution to our topic of better business writing is this advice: look closely at your subject line.
- Does your subject line have punch? Does it quickly tell the true subject of the email? Brainstorm three options before settling on one.
- Does your subject line say what action is needed, preferably by when, so the reader has no doubt? It can still be framed as a request, but informing readers of any deadline is often helpful.
- Does your subject line contain the entire message, allowing a speedy response? I have a client who uses this method for quick instructions, reminders, and questions. And it works — we’re likely to answer an easily-read message more quickly.