Business Writing Truths and Myths
Written by Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, Syntax Training
For the 25 years I have taught classes in business writing, I have heard and rejected a few myths. And I have learned and applied some important truths. Don’t let yourself be fooled by false rules that others may follow. Recognize and apply what makes sense.
Is each of the five statements below a truth, a myth, or a mix of both depending on the situation? You decide. Read More…
Effective communication is “BRIEF”
We send and receive dozens of e-mails and have tens of conversations daily. More often than not one needs to read an e-mail thoroughly several times before understanding the actions needed or despite carefully listening the ramble of someone misses the point of the conversation.
“43% of people who received long-winded emails deleted or ignored them.”
Be more effective in your communication by following the BRIEF rule.
Fast Company have created the following formula for better communicating your information and/or needs:
B (Background): Provide a quick context—what happened beforehand?
R (Reason): Explain why you’re contacting them now— why should they engage?
I (Information): Give two to three pieces of information. What are the three main points or bullets of the topic?
E (End): Decide what do you want to be remembered. Tell the next steps – you will do what OR you expect the other site to do what.
F (Follow-up): Try to predict the questions asked at the end of conversation or (as a reply to the message) and prepare answers in advance.
Read why less is more HERE.
When to Write a Memo, Not an Email
These days we have replaced memos with rampant emails. We have pushed email too far, expecting it to communicate long, complex, important messages to everyone. Our inboxes are stuffed, and those essential messages are not being read.
It’s time to take the pressure off emails. If you want people to read your important ideas and information, you need to revive the memo. Consider these suggestions:
1. Recognize the best uses of email. Emails win for fast, temporary communications that readers quickly read, act on, and delete. Emails excel at succinct requests and replies, speedy updates, short reminders or check-ins, time-sensitive announcements, and similar short-lived messages. They are perfect for briefly introducing attachments such as memos.
2. Use a memo when you are writing a message built to last. If your communication is a detailed proposal, a significant report, a serious recommendation, a technical explanation, meeting minutes, a new policy, or something else that readers will consult more than once, make it a memo. Your readers will be able to save the document, read it, and find it when they need the information again.
3. Use a memo when formatting matters. If the piece contains bullet points, bold headings, columns, tables, a graph, or even a good balance of white space, a memo will help you retain that formatting. To guarantee your formatting, save the memo as a PDF. If your audience reads emails on their phones, an attachment may be the only way to preserve the formatting you intend.
5. To communicate formally, choose a memo. Memos provide a place at the top of the message to insert the company name and logo and the professional titles of senders and receivers. Those inclusions make the message appear more formal. Also, a well-formatted message conveys significance.
6. When you worry that your message is too long as an email, write a memo. Impossibly long emails often result when you try to incorporate important, lasting information in them. But memos work best when people will return to your message for information. (See Point 2.) For instance, if you are communicating the details of the four-stage construction project, use a memo. To convey pros and cons of a major purchasing decision, lay out your research in a memo.
Attach your memo to an email that gives your readers a brief summary of the memo contents. For some readers, that summary will be enough. Those who need the information will read and save the memo.
7. To communicate complex information to people outside your organization (clients, citizens, etc.), consider a memo or a letter. A letter is the traditional format for external correspondence, especially to people you serve, such as customers and patients. But you can choose a memo to write to vendors, consultants, members, clients, professional peers, and others who collaborate with you to get results.
8. To send your memo, simply attach it to a brief email. Or send a printed copy through interoffice mail if that approach makes sense.
I have attached a sample memo to illustrate a standard format.
The memo is no dinosaur. Use it for your significant communications, and your messages will come across as professional, relevant, and of lasting importance.
8 Overused Cliches Employers Are Sick Of Seeing in Resumes
Looking for a new job isn’t easy, and it can be hard to want to put your best into every iteration of your resume and cover letter. But here’s the thing: even though the economy’s been improving, times are still tough. Plenty of people are looking, and that means for every job opening you see, there’s some HR person out there who is being swamped with a deluge of resumes.
If you want to be sure your resume will actually make them hit the pause button (figuratively) and not the delete button (literally), you’ve got to avoid these cliche words and phrases that sound impressive but don’t actually convey much meaning.
“I’m a creative thinker”
Unless it’s literally part of your job title (e.g., Creative Director), “creative” is an adjective that’s become so overused it’s utterly meaningless to many recruiters. Think of what the inverse of this statement would be: “I only think inside the box.” “I can’t come up with anything new.” “I have no ideas of my own to contribute.” Literally no one is going to say that, so it means that stating the obvious is well, pretty obvious.
Instead of saying you’re creative, demonstrate that you’re creative with a well-written cover letter. Give a specific example of a problem you’ve overcome, a solution you devised, or how you’ve managed to expand your current role.
Again, who exactly doesn’t want to get results for their employer? (A person they don’t want to hire, that’s who!) They will assume you’re results oriented, so show them the actual results.
Numbers can help here: Quantify how many sales you made in the last quarter, the number of people you’ve supervised as part of your team, or the amount of traffic your ad campaign drove to your client.
“I’m a guru/ninja/expert/etc.”
No, no, no. Unless “Guru” or “Ninja” is your actual job title, skip the enthusiastic euphemisms. Yeah, if one of your references describes you that way, it’s great — but if you’re talking about yourself like this, it’s a bit empty.
If you really are extra-super-good at what you do, show it by listing your accomplishments: Grants you won, conferences you’ve spoken at, programming languages or software you’ve mastered, and so on. If you’re kicking butt, your accomplishments will convey that for you.
“I have excellent oral and written communication skills.”
Another case of something you should show, not tell. Though you’ll frequently see this on job descriptions, if it shows up in your cover letter or resume it feels like filler — because it is. If you really do have excellent communication skills, you’ll have a cover letter that’s clearly written, appropriately tailored to the position, and inviting to the reader. Same goes for your resume.
Drop this line, and spend the extra time proofreading to make sure that you don’t have any spelling errors or grammar gaffes. (If you’ve read your own resume so many times that you won’t even notice a mistake, ask a friend to proof it for you.)
“My references are available upon request.”
Well, yeah, they should be! Even if a potential employer hasn’t asked for your references yet (and many don’t until you’re doing a formal application), it’s more than acceptable to let them assume that of course you have references.
If they have asked for you references, name them and give their contact info in the appropriate part of the form, in a separate document, or below your cover letter, if you’re sending that in the body of an email. (In those instances, say something like, “Attached please find my references” or “Please find my references listed below.”) If they didn’t ask? Just don’t mention it for now. Use the extra space to say something useful about yourself!
No one’s going to say “I’m a total space cadet” or “I don’t sweat the small stuff.” But saying you’re detail-oriented has become such a cliche as to be totally meaningless (not least because so many recruiters see resumes that are riddled with spelling errors and cover letters personalized for the wrong company by applicants who claim to be “detail-oriented”). Again, show this by making sure that your cover letter and resume are free of basic grammar and spelling slip-ups.
You can also demonstrate your attention to detail by being specific in your discussion of what you do: Managed a staff of three interns; Served as liaison between lab group and department head; Spearheaded development of pay-per-click marketing campaigns for X, Y, and Z clients.
Don’t just list! Your resume needs to tell a story about you, not just rehash the job posting for your previous gig. Instead of making a simple list that begins with “duties” or “responsibilities include” (come on, you know that sounds like a total snoozefest), use active verbs to help convey the specific tasks you’ve accomplished on the job. Collaborated with internal team and external vendors to source products, implemented a new system for tracking leads, revamped corporate website to reflect new brand strategy.
Even if what you do isn’t terribly thrilling, using specific, active verbs can your resume stand out. (E.g., “Client communication” versus “Communicated with clients to ensure that targets were met and issues were promptly resolved.”)
“I’m passionate about what I do.”
Are you? Though today many employers want an intense level of commitment (which is a whole other deal), there are limits to how “passionate” one can be about, say, a call center job. Likewise, if you’re just starting out and you’re applying for jobs that are in a wide range of fields, you probably don’t have a “passion” for each and every one of them. If you actually are into what you do, it should be conveyed not only by your cover letter and resume, but also by your web presence (and yes, you should assume that before you get an interview request, you’re going to be Googled).
Your LinkedIn profile should obviously show that you’re excited about what you do, but ideally any other public profile (e.g., Twitter, which relatively few people have set to private) should reflect your interest and enthusiasm, at least a little. If it doesn’t, just leave “passionate” out of it. Otherwise, you’re just setting yourself up for an interview fail: “So, what makes you passionate about being an administrative assistant?” “Uhhhhhhhhh.” Don’t lay out anything in your cover letter or resume that you aren’t ready to answer for when you finally get that call.
Image source: pixabay.com
Seven Tips for Communicating Data
Written by Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, Syntax Training
After you have worked hard to collect meaningful data, the big challenges are how and how much to communicate. Consider these tips when you work on your next report or presentation that includes data.
- Focus first on your message, not on the numbers.
When planning your communication, focus first on the big idea or points you want to make. Then incorporate the data that will help your audience understand and appreciate your points. Be sure your big idea gets center stage, not the numbers.
- Explain the data.
Numbers mean nothing on their own. They need interpretation. Avoid asking readers or your audience to “review the attached spreadsheets.” Why should they review them? Which numbers should they pay attention to and why? What do the numbers indicate?
- Put data in context.
Make it clear whether numbers are positive, negative, or neutral. If you tell a sales rep that she visited an average of six prospects per day, compare that number to the goal number of prospects. If a client walks 5500 steps in a day, state whether 5500 is the magic healthy number or only halfway there. If expenses are 18 percent over income, say why the reader should care. Explain that the account balance will be €0 by 2018 if nothing changes.
- Paint a picture with your numbers so people can see them.
Even simple expressions like “a tenfold increase” or “a 30 percent drop” can seem vague unless your audience can see them. If numbers have decreased dramatically over a decade, do not use words and numbers alone. In a bold-colored graph, show the deep drop year by year, month by month over 10 years.
If your numbers are so large as to be abstract, paint them in recognizable mental pictures such as an area as large as Italy or a distance of 100 Greyhound buses. (Think of your audience when you choose the image.) How hot is 158 degrees Fahrenheit? Hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk.
Or show the numbers reduced to their essence. Jack Hagley’s graphic “The World as 100 People” (www.jackhagley.com/The-World-as-100-People) presents the world as though it were only 100 people. For instance, 83 of the world’s 100 people are able to read and write; 17 are not.
- Highlight important numbers.
A wall of numbers is as intimidating as a wall of text. Pull out essential numbers and focus on them. If you are presenting financial data, show just a small portion of it at a time on a slide or a page–just the portion you are discussing now. If you refer to and show just a small part, your audience will not say, “Where are you?” and “What are you talking about?” And always render numbers in a large enough font that you do not have to apologize for it.
Make it easy for your readers to find important numbers. If a client has asked for your fee, for example, don’t bury the number in a paragraph. Instead, render the number alone on a line or as part of a short heading, like this:
Your investment: US$19,000
- Prominently display the legends for tables and charts of numbers.
Ensure that your audience will know instantly that 3000 indicates 3,000,000 and that your balance is positive rather than negative. Use abbreviations such as K and M only if you are certain your readers understand them. (To some people, M means thousand; to others, it means million.)
- Use only the essential, compelling numbers in the body of your document.
If numbers weigh down your document, your readers may forget your main point. So move most of the supporting tables, lists, charts, and graphs to the appendices. In a presentation, hold back some slides of data, and show them only upon request. Remember: The numbers are not the message; they serve the message.
If you think of your communication as music, your most important message comes through the soloist. The numbers are the accompanists. They play an essential role, but they should never drown out the soloist. If they do, your communication will not reach and change your audience.
How to Ask a Stranger for a Favor
Written by Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, Syntax Training
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