Ten Tested Tactics for Clearer Writing

BusWomanComputer200Have you ever sat in front of your computer, staring at the blank screen, and wondering what to write? We all have! So what can you do to avoid those awful blank-screen-staring-moments – and why is it they always seem to come up when you’re working against a deadline? How can you get started quickly?

Strangely enough, you can get off to a faster, easier start by taking just a little more time up front to save a whole lot of time writing the whole piece. Begin tactically.

What are tactics? Strategy. Good strategy is the essential part we so often leave out, before we begin to write. And a clear strategy is what lets you start quickly and easily; continue step-by-step; finish with a piece that does the job it was meant to do; and get the results you need.

 Here are the ten steps that will get you off to a quick, easy start:

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Write Faster – Communicate Better!

We are all so very busy, and now we have the holidays coming up, and want some time to enjoy them!ThinkingWoman170

More than ever, holiday time is time to keep those lines of communication open. Not only with friends and family, but especially on the job with our customers and clients. Where are we going to find the time? Let’s begin by taking less time to communicate effectively.

So how can we write faster – and communicate better?

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while now, you know that I have a very definite bias in this area. Here it is: To write faster, you have to begin by knowing what you’re talking about!

First of all, take just a minute or two to ask yourself the big five questions:

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How to Write Instructions that Work!

womanInstructions200Remember the last time you started to install, or assemble, or repair something, following the appropriate set of manufacturer’s instructions – only to find that, while they included steps 2, 5, 6-8, 10, and 12 – they had forgotten to include steps 1, 3-4, 9, and 11?

How did you feel about the person who wrote those instructions and what about the company the instructions came from?

The instructions you and I write on the job are usually somewhat simpler, and certainly different from the late Christmas Eve “special gift” assembly guidelines described above. But the writing process for creating a clear, effective instruction that allows your reader to get the job done is very similar.

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And the Business Writing Trend is: Short!

But “short” is not enough. And “short” can cause you a lot of problems, cost you more time, and result in lost productivity. What we’re really talking about is the importance of being concise.typingOnKeyboard200

So, for today, we will assume that you understand the subtle, but critical difference between being “short,” and being “concise.” Today, we will assume you have prepared the reader for your message, and we’ll get straight to the point. What are some of the tricks and techniques you can use to tighten up your writing quickly?

Here are three to start with:

1. Use alternate formats wherever appropriate, even beginning with the first paragraph. The old standbys, bullet points and numbered paragraphs, are well known, well loved, and effective. But you know that.

Take a look at some of the lesser-known alternate formats, like the problem-solution, log, or question and answer formats, among others.

While the benefits of using an alternate format to shorten up your writing are many, and obvious when you see them, perhaps one of the foremost is that with the use of a good alternate format, you can also do away with the tricky business of writing a good transition. A good alternate format will make the transition obvious, reducing the number of words required, and enhancing comprehension.

And in an email, the only additional issue you need to watch out for is that your piece will hold its format. If you are writing outside of your organization, or if your organization does not share an intranet where all screens are set the same, it is most likely your formatting will not hold. Use the piece as an attachment, with the body of your email being a cover letter. Saving it as a pdf file is generally safer.

2. Use a cover letter. As you recall, an email should be no longer than a screen. A screen is long enough, with a screen-and-a-half maximum.

That first paragraph, the cover letter in this case, must never be any longer than five lines. This is the extent of your reader’s 100% attention span, and if that first paragraph is to do its job, you need to use that knowledge.

Two purposes of a cover letter are (a) to let the reader know, at a glance, what the attachment is about, and what he or she needs to do with it; and (b) obviously, to get him or her to open and read it. And to act on it the way you intend.

3. Use the old question, “Should this information be passed along at all?” Here’s where you can save not only words, but maybe the entire communication. I’ve had workshop participants tell me this one consideration saves up to half of their business writing time.

So there you have it. Three tips to shorten your written communication. More next week.

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We would appreciate your recommending a Gail Tycer business writing workshop for your people at your location – or ours, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming professional meeting. Please give us a call at 503/292-9681 or email us at gail@gailtycer.com to discuss how we might be able to work together to meet your needs.


Business Writing Tip of the Week: How to Say It When You Can’t Think of What to Say

How many times have you or I sat, staring at a blank computer screen, waiting for inspiration to strike? How many times have we wished there were such a thing as a business writing fairy godmother – or at the very least, a ghostwriter, who could come along and give us a fill-in-the-blanks draft to get us started?

Soon it becomes apparent that inspiration is on vacation, and we’re going to have to handle it on our own.womanTyping250

Let’s say that your email is the type of email you write all the time. And the question becomes just how many ways can you say the same thing? So it can often be helpful to use a sort of template for the same sorts of pieces, and many companies and organizations do just that.

The downside of course is that these form letters tend to sound much the same, and are usually, of necessity, quite impersonal.

Especially from a tonal point of view, these impersonal form letters can be quite destructive to a relationship that we have worked so hard to develop with each individual reader. Obviously, it is far preferable to write most of our correspondence directly for that specific individual reader. Templates, or “form letters” are not for everyone, nor are they for every situation.

On the other hand, when carefully crafted, and especially when they are of the “save as and fill-in-the-blanks” type, they can be quite useful. Just “save as,” fill in the blanks, and you’re done!

Let’s see, for example, how this might look for a very simple standard meeting announcement:

“The (date/topic) meeting of the (name) committee will be held (at/in the) (location) (at/from) (time) on (day and date). Please see attached agenda for details.”

This simple “save as and fill-in-the-blanks” template might become something like:

“The April meeting of the waste reduction committee will be held in the third-floor conference room from 4 to 5 PM on Thursday, April 24, 2013. Please see attached agenda for details.”

The RSVP request will be your second paragraph, which could also be a “saafitb” paragraph.

Be sure that the attached agenda details include who will be responsible for each report, or presentation agenda item, so the responsible person will be prepared.  It’s also a good idea to send a quick reminder email to each of these individuals. You may even have a system that does this automatically.

You probably have a number of standard emails you create on a regular basis. Try developing your own “save as and fill-in-the-blanks” templates for these sorts of emails, and see if it makes the process easier and faster.

More complex repetitious communications will require a more complex format, but the principle is the same: You want to avoid as much repetitious key stroking as you reasonably can, using the “blanks-to-be-filled-in” to provide both the specific information for the piece you are writing, and to personalize this information for your specific reader. This will go a long way toward avoiding the impersonal “form letter” tone, while speeding up the process.

For example, a persuasive proposal should begin with a persuasive “lead” paragraph clearly summarizing exactly what the proposal is, and stressing the benefit to the reader, or to his or her company or organization. Quick tip: Increase the effectiveness of your proposal by starting with the benefit.

As appropriate, other sections of the persuasive proposal could include, for example:

• Significance of your proposal. Why do? Why need? Why now?

• Proposed time schedule.

• Resources required/Resources available.

• Changes that will be needed.

• Similar programs/activities. Review and evaluate how, and how well they worked. How were they the same, and how did they differ?

• Projected positive results, with time frame and evaluation criteria.

• Anything else your reader needs to know to decide in your favor.

And finally, you will have a very strong, very clear, very persuasive conclusion to the material covered, in benefits-to-the-reader terms.


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Business Writing Tip of the Week: Writing a Successful Instruction

I remember all those Christmas eves, and maybe you do too, spent trying to assemble kids’ toys: “tab A in slot B” – that sort of thing, the evening too soon blending into morning, leaving us feeling incompetent, frustrated, and not anything at all like Merry Old St. Nick!ConfusedMan175

It was enough to give you mental whiplash!                   

Perhaps you are not “instruction challenged,” and perhaps we were not, either! I am totally convinced that our instructions included steps two, three, four, six, eight, nine, 11 and 13.

Remember the last time you tried to put something together – maybe to put in a new sink faucet, for example (“they gave me instructions, how hard could it be?”) To install new software? Or to change the cartridge on your printer the first time?

What’s the difference between instruction and obstruction? Why do we feel, and why might our readers feel the same frustration we have known? And how can we make it easier for our readers to succeed with our instructions?

There is the oft-told story of the professor who was teaching his students to write an instruction. The subject: how to shuffle a deck of cards. Not one of his students, we are told, thought to start with either (1) secure a deck of cards, or (2) open the box and remove the cards, preferring to start with “divide the deck of cards into two parts…” And thereby missing steps one and two.

Why? Because the writer assumed that of course the readers would know they had to secure a deck of cards, and that the box the cards were in would need to be opened, and the cards removed before the reader could begin to shuttle. This often happens when the writer knows so very much about his or her topic, forgetting that the reader may not know as much.

And how about instructions for the non-technical reader on a technical subject? We’re not talking about technical instructions or technical writing for technical people – there are specific rules and formats for doing this. What we’re talking about here is how do you instruct someone inexperienced in your discipline, and unfamiliar with your “language,” so they can succeed?

Well, in addition to making sure you have included every step of the process, you must also “translate” the words and phrases for your readers, into words or phrases they will understand.

So where to begin?

1. First of all, consider what you are writing, and your probable reader. Most of the instructions we will be writing on the job will be simple, uncomplicated guidelines for getting a job done, and frequently will be presented in 1-2-3 list form.

2. What do you want your readers to be able to do as a result of reading your instructions? What do they already know, and what will be new information to them? Even though they may already know some of the information you are presenting, do not assume that you can leave any information, or any steps out, and still have every reader fully able to accomplish the necessary results.

3. How will your reader feel about doing what your instructions tell him or her to do? Will there be an element of resistance?

Here are the three sections of a simple instruction:

The Beginning

a. You will begin with a who-what-when-where-why-how “lead paragraph,” of not more than five lines, providing a broad, but brief overview of the entire process, why it is necessary, and the desired outcome. If you expect any sort of resistance, it’s probably best to begin with the “why.”

b. If tools, parts, or supplies of any sort will be needed, list them.

The Middle

 If you have not already done so in the first section, describe the results to be achieved by the step-by-step instructions to follow. One sentence is usually adequate.

Now list, in 1-2-3 form, in detail, every single step that must be performed, in correct order. It also helps to start every step with an action word.

Tip: For a detailed, or complex instruction, ask a co-worker to help you test the instruction by performing every single step – exactly as you have written it, and nothing more – as you read each step to him or to her. This will help you to pick up anything you may have left out, or anything that may be confusing.

Tip: Again, for a detailed, or complex instruction, you might find it helpful to include some sort of graphic element, such as a labeled diagram, or numbered drawings of each step.

The End

 Using a confident and positive tone, describe what the reader has accomplished, and its benefits.

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 We appreciate your recommending a Gail Tycer business writing workshop for your workplace or a shorter presentation for an upcoming professional meeting. Thank you.


Business Writing Tip of the Week: Writing a Powerful Presentation – Part 1

For many, speaking – what, in front of all those people?!! – is right up there, just above having a root canal, on the list of what we would most like not to do!


Visions of standing there, totally innocent of any coherent thought, palms sweating, vision blurring, and voice unwilling to be heard beyond the tiniest of squeaks, if we even managed to coax it into cooperation at all –  flash through our thoughts in dizzying display. At that moment, a dead faint seems a lovely outcome of the entire thing. As you stand there, your brain flashes on and off: “What was I thinking when I said I would do this?”

It doesn’t have to be this way.

There is a secret: Be well prepared. Have great material. Know that material thoroughly. Concentrate on your audience and on getting across to them the information they need. Information they need so they can do what? That’s the whole point: You must know, and concentrate on what they will know, or be able to do, as a result of what you choose to tell them. Your entire presentation will be built around this one critical element. If what you choose to tell them does not build, support, or enhance this critical point, leave it out.

So where to start?

1. To begin with, think about your own personal style. Being the “real you” is important. The way you prepare your material to support that “real you” is vital to your success. How do you like to present your information? Are you a memorizer? Do you feel more secure speaking from notes? Are you most comfortable reading a prepared script? Do you like to know your information thoroughly, and then present it, seemingly ad-libbing it, following a sequence your audience understands? PowerPoint can be helpful here, but please, please, please do not tell me your personal style is reading PowerPoint slides to your audience!

PowerPoint slides can be very helpful to keep you on track, and to keep your audience with you. In many types of business presentations, they are even expected, and members of your audience may feel uncomfortable with no screen to look at. But do not insult your readers by reading either those PowerPoint slides, or a prepared speech they will have a copy of.

You may want to consider providing handouts for your audience, using the handouts to support your point, and to keep your audience with you.

2. Once you have identified your own personal style, and how, and what materials you will prepare to support that style, ask yourself, “When I hear a presentation, what do I want to hear? What do I want the speaker to do, to be?

3. Think about what you want to say. Who is your audience? What is the one main point you want to make: What is the “takeaway” you want your listeners to remember? Why should this point matter to this audience? Once you’ve identified your main point, what are the subpoints you will use to support, or enhance it?

Stop right here. If you cannot answer point 3., you are not ready to select new, or modify existing, content.

Who might your audiences be in the business situation? You may be reporting at a staff meeting; explaining a new process; informing the board or council; leading a committee meeting; advising senior management; coaching an employee; or representing your organization to any of a number of groups, from citizen-involved open meetings, to senior citizens; to civic or business groups. In the business situation, it’s most likely we will just be doing our jobs, not traveling with two truckloads full of expensive multi-media equipment and a staff to set it all up!

You may already have a standard, prepared presentation, ready to pick up, and go out the door with, to deliver to every audience. And there is a lot to be said about using tested, familiar material. But have you ever had it receive an enthusiastic, appreciative response from one audience and totally bomb with another?

Why does this happen?

Because you need to adjust your tried-and-true, tested content to reflect, and to answer, the needs of your audience. Every time. Every audience. So use that prepared speech, and tailor it – perhaps only slightly, or to whatever level is necessary, to today’s audience. Show them how your content solves a problem for them. How it makes their life better, easier in some way. Showing them, with case studies, projections, testimonials and success stories is far more effective than just “telling” them. Put a picture in their minds, and I promise you they will be far more likely to try the solution you put forward.

Next week, we’ll talk about how to write the three parts of your presentation: the introduction that grabs them; the body beautiful that informs them; and the strong close that moves them.

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We appreciate your recommending a Gail Tycer business writing workshop for your workplace, or a shorter presentation on Powerful Presentations for an upcoming professional meeting. Thank you.


Business Writing Tip of the Week: Strategic Email

Joseph Pulitzer said:

“Put it before them briefly, so they will read it, clearly, so they will appreciate it, picturesquely, so they will remember it, and above all, accurately, so they will be guided by its light.”

That goes double for email.emailIcon

Ask yourself:

  1. What am I writing? To whom? Why?
  2. What will happen when I am successful?
  3. What tone is needed to get these results?
  4. What content will get these results?

Figuring out what you want to do BEFORE you start doing it is critical for many reasons. You will virtually eliminate writer’s block; the writing will flow far better, making it infinitely more readable; your reader will have a much better chance to “get it,” thereby enhancing their impression of you as a credible professional; and when properly presented, your writing will have a greater chance of achieving what you need.  When you spend a little more time up front to think, to plan, you will spend a whole lot less time writing.

In an informal medium like email, all the rules we used to work with sometimes seem to melt away. Email is so much easier, so much faster, so much better – isn’t it? It sure can be. But it needs the same thought, the same planning that business writing has always required. In the business situation the same attention to grammar, usage, and format still applies.

Unfair though it may be, your reader also still judges you, and your organization by the only things he or she may know about you. So, unless you have established, or reinforced a relationship with that reader in addition to your email correspondence, perhaps through such activities as phone calls, meetings, or working together on a project, the only things he or she knows to judge you on are (1) how well you use the language; and (2) how quickly, and how well he or she “gets” what you are trying to say.

So take a look at that piece of email.

1. Overall, is it no more than a screen to a screen-and-a-half? If you have more to say, did you prepare an attachment for the longer message, and use the main email as a “cover letter” introducing your attachment?

2. Does your first paragraph – not more than a maximum of five lines – inform the reader of exactly what you want him or her to know? Or, does it persuade him or her to take a specific action? Is there any ambiguity? After the first five lines, is your reader immediately “in the picture”? Does he or she “get it” at a glance?

3. If you have a message detailing a number of steps or processes, are the details well presented in the next paragraph or two, following a logical, well-organized pattern?

4. Have you written – or not written, as appropriate – a good, strong close? Remember that just quitting after you have said what you need to say, is also an option, and may be a very good one.

5. Overall, how does this piece “read”? It’s all about the reader now. Knowing what you know about your reader, put yourself firmly in his or her shoes. What questions might your reader still have, after reading this email?

And then, still looking at it from that reader’s point of view, how would you expect him or her to feel about what you have written? Neutral? Happy? Angry? Depending on how you expect that reader might feel about what you have written, what can you expect him or her to do, as a result of those feelings?  And then, what, if anything, do you need to do to be ready for that response?

6. Is it possible to put your reader completely in the picture in five lines, or fewer? If so, most readers would rather read no more than five lines than they would several pages. Of course this assumes that from those five lines your readers know exactly how your message applies to them, what they need to do, and how they need to do it, if action is required of them. “Action” can mean anything from how to go out and physically do some action, to how to think about, or change the way you think about an issue or a process.

These are the steps to take to “put your reader in the picture.” This is the way to “Put it before them briefly, so they will read it, clearly, so they will appreciate it, picturesquely, so they will remember it, and above all, accurately, so they will be guided by its light.”

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We appreciate your recommending a Gail Tycer business writing workshop for your workplace, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming professional meeting. Thank you.


Do You Write the Way You Want to Write – Or the Way They Want to Read?

Last week’s release of the Intel study – what happens on the internet in one minute – has left many shaking their heads, and wondering how in the world it could be possible to break through all this internet “noise” to Internet Noisecommunicate anything to anyone.

In a worldwide culture where today and every day 204 million emails are sent, 6 million Facebook pages are viewed, and 1.3 million YouTube clips are downloaded – to say nothing of 20 million photos seen, the 61,000 hours of music played, and the 20 stolen identities plus the 47,000 apps downloaded – every 60 seconds, this is indeed a good question.

And, the study projects, by 2015 the number of networked devices on the earth will be double the number of people on earth. By that time it would take five years to view all the video content crossing IP networks each and every second.

A good question indeed.

Decide on your purpose. Why are you writing? Do you want a specific reader, or readers to read what you have written? Or is just writing it enough? Who are you writing it for?

While it seems obvious, your best chance of getting your writing read is to write about something your reader wants to read. Second-best is to write something he or she has to read. In the second case, don’t count on that much of it getting through.

Now that you have decided what to write about, ask yourself how your reader prefers to read: Online – in a letter, memo, instructions, report? Or in a blog, Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn? On paper? Where are you most likely to find your reader?

Next step: assuming you want your writing read, what is the appropriate tone to use? What is the tone your reader will expect? What is the tone that will best connect with your reader? Should you use a formal, or academic tone? Will your reader be more likely to read and comprehend a less formal tone? Is that appropriate? Does your reader speak a specialized language – “legalese,” “medicalese,” “computerese”?

Much of the business writing done for higher-level co-workers tends to sound almost like a vocabulary test, as staff tends to “write up” for the higher-level reader. And yet, if that higher echelon reader were asked, he or she most likely would prefer to spend less time with a more comfortable, more readable, more easily-understood writing style. After all, that reader probably prefers having a family dinner, and maybe watching a little football, to staying late at work, trying to figure out what that piece of business writing says.

So if you want your writing to be read, write about something your reader wants to read – or present the information in such a way that he or she will want to read it. Use the writing medium your reader prefers, when you can appropriately do so. Write with a comfortable style, and an appropriate tone and language. And by all means, if you do nothing else, make it easy for the reader to get your point quickly, clearly, and concisely.

That last guideline is, and will continue to be, your most essential, most critical tool for cutting through all the “noise” your reader deals with on a day-to-day basis. The one tool you can totally control: Make your point quickly, clearly, and concisely.

We appreciate your recommending a Gail Tycer business writing workshop for your workplace, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming professional meeting.


Tip of the Week: Fatigue-Reducing, Confidence-Building Phrases

The words and phrases you use not only have an effect on your readers and listeners – but they also affect your fatigue level, your confidence, and your positive (or negative!) attitude. They can affect your on-the-job performance, how you feel about your job, and your performance review.

Your words have an effect – whether you are aware of it or not. Whether you plan for it or not. It happens anyway. Automatically.happyWoman

For example:

To reduce your fatigue level at the end of the day:

Don’t say:  “ I’ll have to look that up”

SAY:  “I’ll look that up for you”

The Culprit:I’ll have to

Not only does your client, customer, prospect or co-worker hear what you are saying, but you hear what you are saying, time after time, all day long. “I’ll have to; I’ll have to; I’ll have to…” over and over and over. Your subconscious hears it too. All those “I’ll have to do this…” and “I’ll have to do that… and that… and that…” begin to pile up on you. Of course you’re exhausted at the end of the day!

To improve your confidence:

Don’t say:  “I can’t get to that until Friday”

SAY:  “I’ll have that for you Friday”

The Culprit:  I can’t

You’re hearing “I can’t; I can’t; I can’t…” all day long. Day after day after day. And night after night after night, you carry the residual “I can’t… I can’t… I can’t…” home with you. What are you telling yourself? What are you putting into your thought process?  The natural consequence of telling yourself over and over that you can’t is that you begin to believe it!

So, in addition to the positive, “can-do” relationship you are building with your client, customer, or prospect – you can reduce your fatigue level, and build your confidence – just by changing a few habitual phrases you may not have thought about!

Let’s expand this idea just a bit.

How about positioning yourself in your organization, or with your customer or prospect? Which of the following phrases is the strongest, the most “leader-like”? And the weakest? Which phrases position you appropriately?

I think

I know

I believe

I’d like to

I am convinced

I can

There is no question

To encourage helpful feedback and positive action:

Don’t say:  “Why don’t we…” or “Why don’t you…”

(You run the risk of the subconscious coming up with the reasons we don’t!)

SAY:  “Let’s…”;  “How about…”; “What do you think about…”; or maybe, “I’d like to….”

Finally, let’s look at encouraging initiative within your organization, or even within your family:

Don’t say:  “I don’t see anything wrong with that…”

SAY:  “Looks good to me…”; or “Let’s try it….”

Think about the words and phrases you use habitually, day after day. Then try reducing your fatigue level, and building your confidence – just by changing a few habitual phrases you may never have thought about!

We appreciate your recommending a Gail Tycer business writing workshop for your workplace, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming professional meeting.

© 2013 Gail Tycer • www.GailTycer.com