Poor Business Writing is Not a Character Flaw!

Writing skills can be fixedPoor business writing skills are not a character flaw. Neither are they a mark of stupidity, as some of my class members start out feeling. One of them even told me, “You can’t fix stupid.”

This seriously concerns me. Talking with a group of writer friends the other day, I asked why they thought so many perfectly bright, competent business people feel apprehensive about their on-the-job writing.

Fear – of making mistakes, of inadequacy – maybe even leading to procrastination; and vulnerability – “putting yourself out there” came up from several of them. Some mentioned specific skills that business writers may feel uncomfortable using: grammar, word choice, sentence structure, inability to create interest or to make the point clearly, were some of them. While most were appreciative of the skills they learned from their English teachers, others mentioned school teachers who made them feel dumb when they didn’t “get it.” Well here’s the good news: Once you can identify where you feel vulnerable – grammar, clarity, focus, or wherever – you can fix it!

Here are some other issues we talked about:

• The feeling that you have to start and write perfectly the first time. Not true. Most good writing has been written, reviewed, and re-written. It’s quick and easy with a computer, and the “checkers” available. Just remember to put your own eyes on your writing to be sure the computer is accurate with its suggestions.

• Thinking that you were good in English in school, and not realizing there is a big difference between academic writing and business writing.

• The tendency to give too much information. Don’t try to tell your reader everything you know about the subject. Select the facts and the information that provide insight into what your reader needs to know to do whatever it is you are writing about. The “too much information” syndrome is usually caused by a sincere, and worthy desire to be complete. Too much information, or unrelated information, only leads to confusion.

• Difficulty getting started. What you have to do here is let the reader know, in the first sentence or two, (1) what this piece is about, (2) why he or she is getting it, and (3) what he or she needs to do with, or about it. If there is a deadline, you will want to include that as well. The complete first paragraph formula has been explained in previous posts, so take a look for more information. More about the first paragraph formula in future posts.

• Lack of focus. Too many interruptions in an average business day make it hard to focus. For the shorter email or note, it may not be as noticeable. For a longer piece it is. The best way I know to fix this is with my Strategic Business Writing Blueprint. Having a system to fall back on is vital in this situation. Knowing how to proceed results in the confidence you need to write well. Tip: Your subject line is a quick and easy way to focus the reader. Just be certain that what the subject line says is what you will say in your email. Again, check some of the older posts, and we will do some new ones in the future as well.

• Need for a habitual system that makes it easy to start quickly, comfortably, concisely; continue confidently; and finish strong. See the previous two sections. More posts upcoming.

• Using the best medium before starting the communication – email writing, paper writing, texting, phone calls, in-person visits, and so on – is a critical consideration before you begin.

• Using the right “tone” with your reader. Tone is the relationship the writer sets up with the reader, and is a significant portion of your communication. How do you want your reader to think about you?

• Concern about giving offense. This concern can come into play when you have a solution to a problem, but may be reluctant to present it for fear of overstepping your boundaries, and giving offense. Of course you have to know your reader, but most business people who are in a position to make a decision, or to accept or reject your recommendation, greatly prefer having a “starting point” recommendation or two to having problems moved from your desk to theirs to solve, without a good recommendation or two – with backup!

Hope you’ll find these tips and tactics helpful, and we’ll look for you next week – right here!

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations, executive coaching, consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, Toll-free at 888-634-4875 or email gail@gailtycer.com

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More About the Business Writing Trend: Short!

Last week, we said that “short” is not what we really want, when we are looking for clearer, faster communication; when we want the reader to “get it” and to act on it now. TwoBusinessPeople175

What we are looking for is “concise.” “Short” can cause you a lot of problems, cost you more time, and result in lost productivity. You need to anticipate the questions you must answer for your reader before he or she can do what you are asking him or her to do. “Concise” – providing the information your reader needs, in as short a space as possible – greatly increases the odds that you will get what you need at all, and probably much sooner.

The second part of this is to make your writing faster and easier to read.

We already talked about alternate formats, cover letters, and whether to pass along this information at all. See last week’s post here.

Here are three more things you can do:

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Cost-Effective Marketing Part 2: Words and Phrases

Last week, we said that your day-to-day business writing should be your most cost-effective marketing tool (see the post here), and promised you some words, phrases, and techniques that will help.

PileofWords180Whether you are actually writing to persuade, or just passing along some requested information, the overall tone – the “feeling” your reader gets about you, and subsequently the way he or she thinks about you, and about your organization, is absolutely critical to the success of the piece you are writing, and in a larger sense, to the success of your organization overall.

So here goes…

1. Today, as the saying goes, “less is more.” That does not mean abrupt or incomplete. Give your reader everything he or she needs in as short a space as possible. Use the no-more-than-five-lines first paragraph formula, and, in five lines or less, you can be both as short as possible, and provide the information your reader needs, to do what you need him or her to do, much, if not most of the time.

2. If you have the time for this practice exercise, work with a longer sentence (yours, or someone else’s) and see how few words you can turn it into. For example, how can you tighten up the first nine words of the first sentence in this paragraph? How about, “For practice…” Usually a little thought and a quick re-write can help. What is really the point of what you are saying? How much of that detail does your reader need? What are the “bare bones” of your message/sentence/phrase?

Another example: “They went to the store, and while doing so, stopped by to see Mary.” Can you get the “bare bones” down to three words? How about “They saw Mary.”

3. Use a format that allows you to get as much information as possible into as little space as possible. Bullet points, for one example. Remember that formatting may not hold in the body of the email, and you probably should use an attachment when your message is format dependent.

4. Choose specific words. Words that leave no doubt what you mean. For example, how many is “few”? How soon is “ASAP”? Who is “everybody”?

5. Choose exactly the right word to clarify and to reinforce your message using fewer words. How many ways can you say, “send”? Or “situation”? Or “important”?

6. Use “comfortable,” easily-understood words, talking neither “up” nor “down” to your reader.

7. Think about the phrases you may use habitually, for example:

To get what you need, tell your reader what to do:  “enclosing for your review” becomes “please review the enclosed.”

To create a “they’re easy to work with” tone: “I’ll have to (look that up)” becomes “I’ll (look that up) for you. “I can’t (get to that until Friday)” becomes “I’ll have that for you Friday.”

Interestingly enough, using these two particular phrases will also change your feeling about the task, resulting in less fatigue for you by the end of the day.

To position yourself, or your recommendation, think about the relative power of the following phrases: I think, I know, I believe, I’d like to, I am convinced, I can, there is no question. “I don’t think” (an all-too-common phrase) will probably not be helpful.

To encourage initiative, instead of “I don’t see anything wrong with that” try “sounds good to me,” or “let’s do it.” Even an enthusiastic spoken “O.K.,” will work in a conversation, maybe not so much in writing.

So that’s it for today. Take some time this week if you can, to think about, and to try some of these words, phrases, and techniques.

See you next week!

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We’ll be happy to come to your organization. To discuss a workshop for your people at your location, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming meeting, email us at gail@gailtycer.com or give us a call at 503/292-9681. 

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Business Writing Tip of the Week: “Spin”

Can you remember when “spin” was what we did as little kids to make ourselves dizzy and fall down? And then we all laughed so hard?SpinningTop175

“Spin” is not a laughing word today, is it?

In the kindest terms, maybe we could say “spin” is “putting the best face on it,” or maybe just call it “reframing,” helping your reader to see the positive side of what might normally be considered a negative.

For example, pretend you are the copywriter for an advertising campaign promoting a new housing development. Here are some of the facts about this housing development you must deal with. See if you can turn each of them – which would normally be considered negative – into a positive statement about the development:

  1. The new housing development is across the street from the main entrance to a busy urban airport, and directly under the flight path.
  2. There are sidewalks on only one side of the street.
  3. The playground has only one swing.
  4. No required minimum landscaping will be provided.
  5. There is a dangerous swamp in the southeast corner of the development.
  6. The model home blew up last Friday.

Now let’s have a little fun with this exercise. Take a couple of minutes to turn each of these probably negative statements into positive ones.

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

So what did you come up with?

Perhaps on negative #1, you thought how perfect this new housing development would be for the busy business traveler, saving commute time, and allowing his or her family to be alerted to his or her return.

Negative #2: Did you think about the sidewalks provided for safe walking, or greater privacy with reduced foot traffic?

For negative #3, how about “Children’s playground thoughtfully designed for cooperative play, and to support sharing.”

“A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stretch your imagination and create the unbelievably beautiful garden you have dreamed of, and only imagined until now,” might work for negative #4.

And of course the dangerous swamp in negative #5 can easily be translated into an unusual wildlife preserve allowing your family to observe nature at first hand.

Finally, the model home in negative #6 that blew up last Friday?  “Only one home has not met our rigorous standards, and it was promptly removed last Friday.”

You’ve probably come up with many other negatives-into-positives, and I hope you have had some fun with this exercise. Let us hear from you!

Now that we have the general idea of negative-into-positive with this light-hearted exercise, let’s get a little more serious. Over the next week, listen for “reframing” statements. Listen to the ads, listen to the news, listen to your co-workers, customers, and clients. Listen for how your family members – kids are particularly good at this – manage to “put the best face on” what could be a negative situation or fact.

Word choice can also be a tool of “spin.”

We all recognize connotative words, words like “propaganda,” “gossip,” and “manipulate” – words that carry baggage. Words that in and of themselves can create a negative emotion. And of course there are also words that in and of themselves can create a positive emotion.

But let’s talk about “neutral words,” and how they can be ramped up, or ramped down to inflame emotion, or to calm emotion. For two examples, let’s use the words “situation,” and “important.”

How many ways can you think of to say “situation”? Take a minute here to jot down half a dozen or more as they occur to you.

Which of these words might, under certain circumstances, create a panic? Which are the potentially inflammatory words? Crisis? Disaster? Catastrophe?

Which of these words could you use to calm a general sense of panic? Which neutral words tend to minimize the serious nature of a crisis? Situation? Issue? Matter?

Now let’s look at “important.” Well just how important is “important”? Not very is it? How much attention do you pay when someone says, “This is an important issue”? Let’s ramp it up a bit. How about critical, crucial, life-threatening? Dire, desperate, or grave? Even there you can see various levels indicating just how important this issue may be.

And to ramp it down? Important? Worth consideration? Or fairly serious?

While thinking about the quality, nature, and potential effect of the words you use may not be critical, crucial, or life-threatening, probably not even dire, desperate, or grave, I do hope you will find it worth your consideration this week.

To receive your Business Writing Tip of the Week automatically every week, please subscribe to our newsletter.

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

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Tip of the Week: It’s How You Say It

It’s not always – in fact frequently not at all – what you say, but how you say it.

I got thinking about this the other day, and how much difference it makes in the way you may feel about the people you could buy products or services from. And more to the point, how our prospects, customers, and clients might feel about us, as people they could buy from, or hire.bentNail150

  • 1.      First, ask yourself how this person – especially if he or she is a prospect, customer, or client – wants to communicate with you. By phone, by fax, by text, by email, person-to-person? I recently telephoned two professional services providers, accepting their proposals, and requesting a start date. Neither returned my phone calls. When I texted them some days later, I had answers back from each in a matter of minutes, where voice mails had gone unanswered.
  • 2.      Second, the order of the words you say it in makes a difference. After you’ve selected the medium, focus on your purpose, and start with that in the first paragraph. In the above example, had the purpose of a text message, or a subsequent email been to apologize, that would be the place to start. If the focus of the communication were to move on and get the job done, that would be the place to start.
  • 3.      Third, examine the words and phrases you use to say it in. For example, compare these two sentences:
  • a. Can’t you tell whether the nail’s defect was caused by improper handling during the manufacturing process?
  • b. Can you tell whether the nail’s defect was caused by improper handling during the manufacturing process?

The dangerous duo here are the words “Can’t,” and “Can.”

 It’s a matter of tone – the relationship the writer sets up with the reader. Does it seem to you that the word “Can’t,” in this example, sets up a confrontational tone? Do you almost expect the words “you dummy” to either precede “Can’t,” or maybe end the sentence? If this sentence were addressed to you, would you feel challenged, like you had to defend yourself and explain why you could, or could not, “tell”?

In contrast, how do you feel about “Can”? Does “Can” have more of a teamwork feel to it? Which of the two sentences would make you feel more a part of the team working together to find the solution?

Just as a side note: There are also punctuation issues common to both of these sentences that will make a big difference in what your sentence says. If you said

 Can you tell whether the nail’s defect was caused by improper handling during the manufacturing process?

 In this case, “nail’s” would mean one nail with one defect. But if you said

 Can you tell whether the nails’ defect was caused by improper handling during the manufacturing process?

 In this case, “nails’” would mean more than one nail – millions, even, with the same, one defect. Serious stuff! But even more serious, what if you said

Can you tell whether the nails’ defects were caused by improper handling during the manufacturing process?

 In this case, we have multiple nails with multiple defects. What a difference that little apostrophe can make.

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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.

© 2013 Gail Tycer • www.GailTycer.com

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What was that again?

Take a quick look at the following sentences. Can you see what the three of them have in common?

  1. The troops fired into crowds protesting the return of the religious leader.
  2. John and Bob were in the coffee room when Bill Smith and Art Jones from accounting walked in. Words were exchanged, and the two wanted to argue about the hiring policy decision.
  3. Army helicopter pilots reported seeing steam plumes venting from near the top of the smaller mountain last week, but they disappeared shortly after the observation.

Whatever else these sentences may have in common, none of them tells the reader who did what. Take another look.

In sentence1., who was protesting the return of the religious leader? Was it the troops who were protesting? Was it the crowds? And in sentence 2., who was it who wanted to argue? And how about sentence 3.?

Creating confusion is easy to do when the writer knows so much about the subject that it all seems clear at first glance. So now look at sentence 1. How can you make it perfectly clear who was doing the protesting?

Perhaps you said something like.

“The troops, who were protesting the return of the religious leader, fired into the crowds.”

Or, if it had been the other way around, perhaps something like,

“The troops fired into the crowds, who were protesting the return of the religious leader.”

And how about sentence 2. How could you make it clear which two wanted to argue?:

This one is relatively easy, right? All you need to do is substitute the names of the would-be arguers for “the two.” So fixes are not always that complicated. The hard part is to recognize when what you have written is not as clear to the reader as it was to you when you wrote it.

And now for sentence 3.  Who was it who disappeared?:

This one is probably the most common source of confusion created by the writer. Is “they” the pilots (oh no!) or the plumes? This sort of confusion is also the easiest to spot when you proofread your writing before you send it. Just look for words like  “they,” “he,” “she,” “we,” “it.” Then substitute the name or description for that word.

Fixing this sort of confusion – who did what? – can be relatively easy. The trick is to be aware of, and to recognize the sentences that will be confusing to the reader. Then fix them.

© 2013 Gail Tycer • www.GailTycer.com

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Blogger Tip #1: Make it readable

This week, we’re welcoming blogger Marilyn Tycer. Marilyn is a graphic designer and blogger, and we’ve asked her to share some of her tips for bloggers.

Tip #1: Make it readable.

Now that you have a subject for your blog, and some ideas for posts, what comes next? Start typing! But it’s important to take care to craft your blog posts into something readable. So before you hit the “Publish” button, take a moment to revise your writing. While the subject of your blog might be popular, your blog probably won’t get a lot of followers if your writing is hard to read or bland. Continue reading

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Good manners, good email

Consider the tone of your message.  Tone is the relationship the writer sets up with the reader.  Even though email is a friendly medium, it’s tough to make humor (especially humor clothed in sarcasm) or tongue-in-cheek comments work in email, and it’s best to avoid them.  Also avoid personal comments about others, or knee-jerk emotional responses – email is no place for sarcasm, hostility, cynicism, or whining.

Remain professional at all times.  Consider waiting a bit before emailing a “sensitive” message.  Avoid “venting,” vulgarity, or certainly, any kind of profanity.  Think about your corporate culture, or prevailing attitude – which can be especially critical for emails to co-workers.
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Review: Writers INC

[Image source]

Writers INC is a valuable resource for writers of all ages and all genres. While intended for high school students, it contains a wealth of essential information that is relevant to business writers.

A quick look at the Writers INC table of contents:
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Good writing, or just good rewriting?

“There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” –Louis D. Brandeis.

I don’t believe that there isn’t good writing, but much of what makes a piece of writing good is the effort put into revising and rewriting it. However, many times, people agonize over trying to say things perfectly while writing a rough draft, and they get so caught up in perfectly articulating one sentence that they lose momentum and the rest of the draft suffers for it. Remember to see the forest through the trees! Just get something written down on paper, and then revise, revise, revise.

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