Can You Get – and Give – Clear Directions?

There’s nothing like a bit of travel to remind you just how important asking for, getting, and giving directions is. When you’re lost – in the airport, getting into town, or on the city streets, it quickly becomes very clear just exactly how vital this information can really be.

When you’re traveling, the best answer we’ve found for getting directions to where you need to go geographically – just getting out of the parking lot can often be a challenge – is your favorite version of a GPS. By favorite, I mean the one you can figure out how to use! Our favorite is Siri, a personal assistant application for iOS. One of Siri’s many capabilities is a GPS function which pretty much gets you out of trouble – or into it – your preference!

Siri comes already installed on newer versions of the iPhone, making “her” easy to keep with you at all times. Many new cell phones today have some sort of GPS with various capabilities built in, or apps available.

But what if you do not have a GPS with you? How do you get directions? What questions do you ask, and more importantly, how do you ask them in a way that will avoid confusion and get you the answers you need?

If you’re still inside the terminal, it comes right down to reading the signs, which are, hopefully, in a language you can read, or have pictures that help you guess where they are telling you to go.

The second choice is to ask someone. This is where it starts getting more difficult. Asking for directions is an underrated, frequently overlooked skill. Ask the wrong question, or add extraneous information, who knows where you may wind up. When asking for information,

  1. Remember that “How do I go to…” or “Where do I go to get to…” are very different questions from “Where is….” The former are more likely to get you step-by-step directions, while the latter will most likely get you a general direction wave of the arm, and a turned back.
  1. If there is a Tourist Aid counter, start there. If not, perhaps a uniformed employee could help. In all cases, be aware of cultural considerations. Bone up a bit on the “rules” for interaction in the places you will be visiting, including the airports or transportation hubs. Make your personal safety a top priority, and use common sense when selecting the person to ask. He or she is not your new best friend, and could turn into quite the opposite. Too much information is not only unwise from a safety point of view, but can also significantly confuse the issue. So provide no information or interaction beyond asking for directions, and any necessary follow-up questions.
  1. Use only the information your listener needs to be able to give you the answer you need. He or she, with few exceptions, really doesn’t need to know why you need to go there, who you’re going to meet there, or what you plan to do next. And you certainly do not need him or her to know.
  1. Beyond the usual “How do I go to…” a follow-up question might be necessary to find out what to expect. For example, you might ask, “How do I go to Baggage Claim?”

After getting the answer, your follow-up question might be, “How far is it?” This will help you to decide whether to request a wheelchair, catch a shuttle, or walk. You may have more than one follow-up question. Be sure you understand each answer, and if not, ask it in another way until you do. At the end, repeat all the information back, to be sure you “got it.”

When giving information,

  1. Provide step-by step directions, eliminating any extraneous comments or information.
  1. Again, consider your personal safety first. Provide no further information or interaction beyond providing the information your questioner needs to provide the answers you’re looking for.

Bon Voyage! Have a great trip, and let us hear about it!


Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email to learn more.

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Important Trend: Storytelling for Business Writing

It was almost buried in the speaker’s content. In fact, I wasn’t sure I had even heard it: what Shane Show, Chief Creative Officer for Contently, calls “The Biggest Business Skill of the Next Five Years.” Here’s what the speaker said,

“To explain the abstract, or complex, we need to use stories.”

StorytellerAnd it hit me. That’s what we do with business writing all the time – we try to explain the abstract, or complex! But how often do we think about using a story to do it? Oh sure, we talk about telling stories, using testimonials, and getting quotes for marketing, sales, and advertising materials. And it works! Of course, that is business writing too – but for “regular” business writing? “Regular” business writing, like memos, instructions, reports?

I don’t think so – or at least not very often, if at all. Hardly ever. But why not?

And where to begin?

Where to begin? Have you ever had this experience: You are thinking very intensely about something – It could be an on-the-job challenge, a new software program, or even a paint color for your house. As you are thinking about it, you run into thoughts, ideas and comments about that “something” just about everywhere? Well that happened to me this morning. I flipped on the radio for the news, just to hear the tail end of an interview on who-knows-what subject. And the sentence I heard just before the sign-off was, “A story begins where you think it does.”

This will likely be best accomplished by tying into your reader’s needs, problems, or interests. And that will be the point where he or she starts to “hear” your story. The sooner you get to that point, the sooner you’ll pick up your reader, or your listener.

There has been quite a bit written about using stories in oral presentations, and for sales and marketing pieces. These longer three-part stories (setup/conflict/resolution, with your product, service, candidate, cause as hero) are frequently far more sophisticated than using a simple story in an instruction, a memo, or some other “regular” piece of business writing. But they are similar, in that each has a job. Each has a specific purpose to fulfill; a specific job to do. It may be the greatest story in the world. It may be your favorite party gambit. But in the business situation, it won’t fly unless it strongly and obviously supports the point you want to drive home.

So, day-to-day, how might you use stories in your regular business writing? Stories can be used for team building, to improve morale, to make an instruction clear, to get “buy-in” for a policy or process change, to gain trust, to enhance credibility, to relate with a customer issue, to connect in a positive way with the variety of contacts you have daily – the list goes on. Stories create a “tone” that can establish, or reinforce a relationship.

Here are four more specific story tactics you can use for your “regular” business writing.

Politicians use stories of people who have benefitted from their ideas, processes, or policies to gain votes. Sometimes these folks will tell their own stories, but more often, the politician tells the story – carefully crafted, of course! – for them. So can you.

You can let the reader “tell his or her own story” by starting a sentence with, “Has this ever happened to you…” or, “Do you remember a time when…” and letting the reader fill in the blanks, which is also effective to bring your point home.

Provide informal testimonials, or anecdotes, demonstrating a problem that was solved by the new policy, or maybe a process change, or by the new product, equipment, or software.

Tell a story about another employee, or perhaps better yet, your “reader as hero.” For example, for an instruction setup, or trouble-shooting section, this could be as simple as “You’re (describe process) when (describe problem – what happens) so you (describe action to take) and (describe result of their action).

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


Technical Writing: Will They Get It?

typingOnKeyboard200Strictly speaking, the purpose of technical writing is to provide technical information in a totally objective way. This type of technical writing is frequently written for professionals in a specific field who already  “speak the language,” and understand the general concepts. So what may look like unintelligible “jargon” to the non-technical reader may well be a timesaving “insider language” for the technical reader in that specific field.

It is important to make the distinction between this type of technical writing, and a second type – the type of technical writing most of us will most often be called upon to write: technical writing that is, by most (short) definitions, good business writing dealing with technical information.

Unless you are specifically employed as a specialized and highly-skilled technical writer in your organization, this second type of technical writing – writing technical information for the non-technical reader – is what most of us will be called on to do, and frequently just from time to time.

Understanding what this technical writing is, what it has to accomplish, and how to do it effectively is critical if it is to succeed.

Why? Two examples:

1. Writing technical information effectively for the non-technical reader could well be the “go/no go” difference when the non-technical reader is the one, or perhaps the group, who decides whether your project or process is likely to be viable – or not. Or when that individual reader – or sometimes the group – holds the power of the purse, and can decide whether or not to fund that project. Remember too, that often-overlooked, but critically important group – the influencers whose opinions strongly affect the decision makers.

2. Alternatively, your non-technical reader could be a technician who is unfamiliar with a process, or perhaps a purchaser who implements – or tries to implement – your technical instructions, for example, and may well determine whether the process, or the product “works” or not.

You must understand who your reader is, and how to write for that reader.

Where do you start?

  1. First, identify what you will be writing – an instruction, a proposal, a “sales sheet,” or…
  2. Understand your reader. Who is he or she, and what is his or her background, knowledge, experience with what you hope to communicate? What do you want him or her to do with this information – why are you writing it? How will he or she use it? What kind of words, terms, phrases will you use? How “technical” can you get – at what level will you best reach your reader(s)?

And then what?

Now that we have a good starting point, over the next few weeks let’s take a look at how to

• ”Translate” technical information to improve non-technical reader understanding

• Make necessary and appropriate adjustments to strictly technical writing for your non-technical reader – and why it matters

• Use the basic grammar and usage of technical writing

• Select, edit, and organize your material

• Use graphics to enhance your message

Join me right here next week!

If you like what you’re reading, we invite you to subscribe to our blog. 

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentationsexecutive coachingconsulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email


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 and Free Samples?

It was one of those glorious early spring days. A day to take your kids, or maybe your grandkids, someplace they love to go. To do something you all love to do. We looked at each other, and with one voice shouted, “Lunch at Costco!”Free Samples

Of course it could have been any other wholesale grocery warehouse, or for that matter, any other grocery store, but Costco is the closest to us, and they offer a gracious plenty of just what we were looking for. So what makes this grocery store so special on Saturdays? The menu.

That’s right: the menu! But…

The menu is terrific! Your choice of exquisite appetizers; magnificent main courses; beneficent beverages; and delightful desserts! There are cheeses from distant places, and handmade domestic cheese from closer by. Breads from artisan bakeries. Foods we’ve never tasted, from exotic places whose very names may be new to us. And the best part of it all? We can have all of them. We can taste each of them. Free!

They are all there in bountiful plenty: Free Samples! And if you like them, they are available. Just buy them and take them home. They are yours.

So what is so special about free samples, and what do free samples have to do with business writing?

Everything you write is a free sample.

“Free Samples” of your business writing, whether you intend it or not, for better or for worse, carry with them the potential for being your most cost-effective marketing tool. Your best, easiest-to implement customer satisfaction solution. Your strongest team-building technique. And your best way to demonstrate your professionalism, credibility, and hire-me-now employability.

Or not.

What you write on the job not only reflects on you, and your professionalism and credibility, but on your prospective employer. No wonder how you present yourself – in writing – on that job application is so important to that prospective employer.

Of course writing will be critical to who is chosen for an interview, and ultimately who gets the job.

Where else are free samples used in business writing at this very minute?

Coupling the newest technology with one of the most traditional enticements, today’s marketers have carried free samples, demonstrating their products or their capabilities, into the 21st century – apparently, for the most part, with reasonable success. We all want to see what we’re getting before we buy. Free webinars, teleseminars, and white papers abound online and are downloadable, in case you miss the scheduled time. Newsletters, Blog sites, and videos are readily available, and you can choose to subscribe to receive these “free samples” on a regular basis.

A local plumber has thought outside the box. Speculating on the greatest inconvenience a plumber can cause the customer – making him or her either take a day off work, or hire someone to wait for the plumber to arrive – he sets a specific appointment time, and advertises a $50 discount if his plumber is 15 minutes late. A free sample of this company’s responsiveness to the customer, rather than the other way around.

These are obvious free samples. Yet the way you write every email, every hand-written note, every instruction, every in-house memo – the way you respond to every question or explanation on a day-to-day basis, both internally and externally, can inspire confidence, build trust, and make your reader want to work with you.

Or not.

For this week, let me ask you to think about these “free samples.” Think about what your business writing is saying about you, and about the organization you represent.

  1. Is your intention clear in the first paragraph?  Have you made your point quickly, clearly, concisely? If the reader read no further, would he or she “get it”?
  2. Have you considered what this piece of business writing must accomplish? What results you need to have? Should this piece reasonably be expected to do it?
  3. Have you considered the all-important tone you will use for this piece? Did you succeed in creating, or reinforcing an existing relationship? Is this the appropriate relationship for this issue?
  4. Have you organized your information in a logical sequence, with one thought or point building to the next?

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


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.


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 •


Tip of the Week: Stronger, More Powerful Sentences

And how you can write stronger, more effective sentences – beginning immediately – with your very first keystroke.

So, how can you put each sentence to work for you to get the results you need?

Sentences may be approached from at least two angles: structure, or function.

Structurally, we may designate sentences as active (someone doing something); passive (someone or something being done to); or descriptive (a sentence using some form of “to be” – e.g., is, was, will be, were, and so on – sometimes in combination with words like “seems,” or “feels.”)

If one of these three structures is not in place, if one of these three things is not happening in your sentence, it’s likely that your group of words is not a sentence.

While there is substantial research demonstrating that partial sentences, or “sentence fragments,” is a business writing tool which may, and probably will, communicate better when they are well done, writing a good, communicative sentence fragment is an art, and a skill it takes most writers some time to develop. It can be difficult to write good, strong, communicative sentence fragments consistently.

Having said that, my advice to you is not to use sentence fragments on the job, and certainly not in the academic world. Most likely the best you will get is a note in the margin saying, “this is not a sentence.” Which you already knew, but…. A sentence fragment, when well done, will not be noticed, and will most likely improve the reader’s understanding.

You might enjoy analyzing the advertisements in your favorite “expensive” magazine. Identify the types of sentences, as well as the sentence fragments in the ads you particularly like, or that you feel make the writer’s point well. I will bet that you will find mostly, if not all, active sentences and at least a sentence fragment or two. In most cases, the people who write these ads have been doing it for a long time. And in most cases they are very good, both at using active sentences and at using well-written sentence fragments. That’s why they get the big bucks!

To strengthen your sentences, try these techniques:

 1. The average sentence length for the average adult reader should be 14-17 words.

2. Improve readability by varying the length of your words, sentences, and paragraphs.

This is a mechanical device to keep the reader’s eye reading comfortably. Too many short words, sentences, and paragraphs will bounce the eye – like riding on a rough road, or turbulence in an airplane.  Too many long words, sentences, or paragraphs can put your reader to sleep – or at least make it more difficult to follow what you are saying. All average-length words, sentences, and paragraphs become boring.

3. If you take nothing else from this blog, here is the biggest secret to writing stronger, more effective sentences. Beginning immediately – with your very next keystroke:


 No, as I like to joke with participants in my workshops, “syntax” is not what you pay for beer or cigarettes. “Syntax” is moving the order of the words around in the sentence, and let’s expand this definition just a bit to include moving sentences around in the paragraph, and paragraphs in the entire piece. Syntax is perhaps the least discussed, almost invisible, yet arguably most powerful tool you have in your business writing toolbox!

Take this sentence, for example:

I will need your completed time slip in my office not later than 5 p.m. on the last Friday of each month so you can continue to receive your paycheck on time.

 Compare the above sentence to this one, where we have moved sentence elements around a bit:

So you can continue to receive your paycheck on time, I will need your completed time slip in my office not later than 5 p.m. on the last Friday of each month.

 Do you see a difference? Which sentence is more powerful? More motivational? Which one captures your attention the best – “hooks you” into reading more?

Business writing is a tool – a way to get the job done. Just like a rake, or shovel, or screwdriver. Your business writing needs to do its job.

Here’s what I’d like you to try this week: Take an important sentence in a piece you are writing on the job, and play with it a bit. Move the words and phrases around. See what you come up with to strengthen your writing.

Business writing has a job to do. But it can also be fun, and mentally stimulating. Experiment with your writing, within the boundaries of grammar and the style you use in your organization. Try new techniques, new tools. And let me know how it goes!

Find this information helpful? Consider bringing a Gail Tycer workshop to your workplace, or recommend one of Gail’s shorter presentations  for an upcoming meeting or conference.


© 2013 Gail Tycer •


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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