The write stuff
Whether it's writing emails, presentations, team briefings or reports, all managers have to put pen to paper at some point. Not everyone is born a great writer, but there are some basic techniques we can all follow to make our words more effective.
THINK BEFORE YOU WRITE
As with all communication, investing time in planning will pay off. Don't start writing without having first decided your purpose (are you trying to inform, entertain or motivate?), worked out your key messages (three is usually a good number to aim for) and noted down the supporting points you want to make.
GRAB YOUR READER'S ATTENTION
People have short attention spans, especially at work where they're bombarded with communication. So your job is to grab their attention in your very first line. Put yourself in their shoes and make sure your first line answers their key question: “What's in it for me?”
HIT THE HEADLINES
It's not just newspapers and magazines that need headlines. Your emails have a subject field, reports need titles, even letters benefit from having a headline. Headlines help you capture and keep people's attention. So spend time writing headlines that sum up your message and get people interested by promising them a clear benefit or a new piece of information. Aim to use short words and as few of them as possible.
GET TO THE POINT
Get straight to the point in your first paragraph. Someone should know what your point is even if all they read is your first paragraph. No matter how well you write, many more readers than you think will have stopped reading well before your final paragraph so don't leave your best stuff for last. Ignore what you were told at school about introducing essays with all the background. You can cover that later if you need to.
SUM UP – AT THE BEGINNING!
If you're writing a longish report, readers will appreciate having a summary at the start. They might want to know what your main thrust is before deciding whether to read on or they simply might not have the time to read the full report. Although it might sound strange advice, it's best to have a stab at your summary before you write the rest of the report. It'll help you clarify your thinking.
Always use the simplest words you can to carry the meaning. Flowery language and jargon impresses no one and probably makes people think you don't know what you're talking about. The best advice is to write like you talk. And a good test of your first draft is to ask yourself if the words you're using would come naturally if you were talking to your neighbour over the garden fence.
Talk directly to your audience. As a general rule, the more you can use the word “you” rather than “staff” or “employees” the more natural and clear your writing will be.
Almost every first draft can be improved by cutting down the word count. Delete anything that doesn't directly support your key messages and edit out unnecessary words (particularly adjectives). Keep sentences short – aim for an average sentence length of 14-16 words. Long sentences can often be broken into two or more shorter sentences with a bit of smart editing. And use subheadings and bullet points to break up long passages.
In editing your first draft, you'll spot lots of waffle you can edit out. “I will make contact in the next few days to establish a mutually convenient time to have a meeting” would be better written as “I'll be in touch soon to arrange a meeting”. “At this moment in time” really just means “now”. “Due to the fact that” should instead be “because”. And “I am not in a position to” is better expressed “I cannot”.