Suppose your supervisor emails you a message that says, “Fix the attached” or “Polish this piece.” What does it mean to fix or polish a business message? In addition to correcting punctuation, typos, misspellings, and grammar glitches, what’s required beyond that?
First, find out what your supervisor thinks it needs. Where does it fall short? What’s missing? Whether or not you receive an answer, go through the following key questions yourself:
- Why is this piece needed? What’s its intended purpose? Because readers are busy, you must immediately make clear what this message is about. A specific title or subject line goes a long way. For example, instead of writing “For New Customers” you might write, “5 Ways to Communicate with New Customers.”
- What should the reader do, think, believe, or remember as a result of this piece? Does the communication specify what you want readers to do and by when? How easy is it for them to first understand the instruction and then take action? For example, if it’s a letter to a credit card company about a dispute, make it clear what you want, e.g., future credit or a refund. Then state when you want a resolution, e.g., “before the next payment cycle on June 23rd.” Put this call to action near the top!
- How long should your sentences and paragraphs be? Ensure your message comes across in short, easy-to-read sentences. My rule of thumb is not more than 21 words in one sentence or 3-4 sentences in one paragraph. Why? It’s hard for anyone to track your meaning when sentences ramble, especially when they’re part of long paragraphs. People scan more than they read; they can take in short sentences and paragraphs more quickly than long-winded ones. Don’t make it seem like hard work!
Here’s a 58-word sentence that could be chopped into three sentences, making the message easier to follow:
ORIGINAL: While it’s true that a portion of the budgeted dollars (less now than in past years) is spent dealing with design and construction deficiencies, most of the maintenance budget dollars are spent for normal upkeep and operational costs, for example, landscaping, fire protection, access control, equipment maintenance, power washing, lighting, painting, HVAC maintenance and repairs, and so on.
REVISED: Yes, a portion of the budgeted dollars (less than in past years) is spent on design and construction deficiencies. Yet most of the maintenance budget dollars are needed for normal upkeep and operational costs. These include landscaping, fire protection, access control, equipment maintenance, power washing, lighting, painting, and HVAC maintenance and repairs.
- How can you use polite, positive language to persuade others? Remember, a positive outcome should be the goal of every communication. Your objective may be to retain a customer, win a contract, build a relationship, gain approval, or advance a project. Always spell out benefits: e.g., resolution, improvements, increased profit, etc. And be polite by using words such as welcome, thank you, please, appreciate, happy to, and value your input. If your piece doesn’t include positive language, then why send it at all?
When it’s up to you to fix or polish that important message, use these questions as your checklist every time.
- Why is this piece needed? What’s its intended purpose?
- What should the reader do, think, believe, or remember as a result of this piece?
- How long should your sentences and paragraphs be?
- How can you use polite, positive language to persuade others?
EXTRA: Barbara offers a FREE 30-minute teleclass sharing tips on better business writing, Wednesday, June 13th at 4 pm PT / 7 p.m. ET. Register here.
Barbara McNichol is passionate about helping administrative professionals add power to their pen. To assist in this mission, she has created a Word Trippers Tips resource so you can quickly find the right word when it matters most. It allows you to improve your writing through excellent weekly resources in your inbox, including a webinar, crossword puzzles, and a Word Tripper of the Week for 52 weeks. You can enjoy a $30 discount at checkout by using the code ODI at www.wordtrippers.com/odi