Documents Make a Difference:
In a world of constant email, writing clearly is a must.
A UN manager just back from Haiti’s earthquake zone sat down, perplexed, for individual coaching. In Haiti, to coordinate many relief agencies, she wrote a memo explaining who would handle what. At least, she’d tried to.
“For days, people kept asking me why this or that wasn’t happening, and who was supposed to do it,” she said. “I told them, ‘It’s in the memo.’ ” But they had read the memo and still didn’t know. What went wrong? The memo, I learned, was eight pages of dense, confusing text. Few paragraph breaks, no subheads, no summary or table of contents. And everywhere, undefined acronyms.
How much food hadn’t been delivered? What shelter, latrine or medicine had been late to reach Haitians in need? Clear writing mattered then, and matters in every business that wants to be productive.
I offer business writing workshops with associate Jill Hamburg-Coplan, an adjunct journalism professor at New York University and St. John’s University and, in 2011-’12, in Beijing where she was a Fulbright Scholar. Jill has worked as a reporter or editor for Newsday, Bloomberg News, United Press International- Jerusalem, BusinessWeek, and elsewhere. She teaches students and professionals, in person and online. She also has experience creating written materials for clients including the United Nations, Girl Scouts USA, Citibank and American Express. Jill and I present custom-tailored, multi-day (or shorter) writing workshops, for UN staff, private sector clients, and Iraqi academics seeking appointments after being displaced by war, through the Scholar Rescue Fund. We help them envision their audience and its needs, focus on key issues, be appropriately succinct and plain-spoken.
Writing takes concentration, a mastery of subject matter, and some personal risk. Poor business emails, letters and memos can lower productivity, and even hurt the morale of a global workforce. Writing well means efficiency and success on the job.
- Some of the useful lessons workshop participants say they’ve taken away: Open your written correspondence with a warm, cordial salutation. Then be frank and straightforward: Ask for what you need briefly and directly. In the end, close warmly to cement a smooth working relationship.
- A clean, airy format and lots of white space makes a document easier to digest. What’s more readable is more memorable, and elicits action.
- Clear “subject” lines, as well as bulleted lists, make correspondence easy to skim, review, and retrieve later.
- Understanding certain cross-cultural communication issues can help writers steer clear of business misunderstandings.
- Recognize instructional writing for what it is: a set of simple step-by-step directions.
- There are rules for writing bad news in a business context, and for persuasion without seeming manipulative.
My workshops, with university writing instructor and journalist Jill Hamburg-Coplan, use games, verbal and written group exercises, and revising of real working documents.
Before the workshop, we analyze at least two writing samples from each participant. During the workshop, we coach participants individually to supplement group sessions.
In groups and solo, we help participants let their ‘best self’ leap off the page. The most effective modern business writing uses a slightly less formal voice than in the past. That energy, infused into writing, along with visual and organizational clarity, go a long way toward building successful working partnerships.
Participants wrote “A letter to myself” to remind themselves what they hoped to remember about the workshop:
I have had the opportunity to think about the type of writer I am and how I can improve. This is very valuable to me since I write frequently to [recipients] around the globe. One of the most valuable tips is to write in a manner that anyone can understand. I have learned to use brevity, a clean airy format, that less is more, and to reduce the jargon, if possible. I will immediately begin to use these tips and rules for business writing.
I learnt many things about my writing style. Patricia Kantor conducted the workshop superbly and turned it into a fantastic learning experience. Many newcomers overwhelmed by the organizational culture-shock could accept that it is right to use simple, clear and direct language as opposed to the entrenched jargon. For old-timers like me, it was timely to review our writing style. I learnt my writing was influenced by jargon and had accumulated a stultified style. I learnt that writing well means relating to the reader, writing clearly using simple yet meaningful words, in brief sentences, to inform or persuade him or her. Multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual colleagues brought a richness of meaning and a diverse understanding of English words, which helped me to understand better who my readers are and to tone my writing to fit the audience.
I would happily recommend that others in the organization, both newcomers and old-timers, take this course. It is an eye opener.
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“Every writer, by the way he uses the language, reveals something of his spirit.”
— E.B. White, The Elements of Style
Comments from participants
The business writing training course was very informative. Some of the key points I picked up:
Before starting to write a complicated message it is always a good idea to brainstorm and organize your thoughts by jotting down your ideas, free-writing on your computer or using mindmaps (a software tool).
Write in clear, concise sentences and try to avoid jargon and clichés.
Understand who your reader is and ensure the language and style is appropriate.
Ensure your email flows properly and is not claustrophobic and that there are enough spaces between paragraphs and thoughts
Use bullets points when explaining a complex process.
Always proof read your message for tone, grammar, spelling, logic, etc. before sending it out. If possible, step away from your desk and return to review your email before sending it out.
I hope I’ll be able to stick to as much of it as much possible. I have the guidebook handy in case I forget something!
Specific tools used:
- One-on-one coaching
- Pre- and post-workshop writing sample analysis
- Written exercises
- Group games, quizzes and contests
- Revising real work samples
- Group activities/sharing feedback about appropriate writing for the organization
- Handbooks and workbooks with guidelines
- Follow-up activities, a glossary and handouts with suggested language for difficult situations
Case Studies: Hard Goods Sellers/E-Commerce
Health concerns forced Louann to resign from a much-loved full-time position managing a florist shop and handling wedding contracts. But she wasn't financially ready to take early retirement.
Flash forward and Louann is now the proud owner of a thriving e-commerce business where she teaches brides how to create their own wedding flowers and provides the supplies they need to accomplish that goal. Creative information + well-stocked store = one-stop shopping for brides! On top of that...
A florist wholesaler was so impressed with her site's traffic and sales growth that he drop-ships Louann's orders, which means that she has access to a warehouse full of products that she doesn't have to spend a dime on until she sells them!
"My first year in sales were over $12,000 and the following year I more than doubled it with over $32,000 in sales. I anticipate continued growth and have had great satisfaction in knowing that my business is growing by leaps and bounds."
Read how Louann stepped outside of her comfort range to take control of her financial future
and build a profitable e-commerce business that's always open!
An "offline entrepreneur," Richard is using his SBI! site to drive sales out of this world. Richard's product development went from the city dump in Ottawa, Canada to a licensing deal that distributes his unique, patented fence post stabilizer for wooden decks in stores throughout the United States.
His theme-based content site allowed him, as Richard says, to seed the market, prove the concept and then create a buzz that now has people going into stores and demanding his product.
"The website has allowed me to seed the market, prove the concept and create incredible buzz among the public who now go into stores demanding the product. This is how I was able to level the playing field and run around the big corporations to get my product to market."
Richard credits personal tenacity, intense desire, and his website
for sold-out inventory, global exposure, and licensing deals.
Ashley combines a passion for comic books with a love of web business, and has created a web "auction" hero!
Ashley publishes guides on prices of vintage comic books, and how-to's for people looking to dispose of their collections. People with a problem to solve (how to sell old comics) search for help on how much their books might be worth. His site also offers a free value appraisal service.
Ashley then buys comic book collections from visitors who wish to sell, and breaks them up for resale on eBay and in offline auctions. He also makes a commission when people buy comic books from eBay after reading his articles.
The eBay phenomenon has allowed "little guys" to become dealers in rare or vintage collectibles. With a ready market of millions to sell to, the problem for dealers is how to source items for their inventory. By helping people to help themselves downsize or dispose of unwanted vintage items, you can attract sellers without effort, and solve the problem of how to find great stuff to sell on eBay, or offline in a "real world" store.
"I gave up full-time eBay selling years ago. It was simply too challenging to source great vintage toys. I spent far too much time chasing new collections. But by implementing the skills I learned from my other SBI! businesses, and combining the traffic my comic book site generates with my eBay selling skills, I've created a really fun and profitable business which is growing faster than a speeding bullet!"
Read about Ashley's incredible journey.
Click here for more information on how SBI! is used to sell products.
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