General Business News for June 2008

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Business Writing – Don’t Underestimate the Impact

Recently, the CBS News program 60 Minutes ran a story on the Millennial Generation - those born between 1977 and 1995. Tech savvy and confident, this generation is sure to change the way business is done. Some of those changes will be easy for their predecessors to take, some will be far more difficult, but one thing will remain the same: the need to communicate.

In this information age, business is increasingly done via computer. Internet sales increase daily; your credit card statements come to your inbox and you pay by pressing “enter” on your keyboard. It’s only natural, then, that more business communication is done through e-mail and other nearly-instant communication. Unfortunately, many employees are ill-equipped to operate in this new world and are more accustomed to the use of instant messaging (and text messages, where abbreviations are the norm) or simply have poor skills due to a lack of training.

For example, see if you can decipher this message:


IMO the guy you interviewed yesterday won’t work. I mean, when the first thing he asked was about the salary, I just wanted to ask AYSOS? I mean there’s more to a job than just salary. IYKWIMAITYD, this is one job where the perks are far better than the salary. Anyway, don’t hire him.

BTW, what are you doing for dinner tonight?

If you can understand the above, you get an “A” in modern language. For the rest of us, it’s just plain Greek - and our next question for the writer may be “Did you forget to use the ‘spell check’ on this document?”

Business communication is all about ensuring that your reader gets the message quickly and clearly, which means much of today’s informal communication is not suitable in a business environment. You cannot count on the education system to turn out employees capable of clear business communication - this is not an indictment on the education system so much as on the student’s inability to see past the moment. I don’t know about you, but my attitude was that my major was in accounting, not English. Why in the world, then, was it so important to know how to write a coherent sentence?

All right, I was totally wrong and my mentors had to teach me to write just like I must teach my own employees now. Most students just don’t see the need to learn anything about writing beyond the obvious need to please their professors. The sort of theoretical/academic writing that it takes to do well in college is not what a business reader wants. Therefore, you, or a delegate, will probably be the one to teach your employees proper business-writing skills. This month and next we will discuss issues you need to address with your employees.

We will start with e-mail, since it is essentially instantaneous, growing in importance, and potentially deadly (because once you click ‘send’, it’s gone and you cannot take your words back). At least with “snail mail”, you can run to the mailbox and beg the mailman to give you back the letter in which you call your boss an idiot! Even if the e-mail is intended to be nice, the fact that the reader cannot hear the nuance in your voice or see your expression can spell trouble. You must therefore take care in what you say and how you say it.

One very important stylistic note is that you SHOULD NEVER EVER SEND E-MAIL WRITTEN IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Aside from making your letter hard to read, in many circles, an e-mail written in all caps means you are ‘shouting’ at your reader. Try to take the kinder, gentler route and use the appropriate case.

Unlike a letter, an e-mail requires a concise description in the subject line. Most recipients read that line to decide if they even wish to open it. If you turn your reader off before they do open that mail, you are unlikely to accomplish your objective.

Before you begin typing, you should compose the e-mail in your head or on a piece of paper. E-mail is no different than other forms of writing: if you give your audience a coherent and well-thought-out product, you will be perceived as competent in the subject matter. If your e-mail is jumbled, you may have failed even before you begin. Take a moment to create a proper outline before you begin to write.

Begin your e-mail with a salutation just as you would if you were composing a letter. Depending on your relationship, you can either be formal (use Mr., Mrs., Ms., etc.) or informal (use just the person’s name), but make sure you directly address your audience.

Get to the point of your e-mail in the opening lines of your message. Your reader has plenty to do without trying to wade through a lot of words, trying to decipher their meaning. In college, your professors may have been impressed with wordy sentences, but the business reader just wants information. Giving your reader that will be far more likely to elicit the response you want.

If the subject is complicated, or requires a lot of explanation, break it up. Start with an executive summary that gives the reader the bottom line of the e-mail. From there, you can move to more detail. If your letter is long enough, consider including a table of contents to help the reader. For example, assume you have a problem in shipping and need to communicate a solution to several people. Bob in sales may already know about the problem and wish to go directly to the solution. The company CEO, Mr. Peters, may be unaware of the problem, so he will need background before understanding your solution. A table of contents will help each reader decide where to start.

Always end your e-mail with a conclusion and, if necessary, a request for action from the reader. Never take for granted that your audience knows precisely how to react to your communication.

Test your e-mail before you send it. Make sure that any promised attachments are indeed attached and that all hyperlinks work. Re-read your e-mail from the point of view of the reader to insure that it’s not offensive and check all spelling and punctuation.

Finally, make sure your return address and all other necessary contact information is included in you e-mail. It’s difficult for the reader to reply when he or she doesn’t know who the sender is and where to respond.

Many times, a business associate knows you only by the structure and accuracy of the words in your e-mail. Sloppy spelling, poor grammar, and illogical sentences with missing words will project an image you do not wish to convey. Don’t let your e-mail - or that of your employees - cause you to lose credibility with your customers or associates. Take time to provide proper training in e-mail etiquette when you hire an employee, not after you have to fire that employee for losing a client.

Have a terrific June.


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