In this article, I’m going to expound on three important tips for effective business communication:
As you write, generally use active rather than passive constructions. The active voice is stronger than the passive, and it therefore produces more powerful sentences. If the subject of the sentence is the person or thing doing the acting, then the verb is in active voice. If the subject of the sentence is the person or thing receiving the action, then the verb is in passive voice. The passive form is less direct and is usually wordier than the active voice. Moreover, with the passive voice it is easy to make the actor anonymous and thereby avoid responsibility; this is an unfortunate and all-too-common practice in business communications. Though mentioning the action without identifying the actor may be appropriate in rare cases (for example, if knowing who did something really is unimportant), it is generally best to avoid doing so. For more information on this topic, see the article “Active and Passive Voice.”
Not: The decision was made to sell the company. The seminar was postponed by the executive directors. But: The stockholders decided to sell the company. The executive directors postponed the seminar.
Write concisely. Don’t let your message get buried in long sentences or paragraphs of text. Keep the reader’s interest (and goodwill!) by keeping your comments brief and to the point. Especially in our culture of quick e-mails, text messaging, and IM, people don’t want to read long, verbose text.
Limit paragraphs to one idea each, particularly in letters, memos, e-mails, and the like. To help readers grasp main ideas quickly and easily, begin each paragraph by stating the main point or purpose of that paragraph, and follow this first sentence with supporting points or additional information.
As you write, whittle down your text whenever possible; use a sentence rather than a paragraph, a phrase rather than a sentence, and a word rather than a phrase when you can do so without losing meaning. Especially avoid wordy phrases such as due to the fact that; use because instead, for example. Also check for repetitious or superfluous information that can be deleted. For more information about writing concisely, see the article “Conciseness.”
Not: In spite of the fact that the deadline has been extended, we will still hold a meeting this morning for the purpose of discussing the estimated costs. But: Though the deadline has been extended, we will still meet this morning to discuss the estimated costs.
When you write, use clear, simple words; avoid adorning your writing with flowery, pretentious language. Though it is all right to include a seldom-used or high-level word every now and then, for most audiences, this should be the exception rather than the rule. You don’t want your readers to misunderstand or, just as bad, to think you are talking above them.
Jargon (technical or highly specialized terminology) is notorious in some sectors of the business world. It has received a bad rap, and largely for good reason. Because such language tends to be exclusive, it is usually best to simply avoid jargon. If you are writing solely to others in your profession, including industry acronyms and abbreviations and other jargon may be appropriate, but still use caution. In cases where jargon is used solely for euphemistic reasons, as in the example below, it should be replaced with more direct, clearer language.
Not: Next week, the company will begin redundancy elimination. But: Next week, the company will begin laying people off.
After you are finished writing your document, read over it to make sure that it makes sense and that there is no necessary information that has been omitted and no gaps in logic. Readers should be able to easily grasp what you are telling them or what you want them to do; you should do the work so that they don’t have to. For longer or more complicated documents, it is always a good idea to have someone else read over your draft before you submit it to make sure that it is clear and that it contains all the information that it needs to (and omits information that it doesn’t). For more information on writing clearly, see the article “Clarity.”
By following these three tips—using the active voice, writing concisely, and writing clearly—you’ll be well on your way to writing effective business documents. For a more thorough discussion on effective business writing, read “Writing an Effective Business Document.”