Cheat Sheet

Business Writing For Dummies Cheat Sheet

From Business Writing For Dummies, 2nd Edition

By Natalie Canavor

Whether you’re a manager, an entrepreneur, or a recent graduate, the ability to write well is a skill you can’t afford to be without — particularly in the world of business. This handy Cheat Sheet helps ensure your business writing is fit for purpose, and gives you tips on effective résumé writing, international communication, and online content creation for your business.

How to Energize and Target Your Résumé

Do you still need a traditional-style résumé? Yes, even if a prospective employer doesn’t ask for one, it’s essential to smart job hunting. A well-thought-out résumé enables you to put yourself in perspective for yourself: Where have you been, where are you now, and where do you want to go next? What kind of work do you want to do more of? What are you ready for?

Puzzling out this challenge empowers you speak well for yourself at interviews. It puts you in a better position to target the right jobs because you can recognize the most promising opportunities. It also helps you strategize your online presence to back up how you present yourself. And these days, you can’t always anticipate when it’s time to find a new perch. Your supervisor many change, company priorities may shift, budgets may be cut. Having a ready résumé in your pocket is a big advantage.

Here are some specific ways to sharpen your résumé and bring it alive.

  • Ask yourself, “Does my résumé qualify me for another job just like the one I have — or the one I want?”
    Picture your ideal next step in as much detail as you can. Then think: What have I done so far that perfectly equips me for that job? Consider your experience, positions to date, accomplishments, skills, any special qualifications in that context. You need to know why you deserve the job to that to someone else. Write a three- to five-line Summary of Experience based on this thinking to introduce yourself at the top of the résumé. Give yourself a generalized job title that relates closely to your target, but honestly interprets your experience. Write the summary in narrative form — that is, not with bullets.
  • Use the rest of the résumé to back up this introduction.
    Begin each previous job description with a few lines of narrative that provide readers with an easy-to-grasp idea of the most important and relevant work you performed. Follow this with bullets that highlight specific results and achievements, in order of relevance to the job you want.
  • Translate responsibilities into accomplishments.
    Completely eliminate the words, “responsible for.” This is tough, but doing so gives you much better results. Thinking about projects you handled can help, because they often seek to solve a problem and deliver tangible results. Then, rather than, “Responsible for leading team to develop new purchasing guidelines,” try for something more like, “Led task force to plan new company-wide purchasing system.” Better yet, add “which reduced expenses 3 percent within three months of implementation.” Or provide anecdotal evidence if you can’t quantify: “Recognized as employee of the month for this result.”
  • Make your job descriptions as concrete as possible.
    Rather than relying on vague generalizations, industry jargon, or business-speak, figure out what you actually do that’s important and even unique. Which is better: “Create cutting-edge solutions to managing virtual collaboration channels,” or “Customize communication software that keeps virtual teams coordinated through user-friendly, time-saving systems”?
  • Watch your words.
    Build with short, everyday words and action verbs throughout to find the latter, just Google “action verbs for résumés.” Infinite possibilities come up. Do your homework on search terms, too, drawing on the language of the job positing and some research into the industry. This may lead you to use some of that business-speak I warned you against, but machines and skimming readers need to see them — so balance their presence with concrete language. And finally, edit and proofread obsessively. In a world where you face dozens or hundreds of competitors for every chance, correctness is credibility. Don’t risk losing what you want because of a single spelling error.

Communicate Credibility When Writing for Your Business Online

When you write to people you don’t know, they naturally judge you by the quality of your writing. If you use the Internet to promote yourself or a business, the way you use the media must convey that you’re authoritative, knowledgeable, trustworthy, reliable, responsive, and open to input. Your audience will look for clues to your credibility.

Don’t overlook that readers also want to feel you are “nice.” Do you choose to connect with, or hire, people who are blatantly discourteous or critical or use questionable humor? Nor do you choose to engage with people who focus only on their interests and are not attuned to our needs.

Here are specific tips for establishing trust and communicating that you’re the kind of person others want to do business with:

  • Write your best, and meticulously edit and proofread.
  • Deliver everything you promise — or better, over deliver.
  • Include only verified information and keep links updated.
  • Use technical language sparingly and only as audience-appropriate.
  • Maintain a positive, upbeat tone.
  • Provide clear, easily found contact information, and briefly identify your credentials.
  • Invite input in specific ways and respond to it.

And never:

  • Criticize anyone on a personal level.
  • Conduct personal arguments online.
  • Reveal anything about yourself you don’t want the world to know.
  • Use offensive language or tone.
  • Use Internet venues for blatant self-promotion unless it’s clearly appropriate to the specific medium. A website, for example, can and should include product information and a purchasing pathway. A Facebook business page can focus on a business. But promotional material is not what readers look for in blogs, tweets, and most social media.

Above all, project a generous spirit in everything you post, from website to blog to tweet. The online world is an incredible resource of good information and ideas. Whatever your line of work, sharing the best of what you know will draw people to you like nothing else can.

Writing for Global Audiences

If you’re writing to an individual or group of people you don’t know personally, who do you see when you imagine your audience? Someone with communication skills a lot like yours? It’s natural to assume most people are a lot like us. That’s often a mistake, particularly when you’re trying to establish a business relationship with people in other countries or creating a website to build international business.

Keep in mind that people born into another culture may speak English very well, but their writing and reading skills in the language typically lag behind. It’s especially hard to write an adopted language. Fortunately, the principles of good business writing come to your aid to help you bridge differences in culture, language, and educational level.

Here are some of the guidelines that especially apply. Take them into account on an everyday level, too, if your workplace (like most today) is multicultural, or you want to reach prospective clients whose English language skills are limited.

  • Use short, simple, basic sentences. Avoid multi-clause structures with more than one comma.
  • Keep paragraphs short so there is plenty of breathing space between them. Dense pages are intimidating.
  • Resist contractions. For example, write do not rather than don’t.
  • Use short basic words, but bear in mind that many short words in English have multiple meanings and may be used as nouns as well as verbs. Run, for example, can be either. Look has a number of meanings.
  • Omit idioms, slang, and colloquialisms that overseas readers are unlikely to understand. These words and phrases are rampant in written and spoken English, so develop an awareness of those you tend to use and find substitute wording
  • Avoid most metaphors, especially those based on sports that other countries don’t understand and don’t find interesting — for example, American baseball, English cricket.
  • Avoid passive tense and indirect phrasing as much as possible. “Our legal office prepared the contract” is better than “The contract has been prepared by our legal office.”
  • Minimize “stately” abstract words such as those that end in “ion” and “ment,” which produce awkward wordy constructions. For example, “The accomplishment of the building’s construction is planned for June” is better said as, “We plan to finish the building in June.”
  • Don’t abbreviate words, including abbreviations borrowed from texting. Readers may not understand or like them.
  • Eliminate buzzwords and intracompany or industry-insider acronyms and language.

Will this approach make your writing more boring? It may, but clarity comes first. And remember that nothing is so complex that it cannot be expressed in simple language.

In addition to writing style, consider cultural preferences when you communicate across borders. American business English style is seen as too casual for people in many other parts of the world, though this is changing as younger generations predominate. Meanwhile it is smart to observe more formal conventions—such as using people’s titles and last names rather than first names when you write–if you want to elicit good responses. And be scrupulously courteous. This is never taken amiss.

When it’s important to successfully engage businesspeople or potential customers in another country, take the trouble to know what the specific culture expects. Writing to someone in France or Japan or Russia suggests quite different protocols. Ideally, find someone from the specific culture conversant with its business customs and language to advise you.

How to Generate Great Business Testimonials

Today, word-of-mouth recommendation is the most effective way to market every product and service. Consider your own experience: Do you believe commercials and ads and base buying decisions on them, or do you ask your friends? You trust the opinion of people you know most of all, followed by those with direct experience of the product or movie or book or lawn service — people who post reviews and award stars.

And people read reviews and testimonials! Testimonials are the most-read elements of websites. They can also spice up all your marketing materials, LinkedIn profile, proposals, letters, and more. They work in written form and even better in video.

Asking your clients for honest feedback is a great way to better define your own value, sharpen your messaging, and attract the specific clients you most want. Here’s how to go about the process.

  1. Create a shortlist of clients or customers with whom you have a comfortable relationship and represent your preferred clientele.
    Invite each to talk about how they think you’re doing and possibly supply a testimonial. Try to have the conversation in person — offer a cup of coffee or lunch — but if that isn’t possible, use the telephone.
  2. Prepare a set of good open-ended questions. Some possibilities:
    • What do you like best about working with us?
    • What do you most value about our service?
    • How does it help you? What problem did it solve?
    • How has our work changed how you handle X?
    • Did we increase profitability, save you time, or increase efficiency?
    • What would you say about us to a colleague?
    • What can we do better?
  3. Approach the conversation with a genuine interest in hearing the truth.

    Some truths will probably surprise you because we often misgauge what a customer values. Other truths may not be so happy, but give you terrific clues for improving what you do.

  4. Listen appreciatively.
    Don’t argue! Nothing is more annoying than being asked for input then resisting what you hear. Follow-up important points tactfully. If you’ve asked for permission to record, do so, otherwise take notes — few people will object.
  5. If you hear good stuff and you think the client is amenable, invite him or her to write a short testimonial for you (a few paragraphs).

    People will do this for LinkedIn fairly readily (especially if you do it in return), but not so much for a website or marketing piece. In such cases, ask if you may write up part of what she said and give it to her for review.

  6. Assemble a concise statement that is true to the person’s meaning and language.
    Take careful liberty to adapt spoken language to a written form. Present your draft for approval and revise it cheerfully as asked. Providing a relatively long version enables you to use excerpts for different media.
  7. If the client is truly enthusiastic, ask if you may videotape a brief endorsement.
    This is a bigger favor and it’s your responsibility to make sure he comes across well. Shooting with your smartphone may not work well enough. Be sure you have the capabilities to turn out what you need efficiently and with quality.

Should you make up endorsements yourself and ask customers to sign off on them? Never! First, they won’t be convincing — they’ll sound like you. Second, you miss the opportunity to strengthen the bond with your customer and discover why you are valued — and how to do even better.