Business Writing For Dummies
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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 the right purpose, and gives you tips on effective resume writing, international communication, and online content creation for your business.

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How to Write a Request Letter

The most frequent question people ask professional business writers is: How do I write a letter asking for something I want? The “ask” may be for a day off during the office’s busiest period or a letter of reference, a referral, a recommendation, and so on.

The first step toward a successful request is to understand that it’s not the method of delivery that should prompt you to write a letter — your message can take the form of an email, for example. But it’s best to approach your message as a letter when the favor is important to you. So, if you write an inter-office memo to ask for an expensive piece of equipment, a new office, time with the boss or tuition reimbursement, see it as a letter that is worth careful, persuasive, strategic writing.

Here’s how to write requests that win:

Center on the truth as much as you can. This assumes you have a good reason for the ask. If you’re requesting a deadline extension, for example, why do you need it? Work-related reasons are of course prime: Maybe another priority took precedence, or you lost time because of a computer system failure — whatever is true. I do not recommend inventing an excuse, but I’m surprised how often people don’t see the relevance of the truth. Personal events may also be taken as valid reasons, for example, an illness or a visiting relative.

What if you don’t have a positive and relevant story to tell? You just want to go surfing when the waves are up? Then focus on addressing your supervisor’s concerns in this way:

Take account of your reader’s perspective. I sometimes ask participants in writing workshops to draft a message requesting a week off to attend a relative’s wedding during the employer’s busiest time. Often people respond with letters that underline the importance of the event to themselves — how long they’ve waited for this marriage, how others will feel if they’re not present and so on. They completely overlook the boss’s perspective. The question is, what matters to the boss versus what matters to you?

The boss probably wants to know what your absence might cost in terms of time and inconvenience. This means addressing the status of your workload, how your tasks will be done in your absence, what problems might arise and if they do, who will handle them. Take the initiative to figure these things out and put them in your message. Will you work overtime to take care of tasks in advance? Arrange with a coworker to handle things in your absence and field problems? Will you brief the coworker on your responsibilities? Check in periodically? Can you leave a 24/7 phone number and pledge quick return calls?

Consider your reader’s individual characteristics. We all have different values, priorities, sensitivities and pressures. If you’re requesting a new piece of office equipment, for example, start by thinking about your boss’s viewpoint by virtue of their position. Does what you want benefit not just you, but also the department or the organization? Will saying yes in some way save money or time or avoid recognized problems? If so, you have a strong argument.

The person’s own perspective also matters. What is their attitude toward technology? Do they like being on the cutting edge, or resist technological change? Do they respond to technical specs or a cost/benefit analysis? Do they value individual initiative or team spirit? Do they prefer a lot of information or just the bottom line?

Such factors should help determine what to include and focus on. This doesn’t mean inventing facts — you’re telling the same story, just adapting the angle and focus to the audience. A good way to orient a message to a person you know is to visualize them: See their face, expression, body language; hear their voice; imagine their reactions if you were speaking with them and the questions and objections they are most likely to make. Build the answers and rebuttals into your message.

Apply your best writing skills. Use a courteous, respectful tone and avoid spelling and grammar errors. Effective business English relies on short everyday words, sentences with simple structures that are easily understood on first reading, and short paragraphs — generally, three to five sentences. Get to the point right away. For many request messages you can follow this simple sequence:

Introduction: I’m writing to ask that you authorize the purchase of . . .

Reason: As you know, we’ve been having problems with . . . I believe XYZ will solve those problems and save us . . .

Specifics: Costs, perhaps technical specs depending on your reader’s orientation

Close: If you’d like more information or for me to arrange a demo . . .

Always review the impact of your message by asking yourself, “If I received this request from someone else, would I say yes?” If not, rewrite.

How to Get Your Resume Noticed

Do you still need a traditional-style resume? Yes. In most industries, job applications still begin with resumes, and most employers prefer traditional formats that make it easy to compare candidates.

But even if a prospective employer doesn’t ask for one, developing a strong resume is essential to your own smart job hunting. It puts you in perspective for yourself: where you have been, where you are now, and where you want to go next. What kind of work do you want to do more of? What are you ready for? How can you prove it?

Thoughtfully reviewing your own history helps you understand your own strengths, clarifies what you want, and empowers you to 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.

The resume-writing process also helps you strategize your online presence so it backs up how you want to be seen. And having a ready resume in your pocket in today’s rapidly changing environment is always a plus. Having pre-thought your resume in advance of needing a new perch saves you a lot of time — and anxiety.

Here are some specific ways to sharpen your resume and bring it alive:

  1. Check whether your resume qualifies you for the job you already have — or the job you want.

Many people make the mistake of building their resumes as if they were re-applying for the job they have, or used to have, rather than the one they would like. If you’re making a move, whether you chose the timing or not, do you want to stay in place or advance your career? Assuming the latter, use the resume to prove you are ready for the next step. Do you want more responsibility? Then show how over time, you’ve assumed more responsibility, step by step. Do you want to work more independently, or from a home base part or full time? Then marshal the evidence of how well you work in such situations. Do you want to learn something new and be challenged? Or, did you learn something new through a course, for example, and want to use this skill? Be sure your resume speaks to this.

  2. Write a “summary of experience” that creates the perspective for how you want to be seen and how you want your resume to be read.

The summary goes at the top, after your name and contact information. In three to five lines, explain who you are and why you are an ideal candidate for the job. Your ideal resume will present you as someone who has been preparing for the particular role all your life, or at least, for your whole career. If all the jobs you plan to apply for are basically similar, the same summary will serve, but always tinker with it to suit the demands of the specific job, if it’s one you really want.

  3. Use the rest of the resume to back up this introduction.

Starting with your current or most recent position, describe each job with a few lines of narrative that provide readers with an easy-to-grasp idea of the most important and relevant scope of your work. Follow this with three to five bullets that highlight specific results and achievements, in order of relevance to the job you want. Give thought to translating responsibilities into accomplishments. To do this, completely eliminate the words, “responsible for.” This may feel tough, but doing it gives you much better results. Thinking about projects you handled can help, because they are often geared to solve a problem and deliver tangible results. Then, instead of, “Responsible for leading team to develop new purchasing guidelines,” try, “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.”

  4. 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 user-friendly communication software that keeps virtual teams coordinated.” If it’s hard to be concrete, figure out how you would explain what you do to your grandmother or a ten-year-old. Think: How do I spend my days? What am I proud of? What skills do I call upon, and what problems do I solve? What do people depend on me for?

Remember that you have the right to be selective in what you present. Choose to highlight aspects of your previous work that best match the job you now want. It’s best to provide less and put the focus on what’s most significant. If a task might sound trivial to the reviewer, explain its importance. For example, rather than writing “organized customer files,” it’s better to say “reorganized customer data system for instant access by sales team in the field.” Of course, everything you include must be true!

  5. Watch your words.

Build with short, everyday words and action verbs throughout — to find the latter, just Google “action verbs for resumes.” Infinite possibilities come up. For example: chaired; orchestrated; surpassed; monitored; counseled; mapped; assessed; built; streamlined; transformed; restructured. Write as much as possible in simple present tense terms for a current job (“administer”) and simple past tense for previous ones (“administered”). It’s fine to use a telegraphic style that omits connecting words, and over-use of “I,” as long as the fact remains easily understandable. For example, rather than “I re-engineered the software protocols for channeling the x into the y,” write: “Re-engineered software protocols to channel x into y.”

  6. Employ a confident, positive tone.

Even a just-the-facts resume breathes personality and attitude, so project a persona that supports your application. Aim to communicate a quiet self-assurance and capability. A good way to instill this is to review what you wrote when you’re in an upbeat, cheerful mood feeling good about yourself. That’s a good time to substitute high-energy verbs for flat, neutral language. Avoid hedgy, wishy-washy words like might, sometimes, probably, possibly. And keep away from descriptive words like extremely, incredibly amazing. They make you look superficial and immature.

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 who use questionable humor? I bet not. Nor do we 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 in 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 may be 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.

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? We trust the opinion of people we 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.

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 clients are amenable, invite them 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 they said and give it to the person 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 record a brief video endorsement.

This is a bigger favor and it’s your responsibility to make sure the people come across well. Shooting with your smartphone may work well enough if you pay attention to sound and picture quality, perhaps with a small equipment investment. 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.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

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Natalie Canavor's career spans national magazine editing, journalism, corporate communications and public relations. Her writing for business media, professional audiences and The New York Times have won dozens of national and international awards. She has taught advanced writing seminars for NYU and conducts frequent workshops.

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