How to Use Relationship-Building Techniques in Your Business Writing
Just about everything you write is a chance to build relationships with people you report to and even other people above them in the chain, as well as peers, colleagues, customers, prospects, suppliers, and members of your industry. More and more, people succeed through good networking. In a world characterized by less face-to-face contact and more global possibilities, writing is a major tool for making connections and maintaining them.
As with tone, awareness that building relationships is always one of your goals puts you a giant step ahead. Ask yourself every time you write how you can improve the relationships with that individual. A range of techniques is available to help.
Personalizing what you write
In many countries, business emails and letters that get right down to business seem cold, abrupt, and unfeeling. Japanese writers and readers, for example, prefer to begin with the kind of polite comments you tend to make when meeting someone in person: “How have you been?” “Is your family well?” “Isn’t it cold for October?” Such comments or questions may carry no real substance, but they serve an important purpose: They personalize the interaction to better set the stage for a business conversation.
Creating a sense of caring or at least interest in the other person gives you a much better context within which to transact business. If you’ve thought about your audience when planning what to write, you can easily come up with simple but effective personalizing phrases to frame your message. You can always fall back on the old reliables — weather and general health inquiries.
If communication continues, you can move the good feelings along by asking whether the vacation mentioned earlier worked out well, or if the weekend was good — whatever clues you can follow up on without becoming inappropriate or intrusive. The idea works withgroups, too: You can, for example, begin, “I hope you all weathered the tornado okay.”
Some techniques you can use to make your writing feel warm are useful but may not translate between different cultures. For example, salutations like Hi, John set a less formal tone than Dear John. Starting with just the name — John, — is informal to the point of assuming a relationship already exists. But both ways may not be appropriate if you’re writing to someone in a more formal country than your own. A formal address — Mr. Charles, Ms. Brown, Dr. Jones, General Frank — may be called for. In many cultures, if you overlook this formality and other signs of respect, you can lose points before you even begin.
Similarly, it feels friendlier and less formal to use contractions: isn’t instead of is not, won’t instead of will not. But if your message is addressed to a non-native English speaker or will be translated, contractions may be confusing.
Framing messages with you not I
Just accept it: People care more about themselves and what they want than they do about you. This simple-sounding concept has important implications for business writing.
Suppose you’re a software developer and your company has come up with a dramatically better way for people to manage their online reputations. You may be tempted to announce the following on your website:
We’ve created a great new product for online reputation management that no one ever imagined possible.
Or you could say this:
Our great new Product X helps people manage their online reputation better than ever before.
The second example is better because it’s less abstract and it makes the product’s purpose clear. But see if you find this version more powerful:
You want a better way to solve your online reputation management challenges? we have what you need.
When you look for ways to use the word you more, and correspondingly decrease the use of I and we, you put yourself on the reader’s wavelength. In the case of the new software, your readers care about how the product can help them, not that you’re proud of achieving it.
The principle works for everyday email, letters, and online communication too. For example, when you receive a customer complaint, instead of writing the following:
We have received your complaint about …
You’re better off writing this:
Your letter explaining your complaint has been received …
Thank you for writing to us about your recent problem with …
Coming up with a you frame is often challenging. Doing so may draw you into convoluted or passive-sounding language — for example, “Your unusual experience with our tree-pruning service has come to our attention.” Ordinarily we recommend a direct statement (such as, “We hear you’ve had an unusual experience with … ”), but in customer service situations and others where you want to relate to your reader instantly, figuring out a way to start with you can be worth the effort and a brief dip into the passive.
In every situation, genuinely consider your reader’s viewpoint, sensitivities, and needs. Think about how the message you’re communicating affects that person or group. Anticipate questions and build in the answers. Write within this framework and you will guide yourself to create successful messages and documents. When you care, it shows. And you succeed.