Business communication: How to say what you actually mean

Neena Bhandari


written on September 9, 2016

Clear, compelling business communication is, sadly, a rarity. But master the art of the written word and see your credibility rise. Three experts give us their advice.

‘The medium is the message’ said media theorist Marshall McLuhan. Clear, concise and convincing writing is the key to driving home the message whether it is writing an email, a staff review, a project report or a business proposal. But in the world of 140-character Twitter and paperless offices, effective and persuasive business communication is found wanting – and human resources is among the worst culprits.

Stephanie Oley, who runs the business writing course at the University of Sydney, says, “The most effective business writing draws on the simplicity and directness of spoken English. This includes shorter sentences, less jargon and main points at the start of a sentence and not after lengthy background information.”

Express yourself

Oley suggests four strategies for improving writing structure and expression:

  1. Write out a message statement to summarise the precise angle of your argument. This ensures you stick to your point as you get deeper into the document.
  2. Sketch out your support points as a mind map and then number them in order of importance before expanding on any details.
  3. Learn to place your most important sentence subject at the start of the sentence or clause. This requires learning a bit about grammar.
  4. Look for verbs as a way of injecting simplicity and impact into your writing.

Oley, who is also partner at The Offices, a branding and communications agency, says managers should take the reader’s point of view before crafting a message.

“Some readers want to know your facts, such as the data; others will want strategic arguments, such as the implications of an action; others will want to know the ethical or legal angles,” she says. “A good persuasive argument combines all of these hard and soft support points.”

Step into the reader’s shoes

Susan McKerihan, principal at Plain English Consulting, assists corporate clients to improve their written communication skills. She says, “Effective business communication not only means using straightforward language and avoiding gobbledygook, but also structuring the document so that the reader’s questions are answered quickly and satisfactorily. The opposite can be convoluted writing that buries the important messages and is clear to no one, including the writer.” She believes good writing adds to one’s professional credibility and poor writing skills can hinder career progress.

“We all respect those who are able to explain complex ideas clearly and succinctly. Business readers are busy, under pressure, sometimes impatient. Put yourself in your intended reader’s shoes and ask ‘What’s in it for me?’. Then structure and write in a way most likely to attract and keep that reader’s attention.”

McKerihan, who is the author of a practical guide Clear & Concise – Become a Better Business Writer, says, “There is no one-size-fits-all template in business writing. Each context, each topic, each reader is different. So it does require some thought on the part of the writer, but it’s worth it if it means your document is more likely to be read and acted on.”

While managers should be good written communicators, it’s a skill that not everyone has naturally and needs to be learned. Once mastered, however, it can pay dividends in building HR’s authority and respect within an organisation.

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