Because we have become so used to communicating through electronic devices, we sometimes forget that digital marketing, email, mobile and text messaging, and social media all involve writing. Good writing, approximately in order of importance, is:
- Correct in grammar and spelling
- Compelling, conveying a message or telling a story or that people want to read
Unless your goal is something other than communication, no message will generate the response you want from the audience you want if the writing is confused, filled with misspellings, ambiguous, rambling, contradictory, and boring.
Writing That Is Correct, Clear, Concise, Consistent
The order of these words (correct, clear, concise, consistent) is important. It does not matter how brief you are if your meaning is not clear. A badly written email, for example, will simply provoke a dozen emails asking for clarification.
Writing that is correct, clear, concise, and consistent meets the following standards, among others:
- Uses the correct word, not a near-match (complimentary, complementary; affect, effect; council, counsel).
- Never just assumes a question has been asked, but actually inserts a question mark.
- Avoids jargon or invented phrases (“actionable incremental functionality system”).
- Values clarity over vocabulary (“we elucidate a maximized portfolio of compatible knowledge components”).
- Focuses on the topic and introduces the fewest number of new ideas at a time (no more than five and preferably less).
- Defines acronyms and uses them consistently; covers the material promised in the introduction; does not switch audiences mid-stream (for example, from the user to the installer or the knowledgeable reader to the novice); and is consistent with previous communications (or explains the inconsistency).
While online spell checkers are very helpful, online grammar checkers are almost universally worthless; they have trouble with compound sentences, subject/verb agreement, and other basic rules of grammar. The best reference guide and introduction to writing is The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, a timeless classic of barely 100 pages. It is a model of communication in writing that is correct, clear, concise, consistent, and compelling.
Writing That Is Compelling
Compelling writing always starts with the audience, the reader. Every piece of writing—whether it is making a request, asking a question, responding to crisis, or sharing information—has a reader who must understand the content and, above all, be willing to read it. Keep in mind that monologues are not fun whether you are listening to one or reading it. What you write must have value to the reader or it will remain unread:
- Customers who search for your product or service have a specific problem or need that must be addressed in marketing collateral or they will move on.
- Requests for proposals normally list the exact information that must be included in the response or the response will be rejected.
- In internal corporate communications, especially during change or crisis management, readers want the most important information first (“we gained a new client,” “we are shutting down,” “my team has finished ahead of schedule and below budget”); they do not want lectures on not listening to rumors.
True communication begins when you take your audience into account.
Communication in Writing vs. Face-to-Face
When you are communicating face-to-face, the expressions and attitudes of your audience give you vital clues about their understanding and openness to your message. You have time to retract and modify your words and attitude; you can adapt on the fly to individual and team dynamics. None of those strategies are available when you are communicating in writing.
However, the English language is very powerful, with more current and obsolete words in its official dictionary than any other language. Moreover, oratorical devices (such as rhetorical questions and repetition) often work just as well in written form as in spoken for expressing emotions, motivating the audience, and conveying leadership. Other devices, such as humor, must be used more carefully; what is funny to you may not be funny to your readers and you have no definite way of telling.
In any case, you want your communications to sound as if they are coming from a real person, not a machine. This means that expressions of appreciation, sorrow, and apology are appropriate. Even more important, the writing should recognize the emotions of the reader—there is a difference between communication and selfish manipulation and most people are able to detect it.
Writing for Employees vs. Writing for Executives
In truth there is nothing much to be gained by treating employees as different from executives in their vocabulary, interests, time available, or familiarity with the company. Unless your culture is badly broken, communication at all levels should meet the standards of correct, clear, concise, consistent, and compelling.
Jen Butler, owner and founder of JB Partners, LLC, travels throughout the United States to provide business leaders and executives with one-on-one onsite guidance in managing stress, turning around their business, and achieving real, long-lasting results. For more information, visit www.jenbutlerpartners.com.