The ubiquity of social media is just one of the reasons why business writing is changing.
Old certainties about how to communicate have changed. Much of the formality that was once commonplace is now gone but there is a line between friendly and being over-familiar.
That’s one of the key themes explored in this practical book by Talbot, a writer and trainer who has made a career out of helping organisations improve their written communication.
How things are written is really important, the author asserts. Companies that bother to ask for feedback on their written English routinely comment that respondents feel patronised by poorly written English, feel insulted by writers’ lack of attention to important details and don’t sense the human touch in much of the language used in letters.
They report they dislike unnecessary jargon, over-complicated sentences and feel offended when their personal details are incorrect.
Some have even said they feel so angered by correspondence that, where they can do so, they will walk away from the businesses concerned.
Business language can be seen as aggressive, especially where requests are being made. “For this to work, we need to” is preferable to “it must be done”.
People don’t like terseness either. “Yes, I’ve done that” is preferable to “done”. Those who write one-word replies usually feel they are effective writers and communicators but such a reply is often perceived as plain rude.
Talbot suggests a four-step solution. The first part of this, which she styles “be correct” suggests you consider what your writing wants to achieve, you reflect your company’s values and personality and project “brand you” and you ensure your writing is free from mistakes.
The second aspect, “be clear” suggests using plain English to express facts as simply as possible, using headings and subheads if appropriate to highlight key information. The third stage, “make the right impact” includes using verbs to convey action and ownership of who does what and when.
The last stage focuses on readers as customers and includes getting to know them so you can write from their perspective, and using positive proactive words to engage, persuade and influence rather than jargon or words that create barriers.
A huge proportion of business communication comes in the form of email, instant messaging or social media posts, subjects covered extensively here. Most reported problems about email relate to poor tone and inappropriate subject matter. If you are not prepared to say something face to face, then do not write it in a message.
Clear and correct
Tips on good email practice include using a good subject heading and refreshing it regularly, rereading your email to check that your language is clear and correct, and if you have copied someone in that you should explain why. In SMS or social media messaging, the quick-fire nature of this communication results in less formal and more abbreviated language. Emoticons and imprecise or shortened spelling and grammar styles are common.
This is increasingly acceptable socially but a business should have some rules about whether this causal style of communication can cross into areas such as email. Remember all written messages provide an audit trail so the advice is to be professional and to project company values.
If you use emoticons (small digital icons that signify feelings) only use those that are right for your reader. For example, the “thumbs up” sign expresses positivity to some cultures but is offensive to others.
One of Talbot’s most useful chapters is on writing blogposts. She notes that the messages that get shared most are those that involve lists and tips, quotes that involves sharing other people’s words of wisdom, articles that bring out an emotional response and captivating captions/slogans that underpin and enhance good photos, videos or graphics.