Skillset New Zealand Blog

Ideas to help your team develop personally and professionally.

This article is an extract from Ralph's book, Making Business Writing Easy - what effective writers really do.

'The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut.'

That's how Ronald Hugh Morrieson begins his New Zealand novel Scarecrow. Would you read the next paragraph?

You're quite right of course, we can't go making up stories about people having their throats cut just to improve our emails and letters. But we can copy the technique. Morrieson's opening line is short, direct and engaging. Ours should be too.

Most business letters don't grab attention. They encourage us to scan the whole letter in search of something to persuade us it's worth the effort.

'We are arranging a seminar at our premises on 1 September at 5.30pm for the purpose of explaining what the changes to the tax depreciation policy announced by Government recently will mean for our major customers.'

Eyes glazing over? How about this instead?

'Good news.
You may have less tax to pay next year. The Government's announcement on depreciation will help most companies like yours, some considerably, some only slightly.
Would you like to hear more?'

You can go on to give the details of where and when. They key difference is in the way we attract the reader's attention. In the first draft we try to cram it all in. In the second we begin with a short statement and will feed the reader more information when she is ready for it. Notice that we have used you and yours to make it more focused on the reader.

Most writers begin with formal clichés.

'I am writing to you in regard to our recent conversation...'
'In reply to your letter of 17 May, my specific interest is in...'
'I refer to our correspondence at the end of August and...'

Break out. Forget the clichés and the rules that say you must start in a formal way. There are few rules, but plenty of conventions, and they get in the way of effective communication. Imagine you are having a business conversation with the reader. Suddenly it's much easier to write openings that are short, direct and engaging.

'Thanks for your proposal. We accept.'
'Thanks for your letter on Friday. I agree. We will have to do something about the scaffolding.'
'Thanks for letting me know how well the study programme is working out for you.'
'It was good to hear from you on Wednesday. I was especially interested in your comments about John's success this year.'
'Thanks for the demonstration last week. It is certainly an impressive machine and we would like to know more.'
'I thought you might appreciate a written record of our discussion on Tuesday.'

If you are initiating the contact get straight to the point, but keep it conversational.

'I'll make this brief, but it's important. Did you know that five of our branch managers are away this week with stress-related illnesses?'
'I have been thinking about your comments on Thursday. You were right, and we must take action immediately.'
'What I am about to say will surprise you.'
'I'd like to talk frankly with you.'
'We are going to help you make more money this year - even if you don't do business with us.'
'I have some disappointing news for you.'
'We hope you can join us for a celebration.'

Hold their attention

Ever been stuck with the party bore? Ever wondered what makes them so boring, and you so conscious of the time, your backache and your struggle to maintain focus?

The party bore is generally self-absorbed. An interesting guest is interested in other people, including us, and quickly develops a rapport. The party bore is usually obsessed with facts. The interesting guest is genuinely interested in feelings, impressions and opinions, yours as much as hers. The party bore drones. The interesting guest offers us a variety of pace and topic. She keeps coming up with surprises. We can be interesting guests in our business letters and presentations too.

Build rapport

Nothing builds rapport as effectively as the Golden Rule of all Communication - focus on the reader. Never lose sight of the reader's interests, needs and motivation.

Don't tell your readers or audience what they already know. Here's an important rapport-building principle:

Acknowledging shared understanding builds rapport.
Telling people what they know erodes it.

Let's take an example.

You could use that expression "Please find enclosed our brochure". But the reader knows the brochure is there. It's bigger than your letter and probably fell out of the envelope on to the desk. 'Please find enclosed...' says you don't know that your reader has already found it.

A rapport-building alternative would be, 'You'll find the high performance model on page six of the brochure.' You are saying in effect, 'I know you have found the brochure and I remember that you were particularly interested in the high performance model'. You are acknowledging a shared understanding.

By the same reasoning, you can build rapport by leaving out some details. Usually you don't need to say 'Thank you for your letter of 17 March, outlining the problems you have had with our service department between 14 February and 28 February.' You could say 'Thank you for your letter. I have been looking into the problems you have had with the service department and...' In effect you are saying, "We both remember what the letter was about'.

Yes, but what if they don't remember what the letter is about, or you need the information for your paper trail?

It's simple. If you really think it's an issue, add Ref: your letter 17 March above the salutation. It's formal, but it gets the record-keeping out of the way so that you can concentrate on talking to your reader on paper.

Many people worry that if they don't say "Please find enclosed" and they forget to put the brochure in the reader won't know to ring them and ask for it. If you refer to your brochure in the letter your reader will know, but you can always put it beyond doubt by adding Encl: Brochure, 'Better Building Products' after your signature.

Always avoid telling your readers or audience what they already know. Instead, refer to it and move on.

Give them variety

Vary the length of your sentences and paragraphs. It can make an enormous difference to the visual appeal of your letter and your readers' motivation to keep reading. Give them variety for your presentations too. Varying the length of sentences and paragraphs will make them sound more appealing.

President John F. Kennedy knew the value of varying the length of sentences. Here's what he told a rapturous crowd of Berliners at the height of the cold war.

'There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the communist world.
Let them come to Berlin!
...And there are even a few who say that it's true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress.
Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen! Let them come to Berlin!'

It's regarded as one of the finest speeches of the century. It's easy to absorb and it even looks inviting in written form.

So what does Kennedy's speech have to do with business writing? Let's apply the idea of a long sentence followed by a short one to a business context.

'You asked me to keep you up to date with developments, so I want to mention that next Friday our managing director will be speaking to clients with a particular interest in packaging for Asian markets.
Would you like to come?'

You can do the same with paragraphs.

'Joan has shown the real value of having an operations manager with the skills and maturity to bring out the best in people, under pressure. In her five years with us she has always been focused on the goals of the company, yet has been a patient listener and even a confidante for many of the people in her team.
We strongly recommend her.'

Long, short is a pleasing effect, but don't let it become predictable. Notice how Kennedy comes up with a surprise. Just when you think he's going to say "Let them come to Berlin!" again, he says it in German and translates it. He surprises them. The party bore wouldn’t think of that.



Interested in a workshop on business writing for your team?

About Ralph Brown

ralph brown blog3

Ralph is our founder. He has a background in psychology, television journalism and business.

Ralph's passions are positive psychology and writing. He leads workshops on both and speaks to conferences on the psychology of thriving at work.

In 2011  Professional Speakers Australia awarded him its top speaking accreditation, the CSP.

He has written six books, six e-books and more than a hundred articles on psychology and writing. International research journals have published his articles reviewing the research on resilience.

Ralph lives in rural Canterbury. He is a JP and marriage celebrant and enjoys travelling to French-speaking countries.

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