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?
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.
Break out. Forget the clichés and the rules that say you must start in a formal way. There are no rules, only 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.
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 too, 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.
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.
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 can do the same with paragraphs.
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.