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THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
How to get more out of business writing
by Ilja van Roon

How to get more out of business writingConsider the vast amount of text that your organisation produces. Picture the sea of e-mails and the stack of reports you receive on an annual basis. And think of the countless proposals and plans you write for your colleagues or clients.

Business writing, the process by which such texts are created, is a pervasive activity within any organisation.

It’s an internal dialogue - much like the human brain that spends most of its energy talking to itself - with tremendous impact on your organisation’s ability to compete.

Good business writing can capture knowledge, align people with the organisation’s strategy, and catalyse organisational change. It can also be a superb tool for corporate communication and sales purposes.

Jaded
The operative word is ‘can’, because in my experience few organisations – or individual entrepreneurs for that matter – make optimal use of business writing.

There are two reasons for this.

First of all, some organisations aren’t fully adjusting to the fact that stakeholders are becoming fed up with spin doctoring and corporate doublespeak.

They are increasingly irritated by hyperbolic claims of something or other being ‘cutting edge’, ‘leading’ and ‘innovative’. And they switch off when they hear buzz words like ‘synergy’ and ‘high performance’.

Today, employees, customers and investors demand clear and authentic communication. They want to be empowered and free to decide what something means. And they wish to be addressed in an intelligent and genuine way.

Organisations unable to comply run the risk of alienating crucial allies.

Lack of training
A second obstacle to making optimal use of business writing is that few entrepreneurs, professionals and managers are trained writers.

Of course, there are communication specialists who take care of the prominent writing products – articles and brochures for example – but 95% of writing within organisations occurs outside of their control.

Business writing is the elephant in the organisation’s room.

It shouldn’t be. Writing is not an arcane form of art, but a skill like leadership that matures with training and experience. Writing talent helps, but good writing is essentially built on thorough preparation and disciplined execution.

This means that anyone can write business material to at least a reasonable level of proficiency.

Principles, strategies and focused execution
The question is, how do you become a proficient writer? Or, taking a different perspective, what is the underlying structure of a good text?

In my view, a good text should be based on the 7 principles of business writing. These are

· 1 Focus: adjust the scope and scale of your writing to influence the attitude and behaviour of your readers. Develop a brief and outline, execute these consistently.

· 2 Purpose: identify the purpose of what you are writing about and connect it to your readers’ values, beliefs and ambitions. Avoid buzz, embrace relationships and use sensory language.
· 3 Meaning: be precise in your use of language. Do not write what something is, explain what it means to people and the organisation.

· 4 Substance: empower and respect your readers by allowing them to critically evaluate your claims. Elaborate or provide verifiable proof, ideally from independent outsiders.

· 5 Structure: use sequence, consistency, guidance and balance to build a structure that guides your reader though the text.

· 6 Clarity: find the essence of your story, make it self-evident, describe it simply and economically, structure it logically and make the whole thing flow.

· 7 Humility: be humble while writing and editing. Critically judge your work, recognise dissenting views, avoid spin doctoring, be genuine.

You should see these 7 principles as the DNA of your story. If you apply them during the writing process – no matter how complex your topic or how large your text - you will end up with a text that is clear and compelling.

Smart strategy
Good writing also means having a smart writing strategy.

Such a strategy should be based on a thorough understanding of the strategic and operational business context of your writing. But you also need to think about how the topic of your text relates to your reader’s sense of purpose and identity.

Good writing targets the intellectual and the emotional state of your readers.

In addition, good writing comes from focused execution, particularly when several people are involved in the writing process. You should assign roles, determine the rules of the game, and be able to manage conflicting interests.

Editing is vital, too. By having the guts and humility to scrap and polish, the text you write will become more persuasive. The famous ’80-20’ rule applies: a good writer spends 20% of this time writing and 80% of this time editing.

Powerful magic
Language is a powerful kind of magic. It allows stakeholders to express what they think and feel. Conversely, language influences their attitude and behaviour.

If organisations are to harness this power, they better start taking a more structured approach to writing and treat is as a regular business discipline.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ilja van Roon from Lucid Communication (www.lucidcommunication.nl) writes about global business, geopolitics, and technology for Fortune 500 executives, government ministers and entrepreneurs. His book “Capture. Deliver. Excel.” explains how to apply the principles of business writing and is available as a free download from www.capturedeliverexcel.com.

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