Lecture 2: Defining Good Business Writing
What Strong Written Communication Looks Like
Business writing refers to written communications at or on behalf of companies and other organisations, and for managing personal business affairs. Good written communications are based on the principles and techniques common to all writing, adapted to the purposes of business, which are centred on transactions. Busines communications seek to convince audiences to take certain actions.
For the sake of conciseness, I use “businesspeople” to refer to professionals working at government departments, cultural institutions, charities, and other organisations, as well as those employed by companies or firms. The word also applies to individuals dealing with personal business.
Business communications formats have evolved rapidly over the past few decades. But the principles of good writing such as using clear, simple words to engage and convince, apply to tweets, blogs, and listicles as much as they do to business reports and white papers.
Content and academic writing
The aim of business writing is directly or indirectly related to an exchange of money. For example, user’s instructions tell the buyer how to get the most out of their purchase while technical support helps them deal with difficulties due to the complex nature of the product or a fault. Business writing includes communications involved in running the business, for example, human resources, marketing, and billing.
Good business writing aims to convince potential clients, customers, or other associates who do not necessarily share the writer’s expertise. Therefore, the writer should use language the audience can understand. The writer should also be concise and focus on the needs and expectations of the audience.
Content writing is a form of business writing aimed at marketing goods and services through a sort of “soft” advertising. This includes blogposts, advertorials, scripts for videos or podcasts, and posts tailored to different social media platforms. Like other forms of business writing, content writing seeks to engage an audience. However, it is less direct and may only mention the organisation sponsoring the content briefly.
Many new recruits enter the business world relying on what they learned about writing at university without adapting to the world of work. Academic writing aims to demonstrate mastery of a subject. The primary audience is usually academics, classmates, examiners, researchers, or other specialists in a field. Because the target audience shares the writer’s expertise in a field, academic writing is usually full of abstract words denoting concepts, theories, and categories.
You can read more about the differences between business writing, content writing, and academic writing by clinking here to read my blogpost.
Poor written business communications
According to Josh Bernoff writing in the Daily Beast in 2017, bad writing has a big impact on businesses. The struggle to make sense of poorly written material consumes 22 percent of the worktime of American managers and employees. This amounts to almost 6 percent of total wages, or $400 billion each year, which is more than half the cost of running Medicare.
But we do not need to cite studies to know that a lot of business communications are poorly written. All we need to do is open our inboxes or post boxes or glance at brochures slipped under our doors or thrust into our hands. User’s manuals, prospectuses, insurance policies, contracts, and guidance notes on completing income-tax forms are often difficult reading. How many of us understand the data-protection laws that purport to guard our privacy?
Poor business writing creates opportunity
The poor quality of business communications creates an opportunity for companies and individuals who try to address their audiences in language they understand with information that will help them meet their needs.
“The one easy way to become worth 50 percent more than you are now — at least — is to hone your communication skills — both written and verbal,” Warren Buffett, chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway and one of the world’s richest people, said in a video posted on cnbc.com in December 2018. “If you can’t communicate, it’s like winking at a girl in the dark — nothing happens. You can have all the brainpower in the world, but you have to be able to transmit it.”
Scope of this crash course
This crash course aims to help you transform the way you write by teaching you to recognise jargon, clutter, and confusing language in your own writing. The course explains how plain language transforms poor or mediocre business writing into strong prose that gets ideas, products, and services recognised. Many business subjects involve complexity. The goal of business writing is to make complexity understandable to an audience of existing or potential clients or customers.
What you will learn in this course is covered in greater depth in my online course, Master the Key Business Writing Skills in Six Weeks. You can find out more about that course here. A premium version of the course includes individual feedback from me, your instructor, on exercises, discussions, and any questions students may have.
Both courses contain six sections with lecturers, quizzes, exercises, and model answers. Ideally, students will go through one section per week. However, the courses are self-paced: students can go through the lessons as slowly or quickly as they like.
The conundrum of business writing
Businesspeople have a wealth of knowledge, skills, and experience. They also represent increasingly complicated, sophisticated, and technologically advanced goods and services. Moreover, in almost every field, competition is fiercer than ever.
This means business communications must compete for attention in an age of information overload. Businesspeople have more explaining to do because of the complexity of what they have to offer.
Potential clients and customers are inundated with choice and information. But they do not have the expertise to understand the increasingly complex products and services. Nor do they have a lot of time. What they want to know is what is in it for them.
A common tendency I have discovered among businesspeople is to try to impress their audience by cramming in as much information as possible. They may use jargon, terminology, buzzwords, and multisyllabic words to demonstrate their expertise. Many businesspeople rely on generalisations to spare the audience having to read “boring detail.”
This approach often backfires because the audience does not understand the jargon and other difficult vocabulary. Potential clients and customers are overwhelmed by the amount of information available. Good written communications aim to spare the target audience the tedium of having to look up definitions of words and phrases.
Business communications should spare readers boring details. But that does not mean they should use generalisations and provide no or few details. Potential and existing clients and customers do want to read and hear the interesting detail that will help them understand a proposition and whether it fits their needs.
Too often the information that companies and organisations offer is not the information that readers need. Customers and clients want to see evidence, the “hard facts,” to judge whether a product or service will help them. Given two potential suppliers with the same product or service, they will opt for the one that delivers the clearest, most concise, convincing argument for why their offer is superior to those of rival organisations.
Defining “good” business writing
Different people may have different opinions about the quality of a piece of business writing, or even about the essential qualities of good business writing. For our purposes we will consider effective business communications to have the following qualities:
Clear: Your target audience must be able to understand effortlessly
Concise: To ensure your audience does not get bored or does not have time to get through your communication
Convincing: You need to provide facts/evidence to convince your audience
Engaging: Grab audience from first sentence and hold their attention