Posted by Tim Bryce on April 20, 2015
BRYCE ON BUSINESS
– A crash course on writing for people in a business setting.
How a person writes for personal purposes is substantially different than how they should write for business. Whereas the former requires no discipline, the latter requires poise, discipline, and attention to detail. However, unless corrected or properly supervised, sloppy habits will inevitably turn up in business writings. Remarkably, companies spend little time teaching their employees how to write in various business situations. Consequently, troubles arise in sales and customer service settings, not to mention vendor relations.
There are many instances where it is necessary to write for business, be it through correspondence (letters, e-mails, and faxes), proposals (e.g., RFP, RFI. RFQ, etc.), feasibility studies, policies and memos, administrative procedures (manual processing instructions), audits, employee reviews, etc. Aside from possessing an understanding of grammar and language, it is necessary to convey a professional image. This sends an important message, the author does not take the subject matter lightly and should be regarded as competent and credible in the subject matter. To do so, the author must be cognizant of both the content and the format (packaging).
Narratives should be factual and represent a logical progression of ideas. Word choice and sentence structure should be kept simple. A verbose vocabulary can alienate readers as opposed to supporting your message. Likewise, avoid colloquial expressions (jargon-e-z-e and slang). Again, keep it simple. Above all, concentrate on benefits and how they will affect the other party. By doing so, the reader learns to appreciate your argument and “why” your message is important. Learn to write “tightly,” meaning avoid long and flowing sentences. Think economy of effort and keep it simple and to the point. By doing so, you are creating a professional image, not just of yourself, but of your company as well.
In terms of packaging, learn to divide paragraphs into smaller sections, separated by a space (as expressed herein). The intent is to encourage your readers to review your text, not avoid it. There should be sufficient margins to force the text to smaller and easier to digest sentences. It is also useful to highlight sections and key comments, either by using a bold font, italics, or an underline, but do not use such highlights excessively thereby becoming an amateurish distraction. In terms of fonts, stick with a standard, such as Arial and Times New Roman, the two most commonly used fonts in the world. Flashy fonts may be interesting, but if they hinder the ability to read your narrative, it is useless.
As another rule of thumb, avoid the use of jokes. In this day and age of political correctness, such humor can be misinterpreted and possibly lead to allegations of sexism and racism, and ultimately termination of employment.
The following are some basic tips for the different types of business writings:
– Observe the use of honorifics and titles in names, e.g., Mr. John Doe, Dr. Joe Smith, Ms. Betty Jones, Mrs. Sally Black, Director of Human Resources, Softweare Engineer, etc.
– Use the old military trick: begin by telling the reader what you are going to tell them; tell them; at the end, tell them what you have told them.
– Write an e-mail just as you would a business letter.
– Avoid the temptation to use slang, even in an e-mail.
– If you are writing a letter, consider printing it on some professional stock as opposed to plain white paper. The feel of paper adds a touch of class to your message.
– In most cases, it is necessary to follow the format as prescribed by the requester. This is particularly true in RFQ, RFI, RFP situations. If possible, investigate the names of the other vendors who will also be responding. In many cases, proposals are designed for a specific vendor. If so, do not waste your time and simply thank the requester for the opportunity to review the proposal.
– Give considerable thought to packaging the proposal for readability and to highlight key sections. Try to reflect a sense of class thereby reflecting well on your business.
– Respond to customer compliments, complaints, or suggestions tactfully and positively. If a customer becomes combative, it may be necessary to seek legal counsel.
Policy Manuals (aka “Employee Handbooks”) are tightly worded legal descriptions of the official policies of the company. Great care should be taken in writing policies, preferably by someone intimate with the policies and knowledge of legal wording. Although many companies ask law firms to write such documents, it can also be done internally by skilled writers. Policies address such things as Equal Employment Opportunity, Sexual Harassment, Hiring, Employment Agreement, Orientation and Training, Medical Procedures, Probation, Transfer, Promotion, Hours of Work, and much more.
Policy manuals typically organized by common types of policies and follow a numbering scheme for quick reference. Each policy is written with a definition of the policy, followed by terms, conditions, and additional notes; for example:
611:1 – USE OF PERSONAL ELECTRONIC DEVICES
Policy: It is critical that employees working with clients remain focused on the tasks
at hand and do not have any unnecessary distractions thereby promoting client satisfaction
as well as job safety. It is for this reason that the policy of the Company on portable
personal electronic devices such as I-pods, CD players, MP3 players, radios, video games,
computer multimedia software, etc. are prohibited for employees during working hours.
1. Disciplinary action may be taken against any employee who does not adhere to this policy.
– If a policy manual is written internally, it is a good idea to have an attorney review it before releasing it within the company.
Memorandums are now issued more by e-mail as opposed to on printed paper. Nonetheless, they should not be crafted frivolously as employees may misinterpret it and use it as an excuse for not executing an order. In fact, the fewer the memos, the better. However, if you have to issue a memo to one or more employees, write it particularly “tightly.” Define the purpose of the memo (why is it being issued), and explain what employees are expected to do about it. Instead of an electronic version, consider printing it on paper and ask for employees to initial it thereby confirming their understanding of it, and have it returned to the author.
Feasibility Studies are used to study a business problem or opportunity and recommend a course of action. There are six basic parts to any such study:
1. The PROJECT SCOPE which is used to define the business problem and/or opportunity to be addressed. The Scope should be definitive and to the point; rambling narrative serves no purpose and can actually confuse project participants. It is also necessary to define the parts of the business affected either directly or indirectly, including project participants and end-user areas affected by the project. The project sponsor should be identified, particularly if he/she is footing the bill.
2. The CURRENT ANALYSIS is used to define and understand the current method of implementation, such as a system, a product, etc. From this analysis, it is not uncommon to discover there is actually nothing wrong with the current system or product other than some misunderstandings regarding it or perhaps it needs some simple modifications as opposed to a major overhaul. Also, the strengths and weaknesses of the current approach are identified (pros and cons). In addition, there may very well be elements of the current system or product that may be used in its successor thus saving time and money later on. Without such analysis, this may never be discovered.
Analysts are cautioned to avoid the temptation to stop and correct any problems encountered in the current system analysis at this time. Simply document your findings instead, otherwise you will spend more time unnecessarily in this stage (aka “Analysis Paralysis”).
3. REQUIREMENTS – how requirements are defined depends on the object of the project’s attention. For example, how requirements are specified for a product are substantially different than requirements for an edifice, a bridge, or an information system. Each exhibits totally different properties and, as such, are defined differently.
4. The APPROACH represents the recommended solution or course of action to satisfy the requirements. Here, various alternatives are considered along with an explanation as to why the preferred solution was selected. In terms of design related projects, it is here where whole rough designs (e.g., “renderings”) are developed in order to determine viability. It is also at this point where the use of existing structures and commercial alternatives are considered (e.g., “build versus buy” decisions). The overriding considerations though are:
* Does the recommended approach satisfy the requirements?
* Is it also a practical and viable solution?
A thorough analysis here is needed in order to perform the next step…
5. EVALUATION – examines the cost effectiveness of the Approach selected. This begins with an analysis of the estimated total cost of the project. In addition to the recommended solution, other alternatives are estimated in order to offer an economic comparison. For development projects, an estimate of labor and out-of-pocket expenses is assembled along with a project schedule showing the project path and start-and-end dates.
After the total cost of the project has been calculated, a cost and evaluation summary is prepared which includes such things as a cost/benefit analysis, return on investment, etc.
6. REVIEW – all of the preceding elements are then assembled into a Feasibility Study and a formal review is conducted with all parties involved. The review serves two purposes: to substantiate the thoroughness and accuracy of the Feasibility Study, and to make a project decision; either approve it, reject it, or ask that it be revised before making a final decision. If approved, it is very important that all parties sign the document which expresses their acceptance and commitment to it; it may be a seemingly small gesture, but signatures carry a lot of weight later on as the project progresses. If the Feasibility Study is rejected, the reasons for its rejection should be explained and attached to the document.
– For busy executives, provide a cover page with an “Executive Summary” stating the highlights of the study, such as its business purpose and why it is necessary to pursue this problem/opportunity, the type of requirements being addressed, the proposed solution, costs, and the return on investment. In other words, this is where the real “sales job” is performed.
After completing a major project, it is a good idea to conduct what is called a “Project Audit.” The idea is to document what went right and wrong during a project and, hopefully, learn something beneficial from the experience. The Project Auditor should analyze the following:
1. Estimated versus Actual schedules and estimates (both costs and time).
2. A final Cost/Benefit Analysis should be prepared which, hopefully, can be compared to one prepared in the initial Feasibility Study.
3. If the project is product oriented (to design and develop something), an analysis of the finished product versus its design specifications should be prepared.
4. Conduct interviews with project participants to gather insight as to what went right and wrong.
The final report should be professionally prepared and presented to pertinent managers and executives to study. The presentation should be somewhat clinical in nature as the presenter should avoid both disparaging and complimentary remarks as they may offend someone. Just be matter-of-fact in the presentation and let the reviewers come to their own conclusions.
If you are charged with maintaining a corporate blog, you must always be mindful the blog is a window to your corporate world. Extra care must be considered when stating policy or issuing a press release. Do not open the kimono unnecessarily. Review the wording carefully, but it is also wise to have another set of eyes carefully review the postings before releasing it, someone in authority or perhaps an attorney.
For all postings, be sure to include copyright notation to show the business is the owner of the work and it is not to be redistributed without permission. Sample notation:
“Copyright (c) 2015 by ABC Company. All rights reserved.”
It has long been customary in business to periodically evaluate employee performance, such as 30 days after hiring, or at regular intervals, such as annually or bi-annually. The purpose is to have the manager assess the employee’s strengths and weaknesses, and make recommendations for improvement. The intent is to help the employee improve as a worker as opposed to assassinate his character. Reviewing an employee with malicious intent is just plain wrong, as is giving a rosy review, both are detrimental to communicating to the employee where they stand in the eyes of management and how they can improve themselves. Present your analysis, matter-of-factly, and provide suggestions for the employee to improve.
The use of standard forms for this task is strongly recommended.
Writing procedures for people is much more difficult than for computers. Computers will do whatever you ask, right or wrong, at great speed. In contrast, writing for the human being is more difficult as people are more emotional and can be lazy and uncooperative at times. Writing procedures for people, therefore, can be an arduous task. Instituting writing standards can materially help in bringing about consistency to this task and should be encouraged.
One technique we have found to be beneficial is “Playscript” developed by Les Matthias and ultimately based on scripts to a play. There are just three parts to a Playscript Procedure:
1. Purpose – a concise statement expressing the business purpose of the procedure and for whom it is intended to be used.
2. Setup – a listing of the inputs and outputs (forms and screens) the user will need access to, as well as other pertinent software and hardware.
3. Operational Steps – a numerically listed set of steps to execute the procedure, written with the following rules:
- (a) Begin each new Operation with a verb; samples include:
(b) DO NOT begin the first sentence of the operational step with a condition clause, such as “if,” “when” or “should.” Begin the sentence with “compare” or “evaluate” as a verb; for example:
“Compare the value of DD-1 to DD-2; if DD-1 is greater than DD-2, go to step 4; if DD-2 is greater than DD-1, go to step 27.”
If a single operational step is complicated, it may be divided into sub-sections; for example:
“Evaluate the value of DD-1:
a. If DD-1 equals 1, go to step 2.
b. If DD-2 equals 2, go to step 6.”
For additional info, see “The New Playscript Procedure” by Les Matthies.
There are some other simple rules to observe when writing for business:
1. Use present tense. Avoid future tense (using shall or will) unless you are actually referring to a future event, or you want to make a strong promise or threat.
- Incorrect: Systems Engineering will then prepare a cost/benefit analysis.
Correct: (a) Systems Engineering next prepares a cost/benefit analysis.
(b) Systems Engineering will prepare a cost/benefit analysis when requested by Systems Resource Management.
2. Use functional titles rather than personal pronouns. For example:
- Systems Engineering vs. Systems Engineer
- Data Resource Management vs. Data Resource Manager
- Project Management vs. Project Manager
3. Other considerations:
- (a) Begin a sentence with “When” rather than “Once.”
- (b) Say “help with” rather than “help in.”
- (c) Do not begin a sentence with “Because” or “Therefore.”
- (d) Replace LASTLY with FINALLY.
- (e) Do not begin sentences with words like FIRSTLY, SECONDLY, or THIRDLY.
- (f) Beware of the excessive use of the words. “that” and “which”, two words tending to be used excessively. For each occurrence of the word in your text, ask yourself if you can reconstruct the sentence without it.
- (g) Avoid the use of words with apostrophe (n’t), (‘v), (‘s) and (‘re) words, such as: can’t, haven’t, I’ve, isn’t, etc. This leads to sloppy writing habits. Spell them out instead.
And by all means, please learn to use spell and grammar checkers as found in word processing software.
Cultivating a professional image in business writing requires discipline and practice. Herein, I have covered the fundamentals for the sake of brevity. Obviously, there is much more to be discussed.
Again, remember, begin by telling the reader what you are going to tell them; tell them; at the end, tell them what you have told them.
When writing for business, it is perhaps best to remember the following quote from Michelangelo, “Trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle.”
Keep the Faith!
Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.
Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M&JB Investment Company (M&JB) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at email@example.com
For Tim’s columns, see: timbryce.com
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Copyright © 2015 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.
NEXT UP: THE BUDGET BATTLE – Just how badly do we want to manage the budget?
LAST TIME: NOT INVENTED HERE COMPLEX – Where pompous egos incur considerable expense and wastes a lot of time.
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