Eighteen Secrets to Becoming an Influential Business Writer
Does it really matter if you can write great emails or compelling company reports? After all, it’s more important to make sure your message gets out, right? Wrong. Unless your business writing convinces people to act, you might as well save yourself time and get someone else to take care of your written communications. Becoming an influential business writer is about more than simply sending your message out to all of your contacts.
Strong writing skills position you as an expert (after all, how can people recognize you as an expert if you can’t communicate your ideas effectively), set you apart from average business writers, eliminate confusion by introducing clarity to your writing, and win you business.
If you don’t feel like your writing skills are strong, don’t give up – business writing is a skill that can be learned like any other skill.
Here are 18 easy tips you can implement today. If you don’t see something here, feel free to add it to the comments section so we can all benefit.
Becoming an influential business writer
Know your objectives and audience. Before you can decide how to write any business communication, you need to know why you are writing it and who you are writing it for. It sounds obvious, but too much business writing is vague because these elements aren’t decided on before writing. And, when you decide these things at the beginning, it’s much easier to get the tone and language right.
Begin at the end. Remember essay writing in high school where you slowly led your reader to your conclusion? Lose that habit quickly for business writing. You only have a few seconds to capture your reader’s attention, so get to the point in the first two sentences.
Use a conversational, personal tone. How are you going to build a relationship with people if you write in an overly formal tone? Trust me, we’ve all gotten enough of that in high school and university – we don’t need to be bombarded with formal writing. Write for humans, not robots and write as if you were speaking to a friend. Only a few situations require a formal tone.
Write for your readers. Like it or not, this isn’t about you. Unless you’re writing to tell someone of a milestone you’ve reached, then your business writing should be about your readers. Knowing your audience will help you write for them.
Use real-world examples. One of the best ways to influence your readers is to give them examples. Influential business writers use storytelling techniques to convince readers of their message. Stories connect readers on a human level and help them see how something they’ve read can apply in their own lives.
Skip the jargon. I bet some of you use industry jargon or buzzwords and don’t even realize it. Here are a few examples: bring to the table, push the envelope, actionable, ideation, streamline, pain point. What’s wrong with them? Nothing, except that they are often tired phrases and words that annoy your readers. Jargon makes it clear that you are an insider and your reader is an outsider – not a good way to build relationships.
Use the active voice. This is so important that I’ll say it again – use active rather than passive voice. If you’re not sure why think about the words themselves: do you run a passive or active business? Action moves your business forward in the same way that active voice moves your writing forward, while passive voice obfuscates and often omits critical information. As much as possible, tell your readers who is doing what in a clear way.
Watch your nouns and verbs. Much like active voice, your word choices can also propel your prose forward or cause it to stall. Rely on strong verbs and nouns rather than adverbs and adjectives. That doesn’t mean you should get ride of descriptive words but incorporate them judiciously.
Follow conventional grammar and punctuation rules. Okay, there are times when I ignore the rules. So, let’s modify this tip and say it’s important to know the rules so you know when it’s okay to break them. For the most part, following conventions makes your writing easier to understand and keeps readers on your side. There’s no need to sound like a stuffy professor, but don’t make silly mistakes that annoy your reader.
Facts over opinion. Business writing should be filled with facts rather than personal opinion. Of course, if you’re positioning yourself as an expert and can back your opinion up with facts, then do so. But don’t think that it’s sufficient to tell readers they should believe you simply because you say something. Give them concrete reasons to agree with you.
Shorter is better. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been bored to tears more than once by business documents that aren’t focused. When writing any business document, don’t go off on tangents that detract from your message and can be annoying. You know what it’s like when Uncle Joe starts a “quick story” and 30 minutes later has started three new stories without finishing the first one. Don’t do that to your readers.
Use an outline. Yes, outlines work. If Uncle Joe used an outline, he wouldn’t go off on tangents so easily. Even a short email can benefit from an outline scratched onto scrap paper so you remember all your points, only cover what is necessary and get the structure right.
Be concise. Filler words are the bane of editors. Here’s some you’ve probably seen and may even use yourself: in my opinion, in other words, to be clear, in conclusion, in fact, to be honest, on this date. The list is almost endless. One of the most time-consuming parts of editing many of the manuscripts I work on is eliminating filler words. They’re marshmallows: full of air, but with no substance. Get rid of every word and phrase in your draft that doesn’t have a purpose. Your readers will thank you.
Say it once. In line with being concise, don’t repeat the same concept with different words. If you’ve written clearly, give your readers the benefit of the doubt – they will get your message without you repeating it. Now, a summary or conclusion is the obvious exception to the rule. And, if something is really important, then repeat it in a way that makes the reader take notice like I did for the tip about passive voice. That’s not filler, that’s emphasis.
Be honest and transparent. Dishonest business writing can come across like sleazy ad copy from the Mad Men era. Readers can usually sense when you aren’t being honest, and you don’t want to cause your readers to question you and your business. If you’re honest about business challenges, they will appreciate that and trust that you take care of problems.
Build trust. It’s difficult to be an influential business writer if your readers don’t trust you. Word choice, active voice, writing for your readers and honesty and transparency all help build a sense of trust.
Look for layered meanings. This is a challenging tip, but well worth the effort. Hidden meanings, negative connotations and cultural stereotypes can expose your perspective even when you don’t want that. Hidden meanings are most often found in word choices, so carefully think about each word you include.
Include a clear call to action. We most often think of calls to action for marketing materials. But incorporate them into everyday business writing when appropriate. Clear calls to action help you become an influential business writer because they generate action, which should be the goal of the majority of your business writing. If you decide on your objective at the beginning of the writing process, you’ll find it easy to include a call to action because you already know what steps you want the reader to take.
Each of these tips will take some practice to incorporate into your daily writing. There’s no need to do everything at once – begin with a few things that you feel you need to work on the most. Then slowly add the others until they become habit. Over time you’ll master the art of becoming an influential business writer.
Something missing from this list? Add it in the comments. And if you have any questions, let me know.
If you’re struggling with the technical aspects of writing, here are a couple of my favourite resources.