A guide to professional written communication
Linda Wilkin, ABE’s head of marketing and editor of Focus magazine, shares tips to help you polish your prose to perfection and enhance your professional reputation.
Almost every job in business requires some form of written communication. The ability to do so in a professional and succinct manner will ensure your words are treated with the respect they deserve.
The golden rule with professional communications is less is more. People are busy. They just want the facts, so here are some tips to help.
1. Make your words earn their place
In speech, we all use unnecessary words. However, written correspondence is much easier to absorb when sentences are short. When you write professionally make sure every word adds meaning, clarity or context. If a word can be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning or context, then that word hasn't earned its place on your valuable page.
Here is an example, the sentence:
“Obviously, when we are communicating with other people we need to make sure that we absolutely always try our very hardest to make use of the clearest and very best sentences that we possibly can.”
“When communicating we need to try hard to use clear sentences.”
This is an extreme example but shows how 35 words can be condensed to twelve and gain clarity.
The other thing to avoid is repeating the same word lots of times in a paragraph. If you find there’s a word you need to use a lot in your work – for me it’s “diploma” - make a list of possible alternatives. I’ve come up with qualification, certificate, programme, credential and award.
2. No waffle
Once you have sorted out your words the next step is to double-check that every sentence and every paragraph is necessary. If your sentences are clear there is no need to emphasise the same point in several sentences.
“Don’t overemphasise your point. You only need to make the same point once. You don’t need to write several sentences that are conveying the same information.”
“Make your point in one sentence.”
3. Break up text
Nothing makes a busy executive’s heart sink faster than the sight of lengthy paragraphs running into several pages. A basic rule is if there are more than three or four paragraphs in your correspondence, give subject headings, bullet points or numbers. It will immediately become more inviting to read. Plus, headings are a good way to double-check you have covered each point you need to address.
An example is this article which is broken up with numbered headings. If it wasn’t, it would look really long-winded and you probably wouldn’t have read this far.
4. Look professional
Check your layout looks attractive and appealing. Look for a nice font. If you use bold or colour use it consistently. If you use too many options such as colour, underline, capitals and bold the effect can end up confusing and messy. So sit back and look at the overall appearance of your correspondence.
Avoid writing words in capital letters, except in headings. It’s the visual equivalent of SHOUTING at your reader.
Have a professional email signature which provides your full contact details so people can get back to you easily. Many countries have legal requirements for correspondence sent on behalf of an organisation. In the UK, for example, an email from a Limited company must include the following:
- Your company's registered name
- The registration number
- The place of registration
- The registered office address
5. Always aim to improve
I have a folder called “Good examples”. Anything I am sent that looks particularly impressive goes in here. It gives me inspiration and ideas.
6. It’s all about the reader
Tailor your information to what the recipient might want or need to know. A way to do this is to imagine you are the reader. With sales or marketing communication, tailor the information to the benefits the user will get from your product or service rather than just describing them. If you are providing information about your company don’t bother with unnecessary facts.
For example, if writing about ABE, I could say:
"ABE is an examination board and skills development specialist. We work with businesses to develop workforce skills, help schools teach young people entrepreneurship and work with partner organisations on capacity building programmes. ABE is a company limited by guarantee and is, therefore, a not-for-profit organisation based in New Malden, Greater London, it was founded in 1973."
But if the reader was someone considering taking an ABE Diploma, this would be more relevant:
"For five decades ABE has been designing qualifications that develop the skills you need to succeed in your career, stand out in the workplace and progress to the highest academic levels.
We are not-for-profit which means we endeavour to bring you high-quality qualifications at an affordable cost. Plus, our Diplomas are accredited by Ofqual, as well as equivalent bodies worldwide, which means you will gain a qualification internationally recognised and known for its quality and integrity."
7. Check, check and check again
Sending correspondence with spelling or grammar mistakes can earn you an immediate delete or filing in the bin. It suggests a slapdash, uncaring attitude and the perception that you are unprofessional. This isn't really fair because we all struggle to spot our own mistakes.
If I have time, I leave important correspondence overnight so that I can look at it as a fresh piece of work the next day. This way, I see what I actually wrote, rather than what was in my head.
Another proofing tip is to print your writing and read aloud ticking each word as you say it. Having to tick and say the word makes you focus on exactly what is on the page. Plus, hearing the sentence is a great way to judge its clarity.
It goes without saying, don’t ever forget to use your computer’s spell checker.
8. Be polite
It’s good to be succinct but not to the point where you come across as rude. For example:
“Deliver my order before 3 pm on Tuesday.”
Could give you a grumpy supplier, whereas this would sound so much better:
“Please deliver my order before 3 pm on Tuesday.”
Also, if someone annoys you, don’t write back straight away. Give yourself a chance to cool down and then compose a measured response. Your professional correspondence should never contain personal insults no matter how frustrated you feel.
9. Your conclusion
There are various closures to correspondence. The basic rules are:
Dear Sir or Madam = Yours faithfully
Dear Mr or Mrs = Yours sincerely
Hi or Hey = Best wishes or Kind regards
For most of us written correspondence is a daily task and nobody gets it right all the time. One of the things I love about my job is that communication can constantly be refined and improved - but I’ll never learn to love proofreading!
Hopefully, you won’t have spotted too many extra words or unnecessary sentences in this piece but there's always room for improvement.
|Words or phrases to check:|
There is no hard a fast rule to this, so use your judgement and the context. With this in mind, here is a list of words and phrases that are, frequently, unnecessary: