The stadium planning meeting will be held at 2.00 pm on 4 November 1997. The venue is the client’s conference suite, where coffee will be served from 1.30 pm. I suggest we meet there at 1.45 pm. This will give us a few minutes to discuss crucial points. Please call to confirm this arrangement.
This is simple, effective writing. The meaning is absolutely clear. The writer has successfully communicated a few simple facts and requested one action from the recipient. The tone is business-like. The communication took very little time to write and even less time to read. Writing like this is extremely cost-effective. You need to produce effective writing, as above, for two reasons:
– to communicate simply and quickly
– to establish a good base for developing more advanced writing styles.
It is important to follow the five key rules which produce good, effective business communications:
✔ use simple words when simple words will do
✔ use simple constructions, with the key point first
✔make each sentence self-contained – as far as possible
✔use a sentence for one main concept only
✔write in the active voice.
Short, common words which are easy to read and understand should form the basis of effective business writing. Never use complex words unless you have to. Your writing will be more difficult to understand and may also sound pompous and old-fashioned.
Sometimes longer words are unavoidable – technical terms, product or place names and complex words specifically related to your business activities. The key part of the rule, therefore, is to use simple words when simple words will do.
Consider the following list:
What it says … What it means …
ascertain = find out
commencement = start
concerning = about
endeavour = try
foremost = first
initiate = begin
notwithstanding = despite
particulars = facts
pertaining = to about
remuneration = pay
sufficient = enough
supplementary = extra
Beware, also, of ‘extending’ words. These longer forms may cause confusion as they often have a slightly different meaning. Examples include:
event ➯ eventuality
documents ➯ documentation
use ➯ usage
method ➯ methodology
expenses ➯ expenditure
This does not mean that longer words should never be used – but think carefully about them. If in doubt, always choose the simple option.
Simple constructions, with the key point first
You should aim to get to the point quickly in a sentence, making the meaning clear as soon as possible. Achieve this using simple sentence constructions, starting, wherever possible, with the key element.
These examples show good and bad practice.
The meeting will be held in the client’s conference suite. ✔
The reader will read the word ‘meeting’ first. This introduces the topic, so that the reader is ready for information related to this topic.
The client’s conference suite is the venue for the meeting. ✗
This sentence is not incorrect, but it is not as effective as the earlier version. The reader will note that something is taking place; what it is will not immediately be clear. The key point is the meeting, not the conference suite. Here are two more examples to consider:
Company policy is to ensure the highest quality, at the lowest possible cost, in every area of our services. ✔
Ensuring the highest quality, at the lowest possible cost, in every area of our services, is the company policy. ✗
Juliette Smith has rejoined Plenith UK as marketing director; she was previously sales manager, before spending the last two years working in the USA. ✔
Now back from the USA where she has been working for the past two years, Juliette Smith has rejoined Plenith UK as marketing director; she was previously sales manager. ✗
This last example could be used in a situation where you were making a point about the USA, but in most situations Juliette Smith should be the key starting point.
Self-contained sentences – as far as possible
Try to recall how you read business communications. Do you begin at the beginning and work methodically through to the end? Probably not. Most of us ‘skim read’ documents looking for key points. Sometimes we return to a letter or document, re-reading certain sections. For this reason (and others) it is important to make sure as many of your sentences as possible are self-contained. This means that each sentence should work alone, without needing the preceding or following sentence to set it in context. Here are some examples:
The absence of a delivery note (or a copy of one) suggests that we did not receive the photographs. ✔
The absence of a delivery note (or a copy of one) suggests that we did not receive them. ✗
This is much later than we would have wished. ✗
In both the second and third examples the problem occurs with the ‘pronoun’. The pronouns ‘them’ and ‘This’ stand in the place of other words (nouns) and it is not clear to what they refer.
A sentence for one main concept only
Sentences containing one main concept or theme are easy to read. The main point is clear and easy to remember. Remember, however, that this rule applies to concepts, not facts. Even very simple sentences can contain more than one fact. These examples demonstrate the difference:
The purchase price is reasonable and affordable. ✔
This sentence tells us that the purchase price is reasonable. It also tells us that the purchase price is affordable. We now know two facts (or possibly opinions) about the purchase price. There is only one main concept.
The purchase price is reasonable and affordable and the building is situated alongside the main railway station. ✗
The writer in this sentence wants to provide information about both the price and the location – two concepts. One piece of information may obscure the other. Two separate sentences would be better.
Sometimes, of course, you will have closely linked concepts. Consider this example:
The purchase price is reasonable and the company should make an immediate bid. ✔
Write in the active voice
The best way to illustrate the difference between the active and passive voice is with two simple examples:
The company won the contract. (ACTIVE)
The contract was won by the company. (PASSIVE)
You should always be looking for the most direct, or active, form of the verb – the word that is ‘doing’ the action. Active verbs inevitably make the writing more dynamic and easier to understand. Sometimes you will convert a passive into an active, and discover an even simpler way of expressing
A payment was made by the company last Wednesday. ✗
The company made a payment last Wednesday. ✔
The company paid last Wednesday. ✔✔
Try not to think of punctuation as a necessary evil. Think of its:
– practical use – as a series of signposts to readers, indicating where ideas begin and end, where to pause, where to place emphasis, who is speaking, etc.
– creative use – to assist in conveying the tone of your communication, to add humour and interest and increase the impact of your sentences
– correct use – to avoid misleading the reader or creating an impression of you and your company as unprofessional.