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Business Writing Tips for Technical Communicators
2010, Q4 (December 14, 2010)
By Andrea Wenger, Carolina Chapter Vice President


Technical communication tends to focus on delivering objective information in a clear, accurate, and accessible way. Business writing, on the other hand, often has an emotional component. Sometimes we have to deliver bad news. Sometimes we need to gather information from people already stressed because they’re busy with other things. Here are some tips for effective business writing.

1. Soften the blow.

When delivering bad news, explain in a complimentary way why you’re saying no. When possible, suggest an alternative solution.

I received your request to reprint the Industrial Widgets catalog, which I understand is an important resource for our sales team. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, my department can no longer pay for catalog reprints. If your department has budget available to cover the cost, I’ll be happy to get you a quote from the print vendor.

2. Don’t over-explain

Too much detail can lead to an emotional reaction or a back-and-forth dispute. If a decision is final, be brief and impersonal.

Thank you for submitting your proposal to the XYZ conference. We received many outstanding proposals this year and could not accommodate them all. Unfortunately, yours was not chosen. We hope you will consider submitting again next year.

Compare the above to the following:

Thank you for submitting your proposal to the XYZ conference. Unfortunately, your proposal was not chosen. We received more than a dozen proposals on your topic. We decided to go with the one submitted by Joe Bigshot, an internationally known speaker. If you decide to submit next year, you might want to select a less trendy topic.

This version could lead to an angry missive about how Joe Bigshot gives the same presentation every blasted year, and he mentions his business no less than seven—seven!—times, and it amounts to free advertising, since it’s really a marketing presentation, not an educational one.

You don’t want to go there.

3. Passive voice can be your friend.

Passive voice isn’t always bad. Sometimes it’s preferable to take the focus off the actor, particularly when you’re the one saying no (and for reasons beyond your control). Instead of “I can’t make the changes you requested,” it might be better to write, “The changes you requested cannot be made because they constitute an implied warranty.”

4. Avoid placing blame.

Unless it’s absolutely necessary, don’t point fingers. Write “The project has been delayed because the last round of markups were received after the due date,” not “The project has been delayed because Nancy returned her last round of markups after the due date.” Nancy won’t appreciate your suggestion that she’s at fault for the project delay. Maybe her son was hospitalized, or she found an error that required additional testing, or she was working on a higher-priority project for her boss. Even if everyone on the document development team knows that Nancy had a legitimate reason for being late, that e-mail could resurface at a later date and make Nancy look bad.

5. Don’t overload your e-mails.

People often skim e-mail messages. If you include more than one point in a message, use a numbered list to communicate action items. Otherwise, readers could miss something. Remember, it’s your responsibility to ensure that your message was received and understood.

6. Use relevant subject lines.

Be concise but specific in your subject line. Instead of “Industrial Widgets Catalog,” use “Industrial Widgets Catalog Markups due January 18.” This helps readers prioritize the message on days when they’re overloaded. If the subject matter of an e-mail chain changes along the way, change the subject line accordingly.

7. Don’t blind copy without notifying the recipients.

Consider the following scenario: Ella, a writer on your team, sends an e-mail to you and Sergio, another writer. The three of you exchange several e-mails on the subject, selecting Reply All. The messages use a casual tone, department slang, and maybe an inside joke. Then, after 5 or 6 such exchanges, you receive an e-mail from Clint, the product manager, which shows that Clint was blind copied on Ella’s original message—and all the replies that you and Sergio sent were copied to Clint as well. How angry would you be at Ella? Would you ever trust her again?

Blind copying should be reserved for situations where you want to send a message to multiple recipients, but you don’t want all their e-mail addresses to be visible. When using the bcc feature in this way, it’s courteous to add a note saying. “You have been blind copied to avoid a long distribution list.”

8. Remember that written communication isn’t always the best option.

Technical communicators may prefer written communication. But when the material is sensitive in some way, it’s better to pick up the phone or to meet in person than to send an e-mail or IM.
  • If you’re a regular viewer of NBC’s The Office, you’ll recall the episode where Michael accidently e-mailed a compromising photo of himself and his boss—intended for his friend Packer—to the Packaging department. Within minutes, the e-mail had made its way through the company. Michael’s mistake was not just in selecting the wrong recipient. It was also in assuming that no one but the recipient would ever see the message.
  • Once you hit Send, you have no control over where your e-mail messages end up. Don’t rely on the discretion of others. In general, don’t put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want your boss, your competitor, your mother, your worst enemy, or a jury to see. If you must send confidential information via e-mail, be sure to mark it as such in the subject and in the body.
  • If you need a quick response, the phone is often the best choice. Or you can send an e-mail to provide the data, then follow up with a phone call.
  • If the exchange is likely to be emotional, or if you may need to adapt your approach based on the other person’s reaction, then a phone call or face-to-face meeting is appropriate.
Business communication isn’t just about conveying information—it’s about building relationships. A sensitivity to the needs of the recipient is key to your success.

Source: “Business Writing: A Guide to Clear, Concise, Effective Writing,” by PBP Executive Reports
Web site: http://valores2020.org/archives/1046

Andrea is a senior technical writer at Schneider Electric. She blogs about writing and personality at andreajwenger.com. She can be reached at andreajwenger at gmail dot com. End of article.

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