Did you know that we spend almost 3 hours per day on email alone at work? According to research from McKinsey, we spend more time reading and answering emails than communicating verbally with our colleagues and customers.
It comes as no surprise, then, the need to pay attention to the way we write. From emails to presentations, reports to promotional copy, we all need a solid foundation in how to write to explain, to instruct, to describe and perhaps even to influence or persuade. How can we do this effectively?
It makes sense that each kind of document has its own particular style and so it’s important to familiarise yourself with each type. Reports are quite formal, so consider the vocabulary choice – ‘require’ rather than ‘need’, for example.
Email tends to be more neutral or informal (certainly compared to letters that we wrote in the past). In this case, it means often using first names; signing off with ‘kind regards’ or ‘best wishes’ (rather than yours sincerely). An interesting development in English is also the use of ‘gender-neutral’ language: using ‘they’ and ‘their’ rather than he or she (e.g A researcher has to be objective in their findings).
As mentioned in the introduction, consider your aim and purpose for writing. Is it to provide information, for example, describing trends (increase, decrease, rise, fall sharply etc) or do you need to inspire, motivate or influence your team or customer?
Include sub-headings and contents in longer documents (more than one page). This gives your reader a map to follow and also makes it easier for them to find the part they really want. For presentations, use bullet points and keep your points brief.
When preparing this in your second language, it is easy to write too much information as it helps you remember the information and the language. But, for the audience it is information overload. Better to spend time practicing from note cards, as TED speakers do, or rehearsing until you know your presentation more deeply (this also helps you later to handle questions).
With so many emails to write and so many reports to read, the ability to be concise and precise is crucial. Link your ideas in straightforward ways – and, so, but, however – to help your reader glide through your piece.
Of course, you need to use the specialist terms related to your industry but keep the language around it simple so follow the simple sentence structure of English: subject, verb, object.
Read through your work once you have finished. It’s embarrassing to find a typo or a figure typed inaccurately. It is tempting to hit the send button immediately, especially when the grammar and spell-checker seems to give you the all clear!
However, taking another 5 minutes to read through is sometimes all it takes to spot a mistake or to emphasise important information. For longer reports, why not get a colleague to read it through before you distribute it widely? Of course, you can also keep your most eloquent examples of writing to use as a template for future use.
Lastly, your own company internal documents can be an excellent source of sample documents and one-to-one training can help you focus on your individual needs and create sample documents.
Otherwise, consult some Business English materials such as the Cambridge Exam course materials for BEC.