This guide summarizes the most important principles that inform CommuniSkills’ highly praised business communication classes.
It’s really about thinking
Clear writing requires clear thinking. A well-written message is possible only if it reflects sound, evidence-based business thinking. We’ve often said that our writing classes should have been titled “Good Thinking” instead of “Good Writing,” because that’s where the greatest value is found.
Rule #1: “Write for your readers”
Everything you see in this material derives from Rule #1: “Write for your readers, not for yourself.” We’re not saying you should tell the readers what they want to see. Instead, you should focus on answering the questions your readers must have answered in order to do the right thing. You’ll find that works much better than focusing on what you want to say.
Three important reminders about Rule #1
- Rule # 2: Never break Rule #1. You can break any other rule if it helps you do a better job of meeting reader needs, but never break Rule #1.
- When in doubt about any other rule, refer to Rule #1. If you’re unsure about any communication situation, let Rule #1 guide you.
- Make it a habit. You’ll get the most value from Rule #1 when you’ve applied it so consistently that it becomes second nature.
Here’s a true story showing why CommuniSkills emphasizes answering big questions explicitly, rather than relying on readers to figure out the answers.
A technical team asked CommuniSkills to help them get approval from corporate executives for a proposal.
What’s so unusual about that? Corporate had already rejected their proposal 15 times!!! The team was frustrated. They knew they had a great idea and hadn’t figured out how to get it approved. Sensing it might be a communication issue, they asked for our help.
A key part of our conversation with the team leader went something like this:
CommuniSkills (CS): What criteria does Corporate use to evaluate projects?
Team Leader (TL): Well, the most important one is return on investment. Each project has to show at least X% ROI when calculated using our standard method.
CS: Does your project meet the threshold?
TL: Sure. In fact, we’re a lot higher.
CS: Where does it say that in the proposal?
TL: Well, they could calculate it by [blah, blah, blah … explaining how Corporate could calculate ROI from details in the proposal].
CS: Let’s make it easier for readers to see that. In the Rationale section, let’s add a new Point #1, reading something like “This project’s ROI (X %) easily exceeds the company requirement.” We’ll put in bold type and follow it with supporting details.
The Happy Ending
Management approved the revised proposal, which featured a prominent statement of the project’s ROI.
Answer the audience’s biggest questions explicitly, and make those answers obvious. Forcing readers to work harder than necessary to find what they need is rarely a good idea.
In the table below, you’ll learn valuable tips for applying Rule #1 by focusing on three priorities: Content, Organization, and Tone.
The “Big Three” Priorities for Applying Rule #1
Identify and answer critical questions. What questions must readers have answered for them to do what you want them to do? What supporting details do they need?
- Identify your communication objective. What specifically do you want readers to do or think after reading your message?
- Put yourself in the reader’s position with mental rehearsal. What questions would you need to have answered if you had their job and priorities?
- Answer those questions explicitly.
- Support your answers with details as needed by readers.
- Avoid information that’s important to you but not to them.
Put the answers to those questions in logical, easy-to-find places: don’t make readers work any harder than necessary to get what they need.
Use visual design tools to “win the first moment of truth.” Research shows that initial impressions typically predict final impressions of a message’s quality and importance.
- Plan on “readers” scanning, not reading word-for-word.
- State the purpose of the message up front.
- Choose headings that align with critical reader questions.
- Use topic sentences to highlight major takeaways at the starts of paragraphs.
- Interpret lists, charts, graphs, and slides for readers: put the takeaway at the top, rather than forcing readers to hunt for it or figure it out.
- When needed, test for mobile-friendliness: send it to yourself and read it on a phone.
Make your answers explicit, credible, concise and persuasive
- Respect your readers’ positions and their valuable time by choosing authoritative, positive, concise words.
About Thomas Clark, PhD:
Dr. Clark, the President of CommuniSkills and Professor of Management at Xavier University, has been a writing and oral communication consultant for a wide variety of businesses including Procter & Gamble, “the business writing capital of the world,” where he has led over 300 business communication workshops.
About Richard Zaunbrecher, BSChE, MBA, Director of CommuniSkills’ Boston office.
Mr. Zaunbrecher first learned sound business communication principles at Procter & Gamble. He has worked with CommuniSkills for 25 years and has taught both oral and written communication skills to a variety of businesses including Microsoft, Safeway, P&G dos Brazil, Gillette, AliCorp, Credit Suisse First Boston, Coca-Cola, Citibank, Viacom, Clorox, KPMG, General Electric, Union Central Insurance, Clarica, Allstate, and Prudential Insurance.
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