The reader is everything. That is the simplest truth about business writing. Writers must serve the needs of their readers. Business writers should work hard so their readers don’t have to. Documents must be, above all, useful to the reader and highly readable.
How does writing work? How can you be sure a reader finds your writing useful? First, it’s important to acknowledge that when you write you use language differently from the way you use language when you speak. Although you communicate quite efficiently when you speak, you usually don’t speak from outlines. Nor do you speak in well-formulated paragraphs. Often you don’t even speak in complete sentences. Writing, on the other hand, demands planning and organization. It proceeds in a linear way, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph. Writing is a way of “freezing” a conversation in time so that a reader can “listen” to the information some time in the future.
Perhaps the most significant difference between writing and speaking is how the audience is present. When you speak, you’re usually engaged in two-way conversation, a process that provides immediate feedback from our audience and allows for immediate adjustment in the message and level of detail. In fact, conversations are grounded fundamentally in a question/answer structure. Conversations often begin with a question and a response and then further questions and responses. It’s hard to imagine a conversation where two people talk together without asking any questions. Likewise, when you write, you’re actually creating two-way communication. However, feedback and adjustments are delayed or sometimes nonexistent. Nevertheless, if writing doesn’t answer the reader’s questions, the writing, the “frozen conversation,” will fail miserably.
Writing is further complicated by the fact that it must work effectively without all the non-verbal cues (body language) that help deliver the message in speaking. Writing must work without gestures, without eye contact, without an emphatic tone of voice to punctuate what is said. These non-verbal cues, according to researchers, account for as much as 80% of what actually gets communicated in speaking.
Writing has to work without non-verbal cues and without the help of people interrupting with questions when they are confused or encouraging with nods when they understand. No wonder speaking feels relatively easy to most people.
We maintain, however, that business writing must be like speaking in one very important way. Writers must “keep their eyes” on their readers at all times and seek to meet readers’ needs–answer the reader’s questions–just as they would if face to face in a conversation.
When we speak to each other, our interest is manifested in questions. Another way to say this is that, at least most of the time, when we speak we ask the other person directly what we want to know. If we listen to someone speak and are not getting answers to our questions, our interest drops. (Think about that and see if you don’t agree.)
Two people talking view their primary goal as communicating with each other. They take turns and listen quite carefully. A good conversation virtually requires the speaker to acknowledge the other person’s questions and to accommodate the listener. Writing also requires writers to acknowledge the reader’s questions and to accommodate the reader. Writing is a dialogue, not a monologue. The writer must imagine and address that reader.
Focusing on Readers Is Necessary
This strong and immediate sense of readers, or audience as we call it, is all too often missing from business writing. Readers of business writing frequently complain about letters, memos, or email that do not have a clear point. Business writers must concentrate on readers and their needs above all, an approach we call reader-focused writing. Reader-focused writing treats writing as a delayed conversation with a live audience.
Yet too many writers write as if the object of their writing were self- expression, as if they, the writers, were the main audience for their writing. This kind of writing is a monologue. Writers assume that if it makes sense to them, it will make sense to their readers: this is seldom the case. This produces writing one might call writer-focused writing. This does not work for everyday business writing because, as we have said, business writing’s main purpose is to meet the reader’s needs.
In fact, if we could, we would change the name business writing to designing a reading experience. This is because writers think writing is a matter of “saying what they have to say,” when it should be “saying what the reader needs to hear in a way that the reader will find both useful and easy to access and navigate.”
Professors may read every essay you write from beginning to end. After all, they’re paid to do it. But business readers are busy and don’t read so much as they navigate documents, pretty much the way you navigate the newspaper, moving from section to section, then zeroing in on relevant information. Business readers are searching for useful information. They’re always asking “So what?” and “Why?” and “What does this have to do with me?” And they keep one finger on the DELETE key at all times.
Determining that Writing Actually Communicates with Readers
How can writers be sure their writing will meet their readers’ needs, will communicate clearly and accurately? The best way to measure the success of any business document is to gauge, quite pragmatically, how easily readers understand a writer’s intended message. The following is a real business example to demonstrate the problems of not focusing on the reader’s needs.
Mrs. J. T. Sattler, a 73-year-old grandmother, wrote a large investment company requesting that the company transfer her grandchild’s investment account from her control into the control of her daughter (the child’s mother). Mrs. Sattler had first called to find out how to do this and was told to write a simple letter explaining that she wanted to transfer control of the account to her daughter. She did so and received a reply a week later. Only the first paragraph of this reply is quoted.
Dear Mrs. Sattler:
We are writing in response to your recent correspondence concerning Spectrum Income Fund account #620042156-7. The UTMA emphasizes that a transfer (gift) made pursuant to the UTMA or UGMA is irrevocable and indefeasibly vested in the minor. We are, therefore, unable to accept instructions from a custodian to transfer accounts from the UTMA/UGMA accounts unless, in addition to the custodian’s signature guaranteed letter of instruction, the following information is received by Global Investments.
Mrs. Sattler could not make it through the difficult legal language of this first paragraph (indefeasibly vested in the minor) and could not tell why she had received so official-sounding a letter. Mrs. Sattler guessed from this first section that she was being told that she could not make the transfer, but since the rest of the letter was similarly hard to understand, she could not tell from the letter how to get what she wanted. Mrs. Sattler was confused and angry–what poor customer service. It would probably take some time to figure out who to call and what to do, and she would have to take the time to do it. And it had all seemed so easy over the phone.
The writer of the letter to Mrs. Sattler did not produce reader-based writing. The writer was not thinking of the kind of person who would receive the letter or how much this person would be able to understand. Instead the letter satisfied Global Investments’ purposes, to describe in legal language what the law says about transfer of investment accounts for minors. Mrs. Sattler did not need the legal explanation; she needed to know what to do and to be told in everyday language she could understand.
The Sattler letter is poor customer service. Any letter sent out by a company should be evaluated for how well it serves the reader’s (customer’s) needs. Anyone who had reviewed the Sattler letter with this in mind would have known immediately that this letter might be appropriate for another lawyer but not a regular customer.
Not meeting your readers’ needs wastes time and money. It wastes time because readers do not understand the message the first time. It wastes money because readers may write or call or email for an explanation, which costs companies money they do not have to spend. Given the wrong circumstances, such a letter may even encourage a customer to stop being a customer or even to call a lawyer. In fact, Mrs. Sattler was so angry that she moved her account to another firm—an account worth over a million dollars.