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8 tips to improve your written communication skills

Last updated on: November 12, 2012 19:21 IST

A Sathyanarayanan

A well-thought out e-mail, report or presentation gets recognised in college and at work. Here's a beginner's guide to honing your writing skills.

An enthusiastic job applicant once wrote in his cover letter: "I am about to enrol on a Business and Finance Degree with the Open University. This qualification will prove detrimental to me for future success."

The prospective employer wondered - why would anyone enrol for a course that is "detrimental"? Perhaps the applicant meant "determinant".

Sadly, as first impressions go, the damage was done and the job applicant did not hear back from the potential employer.

On the record

In the world of work, while verbal communication is important, the written word is even more so because what is said verbally may be forgotten but what is written survives for decades!

Once an e-mail is sent, the information is on record. Hence, written communication must be well thought through.

Communication is money

And nowhere else as in business communication, is clarity more important -- as the monies involved are huge. Hence, any effort to improving one's writing skills is invaluable investment of time and effort.

Business communication follows the same principles of communication: gentle, persuasive, mutually beneficial. Where it differs is its emphasis on formality and protocols.

Here's a quick checklist for sound written communication.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

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1. Be professional, but not too formal

It's a fallacy to view all business communication as formal and stiff.

In today's open and democratic spirit, a letter that reads -- "I wish to apply to your esteemed company, or If given an opportunity I will work to ensure to your complete satisfaction. Yours Very Obediently," -- would sound archaic.

At the same time, informal shouldn't mean unprofessional -- there is no place for personal comments, off-colour jokes, and gossip in your business mails.

ASAP for "as soon as possible" is accepted but not "Thks 4 ur gr8 help."

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

2. Less is more

In business writing, concision matters.

Use words sparingly, cut out flowery prose, and avoid long, meandering sentences. Here's an example:

  • Wordy: We hereby wish to let you know that our company is pleased with the confidence you have reposed in us.
  • Concise: We appreciate your confidence in us.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

3. Avoid needless jargon

In a Forbes article titled The Most Annoying, Pretentious and Useless Business Jargon, writers Max Mallet (@MaxMallet1), Brett Nelson and Chris Steiner (@SteinerWriter) stated, "The next time you feel the need to reach out, touch base, shift a paradigm, leverage a best practice or join a tiger team, by all means do it. Just don't say you're doing it."

Jargons tend to confuse, even bore readers.

It's a good idea to avoid jargon unless absolutely unavoidable.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

4. Pay special attention to names, titles and genders

Nothing can be more embarrassing that addressing Mr Sharma as "Ms. Sharma" throughout a document.

If you're not certain about the spelling of someone's name, their job title, or their gender, check with someone who knows (like their assistant).

If unsure of the gender (Kiran or Sonu can be male and a female) use gender-neutral language.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

5. State a call to action

Most business communication is meant to achieve some purpose, so include a call to action -- something that the reader is expected to do.

Don't assume your readers to act with the information you've provided -- most don't bother or share your sense of urgency and intensity.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

6. Don't give too many choices

If you're looking to set a time for a meeting, give a single time.

At most, give two options and ask them to pick one.

Too many choices lead to decision paralysis.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

7. Save templates

On occasions when you write an especially good letter, e-mail, memo, or other documents save it as a template for future use.

This saves a lot of time as long as you ensure a letter to Mr Verma does not end with Ms Joseph!

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

8. Ensure your mail or report looks lean and attractive

Your document should be as 'reader-friendly' as possible.

Short paragraphs with section headings, sub-headings and bullet points are a lot easier to read.

Adding graphs and charts is also a smart way to break up your text. These visual aids keep the reader engaged; they communicate important information more quickly than text.

Add colours too for an eye-catching arresting look.

It pays to spend time improving one's official correspondence; nothing leaves a lasting impression than the last word!

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

Dos and Don'ts for e-mail communication

  • Don't swamp people with e-mails. "If you want someone to read what you write, keep it short," advises corporate trainer S R Manikandan who is based in Mumbai. He encourages people to label things 'Action required' or 'No action -- FYI only.'
  • Pause to think while keying in the 'subject'. The receipt must get an idea of the subject you will be dwelling in the mail.
  • Using capital letters either on the subject column or the body of the text is rank bad manners. They are other ways to express urgency than going all caps.
  • Reducing spam mails would make the "inbox" manageable otherwise you will spend most of your time searching for mails.
  • Resist the temptation to send one-word messages such as 'Thanks!'
  • Don't hit 'Reply All' unless everyone needs to hear what you have to say.
  • Never forward jokes to your colleagues; it could cost you your respect!
  • No emoticons in business communication.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

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