Free business-writing tips on new website

Writing-skills experts Emphasis launch a series of online resources

A new, interactive website launches today, giving users practical advice and expert feedback on their business-writing skills.

Launched by leading business-writing trainers Emphasis, the site features a comprehensive set of resources designed to help anyone who has to write emails, reports, tenders, proposals, letters or other documents at work.

Users can sign up to receive a regular podcast and writing tips e-bulletin. They can also access a unique writing-skills forum where the Emphasis trainers guarantee to respond to any queries within two working days.

One of the site’s main advantages is that users can improve their writing in private and in their own time. ‘People often feel uncomfortable about revealing any weakness in their writing skills,’ explains , Chief Executive of Emphasis. ‘With the resources available on this site, they can improve their writing in private and whenever they like.’

The Write On podcast, presented by the BBC’s Clare McDonnell, is effectively the UK’s first business-writing radio programme. It’s full of expert advice and insight on everything from writing better executive summaries and press releases to speech writing, emails and the psychology of proofreading.

Other resources include a blog with contributions from writing experts and the comprehensive Knowledge Bank. Visitors can even order a free copy of the Emphasis style guide, The Write Stuff, directly from the site.

Press enquiries

For more information, please contact us on +44 (0)1273 732 888.

or email us here.

Notes for editors

Emphasis Training Ltd is the UK’s leading business-writing training company, providing bespoke courses for a huge range of private and public sector organisations, both in the UK and internationally.

Since 1998 it has helped thousands of people – in government departments, law firms, blue-chip companies, universities and charities – to produce first-class business writing.

With headquarters in Brighton, East Sussex, Emphasis has a dedicated team of experienced, specialist trainers who run bespoke courses on-site for organisations across the UK. It also runs open courses for smaller groups or individuals throughout the year in London.

How to write winning proposals

Rob Ashton explains how developing your writing skills can help you to win sales.

Whether you love them or hate them, you can’t deny that reality TV shows such as The X-Factor provide contestants with honest feedback about their performances. After the tone-deaf wannabes are swiftly weeded out, the ones with raw talent are prodded and guided by Simon et al before being transformed into marketable acts.

But when it comes to your sales proposals, the only critics you have are your prospects. There’s usually no training ground before you’re let loose on your public. So if they like what you have to offer, the chances are you’ll get a sale. If they’re uncertain, they may well give you little idea of where you went right or wrong.

Imagine that you meet a client and build a good relationship before promising to email over a proposal later in the week. But by the time it comes to putting pen to paper, you’ve forgotten the conversation and struggle to get back into the groove. Instead, you simply send out a standard proposal that leaves the prospect cold and you without a sale. In this case, the client gives some helpful feedback, but it skirts around the real issue. You don’t get the witty one liner that says: ‘great in person, but sounded like a robot on paper’.

Most salespeople haven’t been taught how to develop a fresh, personable writing style. But proficient sales writing is a skill that can be learnt. And once you have, your proposals can act as a ‘silent sales force’ that is out there winning business for you while you’re busy pursuing other opportunities.

So, become your own judge by learning and applying some simple tips and techniques to your written work.

Switch off your computer

We tend to live in the virtual world of our computer screens. But at the beginning of the writing process, it’s helpful to get away from the screen and use a pencil and paper to gather your thoughts.

So before you type a word, ask yourself the following six questions:

  • What is the proposal about?
  • Who will read it?
  • How much do they already know about the subject?
  • What do they absolutely need to know?
  • How important is the subject to them?
  • How interested are they in the subject (which is not necessarily the same thing)?

Doing this allows you to home in on the main ideas and messages you want to communicate. Keep asking yourself: What do you really want to say? Then jot down all the ideas that are essential and important to your proposal.

Build a persuasive structure

Next, focus your proposal by using the Four Ps technique, which stands for: position (where they are now), problem (why they can’t stay there), possibilities (where they could go) and proposal (where they should go). This approach turns conventional wisdom on its head and is surprisingly effective. It allows you to begin with the client’s situation and needs, and to recommend solutions, while building your credibility in the process. Only then do you write about your pedigree – by which point you’ll just be confirming what they’ve already concluded.

Get personal

One of the best ways to show your personality through writing is to use words such as ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’. These words help to connect you to your readers. Similarly choose the active voice to make your sentences livelier. For instance, you can write ‘I [or we] guarantee that you’ll notice a difference in three days,’ rather than ‘a difference has been guaranteed within three days.’

Short and sweet

Finally, no-one wants to wade through the sales equivalent of War and Peace. Keep sentences to a maximum of 15-20 words and edit ruthlessly until you have a compelling document that begs to be read.

Mastering these skills will help you to tailor your writing so that it meets the needs of each particular client. Don’t worry if you don’t hit gold on your first go. For every one-hit wonder in the record business, there are those who’ve created a long, successful career by making constant adjustments to their performance, until they develop that certain something that sets them apart from the rest.

For proposal-writing training, see our course for teams and our course for individuals.

Ban the bull: terms and conditions

As we continue our ceaseless quest to seek out and rehabilitate the bulls of business-speak, we come up against an old and imposing foe.

Imagine yourself, if you will, a few short days from now. You are sat at your computer; you’ve just completed your Christmas shopping at Tesco.com, and are poised at the virtual checkout. Then you realise: you haven’t read the terms and conditions.

Well, of course you haven’t. No-one reads terms and conditions. Despite the fact that with almost every online action and purchase we are entering into some kind of contract, we all breezily tick the box with no real clue about what we’re agreeing to.

And little wonder. Assuming you made it through to number 20 on the Tesco site, you’d then be faced with this:

20. Miscellaneous

You may not assign, sub-license or otherwise transfer any of your rights under these Terms and Conditions.

If any provision of these Terms and Conditions is found to be invalid by any court having competent jurisdiction, the invalidity of that provision will not affect the validity of the remaining provisions of these Terms and Conditions, which shall remain in full force and effect.

If you breach these Terms and Conditions and Tesco.com ignores this, Tesco.com will still be entitled to use its rights and remedies at a later date or in any other situation where you breach the Terms and Conditions.

Tesco.com shall not be responsible for any breach of these Terms and Conditions caused by circumstances beyond its control.

A person who is not a party to these Terms and Conditions shall have no right under the Contract (Rights of Third Parties) Act 1999 to enforce any term of these Terms and Conditions but this shall not affect any right or remedy of a third party which exists or is available apart from that Act.

Legalese – English translation

The problem with legalese is reconciling the official vocabulary with accessible language that the average person can easily take on board. After all, the average person doesn’t generally have legal counsel with them while surfing the net. And isn’t the most important thing for them to understand their position?

For example, in this context ‘remedies’ refers to a legal means of redress – so, the seeking (by Tesco.com, in this case) of compensation or other penalty in court.

Other words which may differ slightly in a legal sense from their more commonly known sense include (and mean here):

•      provision – term or condition

•      competent – legally qualified or fit

•      jurisdiction – authority or control

•      validity – effective or legally binding nature.

Other terms are not entirely clear: how is a person ‘not party to’? If it wasn’t them who ticked the ‘agree’ box? If they’ve never read the Ts and Cs? If they’ve never seen a computer?

If you’ve said it once, stop

On top of unfamiliar language, the sheer length of Ts and Cs can be off-putting. It’s understandable that companies want to cover all possible bases, but there’s still fat to be trimmed here to help the reader digest.

•      ‘Assign’, ‘sub-license’ and ‘transfer’ may have subtle legal distinctions. But to you, me and the gatepost they mean basically the same thing.

•      If the ‘validity’ (or legally binding nature) of a ‘provision’ (term/condition) is unaffected, surely it goes without saying that it is still ‘in full force and effect’.

•      ‘Exists or is available’: is there really a distinction here?

Keep it active

The second paragraph begins in the passive: the ‘what’ (the provision being found to be invalid) comes before the ‘who’ (the court with competent jurisdiction). Although this may have been done to highlight the ‘what’ rather than the ‘who’, it also makes it extra wordy and difficult to take in.

So, with a few more snips here and there, we have:

You may not in any way transfer any of your rights listed in these terms and conditions.

If any authorised court finds that any one of these terms and/or conditions is not legally binding, this will not affect the legitimacy of every other term/condition listed.

If you breach these terms and conditions and Tesco.com ignores it, this does not mean that Tesco.com cannot later pursue legal proceedings (including going to court) against you at a later date or after a separate breach.

Tesco.com will not be responsible for any breach of these terms and conditions caused by circumstances beyond its control.

These terms and conditions affect only the person agreeing to them. Any other person will have no right under the Contract (Rights of Third Parties) Act from 1999 to the effects of any of these terms and conditions. However, this does not affect any other rights or legal means of seeking justice this third party may have from elsewhere.

Ok, we still can’t guarantee people will be lining up to read it, but at least it should make more sense if they do.

Remember, if you come across any bewildering business gobbledegook, email it to us. We’ll send you a free copy of our style guide for your trouble.

The business of goodwill

It’s that magical time of year again. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose and – quite possibly – being thrown together with people you have nothing more in common with than blood.

And, as anyone who has grin-and-borne-it through a stressful or tedious family gathering can verify, if Christmas is actually going to be a time of peace on Earth, it won’t be without a bit of effort (and a fair bit of eggnog). Which is why we’re about to suggest something a little radical: writer-focused reading.

Now, we still stand firmly by the idea of reader-centred writing: by concentrating on the recipient’s needs and situation, you’re guaranteed to produce the best response in them with your document.

Yet what about when it’s too late for that? The deed is done, and now you’re the reader stuck with the stressful and tedious task of untangling what the author actually meant to say. Well, before you escalate the situation and potentially sever a business relationship for good, here’s one for the season of goodwill: focus on the writer.

Although of course not a business matter, the accidentally offensive letter Gordon Brown sent to the mother of Jamie Janes, the young soldier killed in Afghanistan earlier this year, is one such example. While a tragic and delicate subject like this should naturally be handled with the utmost care, in the reading it might also be considered in context: that the blind in one eye, half-blind in the other leader of the country took the time personally to hand-write a letter of condolence, most likely with the best of intentions.

So, if you are the poor reader and you have the seeds of a scornful comeback sprouting in your head – hold on. First, consider your answers to our writer-profile questionnaire:

1.      Think about the document you’ve received. What is its subject?

2.      Who wrote it?

3.      How much did they know about the subject?

4.      What was their likely attitude towards it?

5.      How involved in the subject are they?

6.      How important is the subject to them?

7.      How interested in the subject are they?

8.      Do you have any other relevant knowledge about their situation (work-related or otherwise)?

9.      What is your relationship like with the author?

10.      How important is maintaining a good relationship with the writer of the document to you and your company?

After you’ve answered these questions, you may have a better understanding of the writer’s position and motivations. You may be feeling calmer and more forgiving (you have, after all, just counted to ten). You may even have just saved an important business connection.

So treat yourself to a cup of eggnog. And don’t worry: the season will be over before you know it.

Brackets (and how to use them)

So, those emoticon smiles: what else can they be used for?

Round brackets

Imagine the contents of round brackets (or parentheses) as an aside
that might be said behind your hand (an actor on a stage might anyway).

These punctuation marks come in handy to:

  • include optional information

You don’t have much time left to finish your Christmas shopping (only six shopping days!).

  • introduce an abbreviation or explain a term

At this time of year, many people suffer from Seasonal
Affective Disorder (SAD); although equally problematic during December
is pogonophobia (a fear of beards).

  • cross-refer

If you’re wondering where to put punctuation around brackets, you’ll soon find out (see below).

To learn more about pogonophobia, see The Big Book of Phobias (p92).

  • add authorial commentary (if appropriate to the context)

The effects of SAD can be quite debilitating (believe me).

  • cover several possible eventualities

The Christmas e-bulletin should be well-received by its already tipsy reader(s).

Square brackets

But parentheses are not to be confused with square brackets. These can be used to:

  • add an editor’s note or direction

Emphasis staff will be required to wear Santa hats to work throughout December [Catie to purchase these].

  • clarify meaning in a quote without changing any of the original words

She said, ‘If you make me wear that thing [the Santa hat] to work, I’m quitting.’

In these cases, you can just replace the word(s) being clarified eg

‘I said: if you make me put on [the Santa hat], I’m quitting. Humbug!’

Punctuating brackets

It can be confusing working out where to put the punctuation around brackets (but we’re here to help):

  • The first rule is quite straightforward. (If you are writing a
    full sentence inside them, the full stop – or alternative – should be
    inside the brackets.)
  • But the full stop will be on the outside if the brackets contain only part of the full sentence (as these do).
  • Put a comma outside the brackets (as demonstrated here), when those brackets appear at the end of a clause within the sentence.
  • If the bracketed aside needs a question mark or exclamation mark, you’ll still need to add a full stop on the outside to complete
    the sentence (like this!).

The offence of bad language

Finally, a House of Commons report that is a cause for celebration.

This is Bad Language: the Use and Abuse of Official Language – the result of an investigation into the many ways in which politicians and civil servants may baffle and intimidate readers with their use of jargon-heavy, euphemism-filled waffle. By making such official documents virtually unreadable, the report points out, the public is effectively denied access to political policies that affect them.

The committee behind the report are planning to crack down on perpetrators by issuing penalties for instances where poor use of language has damaging results, like a person failing to receive benefits or services they are entitled to.

And while their plan is to refer to the offence of bad political language by the rather jargon-y term ‘maladministration’, we really can’t do anything but applaud these announcements.

Revisiting that question

Write Now reader Simon Lewis joins the great ‘that’ debate:

Definitely one of my bugbears, that. Take this example: “The teaching medical students receive also leaves them with an incomplete picture.” I started interpreting this as “The medical students who teach…” — and then obviously realised [that] it was supposed to be interpreted “The teaching *that* medical students receive…”. I’m all for brevity, but not at the expense of clarity, and definitely not at the expense of causing the reader to re-start the sentence!

Thanks, Simon.

So it looks like there needs to be a context-specific clause added to our rule.

If the ‘that’ doesn’t add any clarity to the sentence, as in ‘the watch [that] my father gave me’, then cutting it is fine.

But if the ‘that’ distinguishes the word preceding it as, for example, a noun (as it does for the word ‘teaching’ in Simon’s example) rather than an adjective (which is how Simon interpreted the word to begin with, as a way of defining the ‘medical students’) then for goodness’ sake leave it in.

This does, at least, reinforce the importance of another thing we stand for: proofreading!

Writing for health and safety: reports and procedures

When you’re lost in a foreign country or an unfamiliar city, there’s a good chance that someone will give you incomplete directions. They’ll unwittingly miss out the part about turning right at the church, or forget that the left turn comes before the roundabout.

And even if they do give you full instructions, there’s no guarantee that you’ll follow them to a tee. You might misinterpret the traffic lights for the intersection, for instance. Or you might deliberately veer off the suggested route for a more scenic version – not realising that you’re venturing into an area that even the locals don’t like to go to.

But in workplace welfare, giving incorrect directions can be far more costly than a few minutes of discomfort. An employee could launch legal action if a safe work guideline contains a minor error that leads them to suffer an injury. In your written communication, the stakes are high. So, creating clear, accurate written work is essential.

Through your writing, you’ve got to fully prepare for all the three scenarios above. If you’re writing standard operating procedures or compliance documents, for instance, you have to spell out all the directions in the exact order. Every instruction has to be crystal clear so that it can be accurately followed. And you have to present a compelling case to any thrill seekers that curiosity could not only kill them but endanger their colleagues.

Depending on the industry, your company’s employees may be called on to operate complex machinery, drive heavy vehicles or manage toxic substances. The financial and legal consequences of any accidents can be substantial. Hefty fines and compensation payouts to injured employees won’t just cut your company’s bottom line: they can cause huge a loss of reputation and morale. In contrast, companies with low accident records are likely to attract the best staff and have greater employee engagement, which will help to lower attrition rates. This means that money can be spent on training existing staff rather than employing new ones.

Creating a safe working environment is not an easy task. But learning and applying a series of writing tools and techniques can help you to effectively communicate health and safety messages. The techniques outlined below will help you to write high-impact reports, procedures and instruction documents. But you can apply them to all your written work. The key thing to remember is that your writing needs to be clear and reader centred. By understanding the potential pitfalls for your reader, you can help to keep them on the right road.

One step at a time

The secret to writing good instructions or procedures is to do lots of ground work. The end result may be a simple point-by-point document, but the real work is done in the careful planning. Brainstorm your ideas and clarify your thoughts by using the headings who?, what?, where?, when?, and why? You can also do this exercise with a colleague to ensure you generate all the possibilities.

Once you’ve got it all down on paper, focus on whom you’re writing for and decide what information must be included and in what order. Then lay out the instructions in numbered steps, using bullet lists where necessary.

Remember that bullet lists always need an introduction (like this one). They help to:

  • convey key information
  • break down complex lists
  • summarise main points

Using bullet points helps to make lists clearer, as they are more visual. They also use space well and grab attention. But you can’t guarantee that your readers will scan the information and digest it before they put it into practice. They may assume that all the information they need is in the right order (even if you haven’t numbered the list), so you need to be one step ahead. For example, imagine you’re sending an employee to the Gulf of Mexico on an oil and gas exploration, but you don’t mention until point five that they need a crucial piece of equipment. By this time, they may be already on site and unable to locate the tools they need. You also need to spell everything out and don’t over-estimate how much your reader will know about any particular safety process.

Slogans and sayings

Consider writing your own catchphrases. Create one or two-line slogans to help emphasise certain points. Writing in a punchy, catchy way will grab your reader’s attention. Slogans such as ‘it’s better to have two on the job than one in hospital’ and ‘never assume, as assume makes an Ass of U and Me’ are easy to remember and can help to drive your messages home.

Keep positive

Psychology experts have found that people respond better to instructions when they’re written in positive rather than negative language. So write ‘keep calm’ instead of ‘don’t panic’ or ‘always be on time’ rather than ‘don’t be late’. This type of positive language has the subtle effect of keeping your readers motivated to follow your instructions.

Writing reports

Imagine you need to write a report that highlights your recommendations about the emergency planning procedures at your company. You’ve identified the risks that could affect the health and safety of the employees. But you feel that some extra training is needed to make sure everyone understands what to do in an emergency.

The first thing to do is to focus on your reader. Putting the reader first increases the likelihood that your report will be received favourably.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the report about?
  • Who will read it?
  • How much do they already know about the subject?
  • What do they absolutely need to know?
  • How important is the subject to them?
  • How interested are they in the subject (which is not necessarily the same thing)?

Creating order

You can use the same brainstorming process for creating instructions (see above). Alternatively, try drawing a mind map using a pencil and a piece of paper. Avoid using the computer for this – getting away from the screen can help to keep your mind fresh and encourage the creative process.

Next, go through and cluster together the ideas that have elements in common. Then decide which order you want them to go in with the most important points first.

Compelling executive summaries

Don’t assume that your reader will have time to carefully study your report. So highlight your recommendations right at the top of the executive summary. Give them the recommendations first, and then describe the benefits of your recommendations to the organisation.

Five quick tips

Whether you’re writing a poster, sign, leaflet or training document, use the tips below to make your writing as attention grabbing and powerful as possible.

Be empathic

Always step into your reader’s shoes. Try to demonstrate, for example, that you understand the type of stress that comes from working in cold stores or in the open air during winter. Use words such as ‘you’ ‘we’ and ‘us’ to help connect with the employees.

Get active

Use the active voice where possible. Keep your sentences simple and opt for verbs instead of nouns. For instance, ‘The recommendation is that you abstain from using alcohol for 48 hours before driving’ uses the noun ‘recommendation’ and sounds formal and stilted. A much better alternative is to write, ‘we recommend that you don’t drink alcohol for 48 hours before driving.’

Stay focused

If you’re writing guidelines for your employees about how to prevent the spread of swine flu, then the instructions for hand washing will be one of your main messages. Don’t dilute what you’re trying to say by focusing on things such as government legislation or other types of illnesses.

Plain and simple

Using plain English helps to keep your writing clear. Try to write for your audience in the way they speak. This doesn’t mean you should resort to slang. Just choose simple words over complicated alternatives. Instead of writing, ‘cease from smoking’ write ‘stop smoking’. Adopt a tone that you know your readers will instantly understand.

Use a fine-tooth comb

Always proofread your work carefully, using a pencil to point to every word. It’s easy to miss typos, jarring sentences and spelling mistakes when you’ve been looking at a document for too long (particularly in headings), so do this a few days after writing it, if possible.   Alternatively, ask a colleague to carefully look over it for you.

It can be tough to get your messages to hit home. Safety is a thankless task, as you probably know:   colleagues don’t tend to congratulate you because they’ve had no accidents that week.

But, by engaging people, your writing can be a powerful tool that can help to save lives and keep employees happy and healthy. You can never be sure that your colleagues won’t act like the tourist who gambles on walking through the wrong part of town. But you can be sure that you’ve done all you can to guide them to a safe destination.

is Chief Executive of Emphasis, the specialist business-writing trainers.

Want to write better reports and procedures? See our courses for individuals or our courses for groups. Alternatively, send us a message or call one of our friendly advisors on +44 (0)1273 961 810 for a no-obligation chat.