How to avoid the biggest mistake in business writing

Your deadline is not a deadly predatorMention writing skills to most people and they will roll their eyes before launching into a confession about how spelling/grammar/punctuation/all three have always been their weakest link. Yet, when they do, they’re missing the point.

These things matter, for sure. An email full of typos or a poorly punctuated proposal will almost certainly undermine your credibility and potentially leave the people who read it confused. But there are other mistakes that can do far more harm.

Chief among these is failing to focus on what your reader needs and wants.

Where it all goes wrong

The trouble is that too many documents and messages focus on the needs of the writer rather than the reader. This is a big mistake, although it is understandable. After all, when we’re writing, our primary focus is to get the job done.

Think about it for a few seconds. Imagine it’s Monday morning and you’re faced with a to-do list as long as the Great Wall of China. Right at the top is a board report that you’ve been putting off for the last three weeks and it’s due in by 5pm today. Is your primary focus to (a) carefully consider the members of the board and their individual priorities or (b) get the damn thing written so you can cross it off your list and relax again?

Congratulations if you picked (a). Treat yourself to a cup of tea or latte from that artisan coffee shop around the corner. You’re on your way to being a business-writing superstar and don’t need to read any further. Probably. (Maybe read on just in case.)

If you picked answer (b), congratulations too – for your honesty and for being a normal human being.

You vs. the deadline

This is because focusing on your own priorities first is a perfectly normal survival mechanism, developed through millions of years of evolution. Our Stone Age brains find it hard to differentiate between a looming deadline and a predator outside the cave that wants to eat us for lunch. Our first instinct is therefore to run away from it (which is why you didn’t write the report three weeks ago).

And, when you can no longer run away from it (remember, you’ve now only got until 5pm, and you’re in a cave), your natural priority will always be just to get rid of the threat. So you muster all your courage and run directly at it, focused solely on your needs (avoiding the disapproval of the boss – although admittedly that’s still marginally preferable to a grisly, violent death).

Unfortunately, this rarely produces the best results, at least where deadlines are concerned. (If there’s a real predator outside the cave, you’d best go deal with that and come back to this blog post later.) Maybe you finally fire up a board-report template and fill in the blanks under the standard headings. Success soon becomes a word count that rises in fits and starts. And you’re done when you’ve filled enough pages, changed the date on the default title and emailed it to the chief executive’s EA.

It won’t be your best work. But don’t worry: it also won’t be in any danger of changing the status quo or standing out from the other 17 board reports that were written in similar circumstances. It will just be another one on the pile.

When business writing goes bad

Board members are used to struggling through sub-optimal documents that look just like all the rest. Yours will be no different. Unfortunately, it’s also unlikely to mark you out as someone who’s above average and therefore won’t advance your career either. To produce something that will do both these things, you need to step into the reader’s shoes. Yet most people don’t, because they’re naturally focused on their own priorities (which is why all those reports look the same).

In fact, failure to step into the reader’s shoes is not just normal but usually the chief culprit when business writing goes bad. Nor are we just talking about board reports here. It also produces customer letters or emails that alienate the customer. And it’s why so many live chat helpdesk responses end up being no help at all.

Remember that instant-chat conversation with your home broadband provider that took 20 minutes to tell you what you stated in your original question? The person who did so was probably distracted by answer targets and a big, red LED display in the centre of the office showing how many customers they still needed to respond to.

This failure to connect with the reader’s perspective is also why so many proposals to win new business start with page upon page about how great the supplier is. Believe me, the client will only care about this if she thinks you can solve her problem. So focus on her problem first, then on your solution. (Do those things well and she’ll reach her own conclusion about your suitability. Then it’s just a case of confirming that view and reassuring her by describing your experience and perhaps giving a few client testimonials.)

It can also lead us to give the wrong impression in even the simplest communications. For example, a notice from a store about opening hours that just says, ‘We are closed on Wednesdays’ is stressing the negative and essentially telling customers what the store can’t do for them (ie serve them on a Wednesday). It’s also missing an opportunity to say that they’re open six days a week – including at weekends.

Beat your brain’s default wiring

But, as I say, it’s still what most of us do, because it’s how we’re wired. And, given this natural bias towards ourselves, it can take an almost superhuman level of willpower to switch your focus to the person you’re writing for or to. So what can you do?

One of the best ways I know is to start by writing down what you already know about your intended reader, including what they need and want most from the exchange, as well as what they know already. In a short communication (such as an email or helpdesk response), this may well be enough to shift your mindset from its default setting.

Longer documents need a bit more effort. This is partly because they’re more complex and therefore contain far more traps that can lure you back to the writer-centred mindset. And partly it’s because we tend to put off writing them, so we’re more likely to be under a lot of pressure to finish by the time we do. (In other words, we’re focused again on our needs rather than the reader’s.)

The five-step solution

So you need to do something to snap yourself out of this mindset. Here’s how:

1. First, download our reader-profile questionnaire here (PDF) and print it out.

2. Then complete it (with a pen, not just in your head). This will start the process of reorientation.

3. From there, plan your document, using your preferred method. (I like mind maps, as they help me to see connections that might not otherwise be obvious.) But – and this is critical – continually refer back to your completed questionnaire so that you avoid defaulting to your needs. As you plan, put a question mark alongside anything you still need to check or find out.

4. Find the answers to any of the questions in 3. This is also crucial, as you need to do most of your thinking and address any uncertainties before you start writing.

5. Then, and only then, write your document. (I’ve explained how to do this quickly here.)

Note that steps 1–4 should take most of the pain out of 5. So don’t think of them as wasting time. They’ll actually save you time in the long run.

You should now have a document that is much more focused on the person you’re writing for and their needs, rather than on you and yours. That person may even thank you for it. But even if they don’t, you can take comfort from the knowledge that your document now stands a very good chance of being better than the others they’re reading, which can only be a good thing.

Now you’ve definitely earned that latte. Just make sure you still check your document for typos and spelling mistakes.

Image credit: Mircea Costina / Shutterstock


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