Learn to Talk on Paper: The Art of Effective Business Writing

Rudolf Flesch, a specialist in writing skills, ran classes for over thirty years for civil servants, lawyers, bankers and the like, on writing business correspondence.

Two tips he stressed over and over again in his classes.

The first: move heaven and earth to wean yourself from the inhibitions and nervous habits that your schoolteachers, bless 'em, have bequeathed to you. Leave no stone unturned to rid yourself of the awkward, stilted and artificial writing styles that have been reinforced daily since your early childhood.

The second: when you write a letter or the like - even if it's a business letter you'd normally place in the "highly formal" category - imagine that the addressee were sitting right there, on the other side of your desk.

Relax. If you really believed the recipient was with you in the room, you would never have the effrontery to begin with "please be advised" or "we wish to inform you".

Incidentally, I've a confession to make. I'm a fairly experienced writer, but time and time again, I find myself committing the very offences that would make Rudolf Flesch cringe.

I'm a sinner! But then - I am aware of it. I try to catch myself in the act.

And when I succeed, I'm pretty ruthless with myself.

When Flesch says you should imagine the person you're writing to you is right there with you in the room, it doesn't mean that informality is appropriate for all categories of written documents.

But more often than not, it's regarded today as a sign of professionalism, rather than the reverse.

More importantly, it's far more effective, as we'll see. And whichever way you look at it, effective communication is the name of the game!

Incidentally, you'll notice that I said we spoke about... rather than we wrote about.

I can't see you as I write. All I can see is my monitor and it's not much of a conversationalist. All the same, I'm using talking words all the time.

I recall my school days in South Africa, round about half a century ago. At the end of every term, we wrote exams, and one paper was always called "English Composition."

From the lowest grade to the highest, the format was about the same. There were generally two questions: The first would begin: "Write an essay of about 500 words on one of the following topics..." The second would be the same, with "letter" substituted for "essay".

Between examinations, the teachers would drum a multitude of rules into our impressionable heads, always accompanied by grim warnings about the terrible consequences of non-compliance! Many of these rules directly contradict what I'm telling you to do now.

Have you ever taken a course in public speaking?

When you do a public speaking course, you don't hear much about grammar and vocabulary. Instead you learn not to be embarrassed, to overcome your inhibitions, to speak without a prepared script and to reach out to the audience in front of you.

We're not saying that good grammar and such things aren't important in writing. They're very important.

But they're not the essence. In some ways, writing is so much harder than public speaking, because your audience isn't right there in front of you. But the object of the whole exercise is to break through the invisible barrier that separates writer and reader.

Notice that question I asked three paragraphs ago? Of course, this is one of the tricks we use to tear down that very barrier.

I could have saved a lot of words by leading right in with: "Those who have taken public speaking course know that..." But a question has a more intimate, personal ring. With a bit of luck, I'll even make you feel I'm talking directly to YOU. Why? Because a person normally peppers his everyday conversation with millions of questions!

For precisely the same reason, this article, is full of word contractions. That is to say: I write "they're" rather than "they are"; "I'll" and not "I will." Certainly sounds more cozy, you will -oops, you'll admit.

"Yes," you may well protest, "let's assume I'm a bank manager or the like? Can I really use that style in writing to my clients? And oh my gosh - what if I'm some kind of government official?" (We won't talk of lawyers for the moment - they're a special class of headache, which we'll have to deal with separately.)

The rejoinder is: "Sure, you can." When you write a business letter, you want to make your point quickly and effectively. Further, you're looking for a response: you want action. An informal style, rather than one of prim and proper conventionality, is more likely to do the trick.

For all that, you could ask me a very strong question:

"This makes sense when you want to be friendly: when you're looking to get the business of a potential customer, or to retain that of an existing one.But what if I deliberately need a stiff and formal tone, as when I'm writing a letter of demand to a debtor?"

We can do no better than to quote an example direct from Rudolf Flesch. Compare these two extracts:

"It is imperative that you submit the above amount within five days. Failure on your part to comply may result in legal action at your expense."

"If you don't pay this amount within five days, we'll start legal action at your expense."

Which of these two versions is more likely to startle the hapless recipient out of his wits?

You be the judge! Azriel Winnett is creator of Hodu.com - Your Communication Skills Portal. This popular website helps you improve your communication and relationship skills in your business or professional life, in the family unit and on the social scene. New articles added almost daily.

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