A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of facilitating a short course on business writing for the Lagos chapter of the Society of Petroleum Engineers. The event was the 2020 E-Technology Symposium and Exhibition. Now given the target audience (technical professionals) my course, ‘Thrive in the Knowledge Economy: Use Your Business Writing Skills to Compel Action’, on the surface might have seemed irrelevant. But that was far from the case.
After the 3.5-hour session, delivered virtually via Microsoft Teams, the commendation and appreciation received underscored what I’ve known for the last eight years, and have taught for the past five:
Effective communication, in speech and writing, increases your influence, coaxes collaboration, and boost results.
In particular, excellent business writing skills will amplify your profile in any sector you operate – technical fields included.
During my session, I answered questions and addressed concerns regarding writing reports and emails. I also stressed the need to update your knowledge of grammar and become aware of other writing conventions.
As I explained in the course, you should consider three non-negotiable practices if you’re serious about improving your writing skills:
1) Develop the discipline of reading and writing regularly
Over the years, I’ve highlighted this point, but I need to revisit it because it’s critical to your progress.
a) Read for at least 10 minutes every day
I prefer 15 minutes as a minimum, but realise that might be tedious to handle.
So block 10 minutes every day—my ’10-minute reading rule’—to coax yourself to read. Everyone can spare 10 minutes reading well-written content. Read a page from that novel you’d shelved for two years. Vary your material – read articles, poems, short stories, or white papers. Read within and outside your field.
It doesn’t matter what you read as long as it’s written well. Avoid tabloids and similar pieces as many expose you to poor writing – which defeats the purpose of improving your skills with this method.
Reading suitable material heightens your appreciation of grammar, and introduces you to new vocabulary, impressive constructions, and different styles. All these things seep into your writing, and over time, you’d become more persuasive and confident.
Regarding how to schedule your reading, I’ve found Twitter to be an invaluable tool. Follow reputable publications there (whose writing are assuredly and consistently standard) and regularly read their articles. Articles from the BBC, CNN, Business Insider, the Economist, Inc., the New York Times, etc. are sure bets. The accounts you follow needn’t all be ‘dry’ publications, but their posts must be error-free.
Freely mix up your content. On some days, you could read online articles, and at other times in the week, you might read paperbacks or eBooks.
Be persistent in this habit, and you’d notice a difference in your critical reasoning, writing, and surprisingly, in your speaking.
There’s a reason leaders are readers.
b) Write often
Now, this is obvious but needs to be emphasized:
You can’t become a convincing writer if you don’t force yourself to write regularly.
So despite your dread, deliberately write every week; I dare say, at least twice a week. Whether you choose to write emails, reports, articles, or some random rants on social media, you must flex your writing muscles by doing it.
Therefore, offer to take the minutes in that virtual meeting, collaborate with colleagues on a paper/report, write posts/articles on LinkedIn or Facebook, or start a personal blog.
When you write, watch your sentence structure. Try to limit your sentences to 20 words where feasible. Note that the longer the sentence, the more difficult it becomes to read – unless you use additional punctuation to break up ‘walls’ of text.
Write in season and out of season.
Write when you’re not motivated; don’t wait for ‘inspiration’ that may never come.
Write even when you’re unsure of your grammar.
Write to vent.
And you will get better over time. Trust me on this, and if in doubt, learn from my experience. I’ve been blogging for over eight years. I’ve read countless resources and have written numerous articles. But go back to the posts I wrote in my earlier years of blogging (say between 2012-2015), and compare them to my more recent pieces. There’re a few differences. For one, my grammar has become sharper. I’ve also become wittier, more persuasive, and I’ve developed a ‘voice’ that serves me well.
You, too, would get better at writing by writing.
2) Use my three rules of effective business writing
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you already know them.
Still, a recap is necessary as the three rules would help you to structure your writing and tweak it for relevance. The result is that your content would become actionable – which is what you want. Otherwise, why write in the first place if not to inspire, inform, convince, or refute?
Rule #1: Consider your audience
Before you craft a single word, take a moment to consider who your audience is. They will determine the style you use (semi-final or formal), as well as your vocabulary, tone, and length of your piece.
Where possible, find out useful information about the recipient: what are his/her professional grade and concerns?
Then ensure that memo/report,/proposal addresses the recipient’s needs.
Your writing will become relevant and will lead to quicker results.
Rule #2: Prioritise the three beacons – simplicity, brevity, and clarity
First, ensure that your content is easy to understand. Write simply so that a 12-year-old could explain what your key message is irrespective of your topic. Simplicity leads to quicker understanding, which saves you the time.
Next, write concisely; get to the point quickly and cut off the fluff. Going off on a tangent in your writing is sure to cause your reader to promptly discard your work.
Finally, state the point of your writing. Before you write the final word, be clear about what you want your recipient to do and how he/she should proceed.
Strive to be simple, concise, and clear so that you create the impact you want.
Rule #3: Edit and proofread ruthlessly
Be brutal in this process.
Don’t solely rely on Microsoft grammar checker. Download Grammarly – a useful grammar and editing app, and use it as an additional tool to tweak your writing. Sync it with your Microsoft Office suite, Outlook, and the web. In this way, whenever you open a Microsoft document, Grammarly opens automatically (you’d need to adjust the settings first), and makes useful suggestions. Moreover, whenever you write on the web (think of social media and blogs), Grammarly highlights spelling errors and makes recommendations about your grammar.
However, despite the usefulness of Grammarly, note that the best editing tool is the trained human brain. And that’s why you’d need to update your knowledge of grammar.
Another good practice that will help you with proofreading is reading your content slowly and audibly, word-for-word. This technique will force your brain to slow down so that your eyes can recognise errors. Also, consider reading backwards – a practical tip for identifying wrong or misspelt words.
3) Refresh your grammar
Without the knowledge and application of sound grammatical principles, it’s impossible to write with conviction or to collaborate with people you admire. You simply won’t be taken seriously. Poor grammar will weaken your credibility as a professional, leader or business owner.
Now there’re some grammatical rules you can break, such as beginning a sentence with a conjunction: ‘And we were grateful for their support’, or ending with a preposition: ‘That was the issue she wrote about’.
But here’s the thing: You must first know the rules before you can break them.
Then there’s the issue of business English changing over time. (That’s why it’s important to read regularly – so you’re aware of the trends, and to write often – so that you don’t sound stiff or dry).
Therefore, to improve your grammar, use the two free online resources below:
Consult them regularly, do the grammar exercises, and apply what you learn. Remember that excellent grammar (especially the appropriate use of punctuation) becomes a solid foundation on which you build your writing skills.
As you hopefully adopt the recommendations made in this article to sharpen your writing capability, realise one truth:
You must do the work, and you must continuously apply what you learn to reap the benefits over time. Persuasive writing doesn’t just ‘happen’. It becomes certain with practice and application.
Therefore, whether you’re an oil professional, a banker, a tech guru, a C-Suite executive, or an entrepreneur, note that you can generate positive results by writing persuasively.
Let your writing skills complement your other efforts and not become a hindrance to your professional advancement or business success.
Don’t settle for less.
Over to you:
Do you need help in boosting your business writing skills? Sign up here for my free quarterly newsletters and learn best practices. When you sign up, you’ll receive my evergreen resource on giving persuasive presentations. Ensure you download that document and refer to it before any high-stakes presentation or speech.
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N.B: First image is courtesy of Shutterbug75, via Pixabay. Second image is courtesy of Gerd Altmann, via Pixabay. Third image is courtesy of Kollakolla, via Pixabay. Final image is courtesy of Kollakolla, via Pixabay.