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Manager's Guide to Business Writing
By Suzanne Sparks FitzGerald
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2011The McGraw-Hill Companies
All rights reserved.
Write for Your Readers
A camera manufacturer provides an instruction manual written only in French, frustrating the English-speaking buyer.
An environmental services brochure sent to purchasing managers used such technical language (an "aquifer characterization" and "in situ volatilization to treat the vadose zone") that many confused purchasers chose another source.
A direct mail piece with a pro-life message sent to a pro-choice audience actually caused those people to feel more vehemently opposed to the pro-life position.
A Web page designed for college students tried to arouse a sense of activism in the students; unfortunately, the Web page referred to famous activists like Ralph Nader, whom the students didn't recognize.
The dean of a college sent an e-mail to the chairmen of five departments. Three of the five were women.
Coors committed a faux pas when it used its slogan "Turn it loose" in Spanish. Unfortunately, it translated as "Suffer from diarrhea."
American Airlines also neglected global manners with its campaign "Fly in Leather," that translated means "Fly Naked."
These real-life examples show what can happen when you don't know your audience. Your communication can confuse, anger, or simply fail to connect with the people you want to reach. This chapter focuses on knowing your readers and how you can better connect with them.
Know Your Readers
The first tip to effective writing is to know your audience. The more you know, the more you can tailor or customize your message for an individual or group.
First, think of the person or persons you write to most frequently. Visualize your supervisor or your key customer as you write. Try to obtain information such as age, education level, income, and gender.
If you can discover interests, opinions, and values, you can persuade your readers more effectively. And you have a great advantage knowing the readers' understanding of your topic. Let's go back to the opening examples.
If the person who wrote the instructions for the camera had known the first language of the reader, he could have avoided using the incorrect language.
Whoever created the environmental services brochure did not take into account the educational level of the readers or the readers' knowledge of the topic, confusing potential purchasers.
The pro-life group ignored the values held by the people who would read its message.
The person who designed the Web page to arouse activism in college students ignored an important demographic, age: the students were too young to remember or care about Ralph Nader.
The dean should have considered gender and addressed his e-mail to "chairs" or "chairpersons."
Coors' marketers ignored the nationality of Spanish speakers, as did American Airlines by confusing or humoring customers.
You can see that if the writers of these pieces had known their audiences, they could have avoided serious blunders.
What If You Don't Know Your Readers?
The scenario: You have 15 minutes to write an e-mail and you don't know much about the manager you're addressing. Here are some quick tips.
In most cases you need only spend a few minutes determining which of the following categories most closely fits your reader. Then you can easily adjust your writing.
It's helpful to evaluate whether your reader is a layperson, an expert, an executive, a user, or a complex type. Here are some guidelines to help you categorize your readers, with some "Dos and Don'ts" and a few examples.
A layperson by definition has little expertise in a subject matter and usually no particular motivation to read what you write. So to be effective, you must motivate or attract your reader; starting with a benefit helps. A layperson is not knowledgeable, so you must adjust your tone, style, and vocabulary.
Do: Find a way to attract attention.
Don't: Bore your reader with detail.
For example ... If you're writing to employees (normally laypersons) about various health care plans, find an interesting fact or a reason (benefit) to catch their attention in your first paragraph, for example, how they can receive 100 percent coverage for dependents. If you're writing to people who use computers but do not know contemporary software well, you might attract attention by using an easy-to-understand analogy. You might also present one of the benefits of using a particular software program, like the grammar- and style-checking feature of a word processing program.
An expert cares about process and detail. An expert who is a chemist, for example, would want to know how to reproduce your results by using all the procedures you followed. Give experts the specifics. The same detail would scare or bore the layperson.
Do: Focus on procedure or process.
Don't: Only give bottom-line data.
For example ... If you write to an expert in health care benefits, spell out the details of the policy. The expert will understand and appreciate the specifics. If you're writing about computer software for programmers, you'll want to go into particulars about how you developed a particular program and its ability to interface with other programs.
An executive audience wants bottom-line information. Detailed descriptions that work for experts would not work with this audience. Use straightforward language and tone. Give a benefit and the critical information first.
Do: Get to the point immediately.
Don't: Explain in detail.
For example ... Give the executive audience a summary of the medical benefits package in one paragraph or less. Then proceed with other important points. A sales executive will look for benefits and product value more than the nuts and bolts of the package.
The user must carry out your instructions. For example, users of a software package must understand your documentation in order to do their job. Users don't care how you wrote the software; they want to know how to make it work.
Do: Realize that this person might not know as much as you do.
Don't: Be too brief.
For example ... The user in our health care plan example would need to understand the features of a complicated medical policy. Help the user by explaining clearly how to use each feature and where they can find help. The person who must use the software and understand how he can make it work needs the basics and in sufficient detail.
Writers make a common mistake with user audiences: they overestimate the readers. This error seems to be particularly true in technical matters. So often writers of technical manuals think they're writing to other technical people using a string of acronyms and jargon unknown to the user. Just buy a new electronic product and check out the manual and you will instantly know the mindset of the writer. These writers neglect to start at the beginning, to provide the basics.
You must write to fit your reader, to establish a connection that will make your writing more effective. This is especially difficult when the reader might be a complex audience, a combination of styles. Here are a few examples.
* The person who serves
Excerpted from Manager's Guide to Business Writing by Suzanne Sparks FitzGerald. Copyright © 2011 by The McGraw-Hill Companies. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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