Business Writing Simplified - How to make your writing easier to read. | Chris Heath | Skillshare

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Business Writing Simplified - How to make your writing easier to read.

teacher avatar Chris Heath, The Geometrical Design Guy

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

7 Lessons (25m)
    • 1. Introduction

      1:15
    • 2. Myths

      4:53
    • 3. Principles

      4:18
    • 4. Simplify

      3:26
    • 5. Bullets

      3:55
    • 6. Overcoming Ambiguity

      5:18
    • 7. Bye

      1:45
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About This Class

Are your emails and reports getting the attention you think they deserve. Perhaps you are proud of what you have written, but could it be more to the point? 

In this class, learn:

  • about the myths surrounding business writing, and
  • how you can simplify your written correspondence and documentation.

Find the balance between clarity and conciseness, that sweet spot that makes your writing easy to read. After all, if it's easy to read, it's more likely to be read. So ensure your correspondence and documentation goes to the top of your audience's priority list of what to read.

This introductory class is for people who write:

  • emails and letters
  • memos, papers and reports
  • manuals and online help, and
  • lawyers who want to use plain English.

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Meet Your Teacher

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Chris Heath

The Geometrical Design Guy

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Check out my profile page to discover more classes for artists and designers.

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Transcripts

1. Introduction: Have you ever received a document that you had to read because it was your job to read it? Not because you actually wanted to read it? And when you went to read it, your brain would glaze over? Some documents take two, three, four or even five times to read in order to understand what the writer has written. So the question I have for you is: Is it possible that people have the same problem with what you have written? Of course not! Because what you have written is absolutely wonderful. And at the end of the day, anyone can write. Yeah Right! I'm Chris. I've been a writer and illustrator for more than 20 years. In this class, we will start off by looking at some of the myths surrounding writing within the business context. Then we will move on to some principles, which you can use to bring clarity and conciseness to what you are writing, because if it is clear and concise, it is going to be easier to read, And if it is easier to read, it is more likely to be read. So let's move on to the first lesson and start to look at some of the myths surrounding writing within the business context. 2. Myths: So what are some of the myths about writing? The first one is you have to be creative. When communicating with others in writing, it's important not to get overly creative with your synonyms and adjectives. It's important not to refer to the same thing with a number of different names, and it's important not to use the same name or term when referring to a number of different things. The world is full of TLA's and buzzwords that a unique to an industry, a company, or even a project team within a company. So do you have to be creative? Well, only if you're writing a novel, and this class is not about writing novels. Do you have to come across as intelligent. It's not unusual to want to impress people with an expansive of vocabulary using large or foreign sounding words. I think everyone goes through this phase to some degree at some stage in their lives. But this comment is not about showing off, and expanding your vocabulary is actually a good thing. The point I'm making is that it's more important to focus on what you want to say and to use your audiences vocabulary if you want to get your message across; and that is often a much broader audience than you think, and maybe a much harder objective for some people to recognise and achieve. Do you have to come across his intelligent? That's a firm? NO Here is a yes/no question, and I want you to go with the first answer that springs to mind. Is it important that your readers need to be fully informed? You may be writing about an up and coming event, a local issue that is affecting the health of your community, or you are providing financial information so that your customers can make an informed decision, and to the question 'Do your readers need to be fully informed?' The answer is no. And we will come back to this soon because I know some of you will be thinking the answer is yes. And on to our last point. Has anyone ever stopped and canceled their appointments for the day to read a large email or report that you have sent them? You wrote it. You poured your heart and soul into it. I hate to be the bearer of disappointing news, but when it comes to business documentation and correspondence, people are simply not dying to read what you have written. So those are the myths. Instead of being creative with your synonyms and adjectives and what you call things, be consistent with your choice of words. If for example, you are writing a manual on how to use a computer, rather than getting creative by referring to the monitor. as a monitor, then referring to it as a screen, then referring to it is a display, settle on only using one of these terms consistently through your documentation, I would go for 'screen'. And this is because I think of a monitor is a person who keeps an eye on something, and I like to use the word display as a verb rather than a noun, especially if I'm writing, for example, a user guide. Instead of trying to come across as intelligent use plain English as much as you can. It's a balancing act. Sometimes you do need to use industry terms, however, if you are writing to people, or writing for people who are new to the industry, using plain English can help bring them up to speed a lot faster. Do readers need to be fully informed? No! Readers need to be reasonably informed. If you drown your readers in an ocean of information, thinking they need to be fully informed, it can lead to paralysis for the reader. By all means, provide the readers with what they need to know to make an informed decision. Just don't drown them with everything you can think of. As the writer, you have to do all of the work so that all the reader has to do is read it once to understand it. Remember, easier to read documents are more likely to be read. These are the principles I keep in mind when writing and structuring information. Easy reading can be hard writing, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. 3. Principles: All five principles that I'm going to cover briefly, are important to keep in mind when writing, whether you're writing an email, a report or a blog post. All these principles work together to help you to find the right balance of clarity and conciseness on all your written communications. Know your audience. I remember when my daughter was four years old and she was telling me about someone she met and she assumed I knew this person because up until that point, I knew everyone on her world. Even as adults, we still do this. It's normal to assume our pools of knowledge and vocabulary are shared with everyone. It's just that outside, for example, our specialised jobs, or the industries we work in it's not as universal as we want to expect. Consider that your audience may not be familiar with what's in your head or how you think. Consider whether the vocabulary you use every day with your colleagues is universally understood. Is,for example, a SME, a 'Subject Matter Expert' or 'Small to Medium Enterprise? or something else? If you're talking about SMEs as a 'Subject Matter Expert', but the person you're talking to is trying to relate your dialogue to 'Small to Medium Enterprises', their brains are going to glaze over. Consider how big you want your audience to be. If you want to reach a wider audience, be more inclusive with your vocabulary. Know what you want to say. Take some time to work out what your primary message is. What is it that you really want to communicate? Do a large brain dump on paper, or on your word processor. A mind map may be useful, just a figure out and arrange your thoughts. Just take care not to share these muddled thoughts. Tidy them up first and be sure to remove anything that could be distracting or potentially misleading. Know why you want to say it. Ask yourself why you want to communicate this information. Something is driving you. Or perhaps it helps to simply understand your purpose, for example, to persuade someone to do something, to inform the readers of something that is going on, or to bring someone up to speed with an aspect of their new job. Don't make me think. If you know what you want to say and understand why you are saying it, then it's important that you do all of the work as the writer, so that your readers can read at once and get what you are saying. Remember these two things. Your audience only needs to be reasonably informed, so don't drown them with too many choices or too much knowledge. Most business writing is long, complex and takes forever to get to the point. This is self defeating as the available reading time is often only a few minutes. Simplify. I know some people think that simplification is a form of dumbing things down for your audience. Let me assure you that this is not the case. Have you ever sent an email only to be disappointed that the recipient missed the point you were trying to make, and focused on some other aspect of your email? Simplification is the process of removing anything that can cloud what we're trying to say. The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through the thoughtful removal off anything that adds little or no value to your primary message. It's important to weigh up what you are saying against your primary message or key point. Sometimes this means sacrificing content that you are proud off, and this can be difficult, but worthwhile. Providing too much information increases the probability of two things. People are less likely to read what you have written, or they are more likely to miss what you're trying to tell them, and will focus on something that you consider irrelevant. 4. Simplify: Let's dive into an example. This is an email I received a while back from a real estate agent or realtor. I thought this email was a good example of what not to do. And so I reworked it and sent it back asking the writer if I can use it in my workshops. The writer was happy for me to use it as long as I changed the names. What I would like you to do is pause this video in a moment and write down three things you could do to improve this email. So pause now while the countdown is running, and give it some thought. Great! Now you're back. What could you improve that would bring clarity to this email? Well, shorter sentences would have made it easier to read. Locating the emails primary or key message and putting it up front would ensure it doesn't get missed. Using bold text sparingly and giving it a purpose helps. At present, the bold text creates what I call random eye magnets. These magnets draw the reader's eye and when read together they make no sense at all. Shift the focus from what the writer is up to and focus on what is in it for the reader. The last improvement we could make, although there probably are a few more, is simply remove words and phrases that add no value. So let's apply a bit of simplification. The first sentence is long-winded, and a lot of it can be removed to make it easier to read. For example, does the writer really need to tell me that he's doing me a favour by providing me with a courtesy? I mean, what does it actually mean? Does the writer really need to tell me he is writing to me at all? That's a given, so they can go. And here we have removed all of the fluff and we're left with this sentence's primary message. Let's remove some or redundant words or phrases. Have you ever heard of Wednesday, Thursday or Friday falling on a weekend? So the phrase during the week can go. The last part of this clean up is to add some consistency in the presentation. So instead of Wed, Thursday or Fri night, let's write all the days out in full, and once we've done that, it just flows a lot easier. Here is the after. It's so much easier to read. In addition to the changes of I have mentioned so far, I used bold only for the catchline and rearranged the content. When pasting this into an email, I'd move the catchline to the subject field. Then we are straight into the 'why' then the 'offer', and then the 'call to action'. The email on the right is much easier to read. It doesn't make me, is the reader stop to think about what the writer is trying to say. I don't have to read it multiple times to get the message. So remember, if it's easier to read, it's more likely to be read. This is simplification, a process of thoughtful reduction, a decluttering of redundant words and phrases resulting in a clear and concise message. 5. Bullets: Now let's move on to another tool you can use to simplify your sentences. Some of you will be doing this already, possibly without giving it too much thought. What I'm talking about here is using bullets to bring clarity to what can be long, convoluted sentences. In particular, we can use bullets to make your documents easier to read, provide welcome white space, and express relationships more clearly. So here is a before and after example of a policy statement. Starting with the original sentence on the left, as the reader, you immediately lose the will to live, It dives right into the jargon without getting straight to the point, and you have to read it multiple times to work out whether it actually applies to you. On the right, anyone who reads this can first work out whether the information is going to be relevant before reading on. If it is relevant to the reader, it clearly tells the reader, when this policy applies and what they need to do. In this lesson I'm going to show you three ways you can use bullets to bring clarity to your writing. You can use bullets for bulleted lists, breaking a single sentence as we just saw down into easily digested chunks off information, and listing sentences. The Bulleted List This is perhaps the most familiar use of bullets. here we are using bullets to create a simple unordered list of items. The rule about capitalisation and full stops are the ones I use. Because we are using bullets, any other punctuation is redundant. Some people like to add semicolons. Again, when using bullets, they add no value and can be dropped altogether. This is a list of examples, so there is also no need for an 'and'. The Bulleted Sentence We started this lesson with a bulleted sentence, and here is another example. This is a complete sentence. We can use bullets to form a sentence by heading a colon, replacing commas with bullets, retaining standard sentence capitalisation, placing a comma before the conditional statement, and ending with the full stop. And, of course, it's much easier to scan and read, than when it's buried in the paragraph with no whites base around it. So a bulleted sentence is easier to read, and easier to read sentences only need to be read once to understand them. Bulleted Sentences The last example of using bullets is pretty straightforward. In this example, we're listing a set of sentences. Each bulleted item is a sentence in its own right. That is, each bulleted sentence follows standard sentence capitalisation and ends with a full stop. The relationship between these sentences is established up front. Where it asks you to follow these four rules. If written as a paragraph, this could take readers of while to wrap their heads around the rules. So have a go. This is a simple exercise. I'll put a count down on this to give you five seconds to hit the pause button. And while you are pausing this lesson, grab a pen and paper and try to write this sentence out using bullets. All done? Here is my attempt at simplifying his partners frustrations using a bulleted sentence. One thing you may have found yourself doing on reading these bullets sentences is scanning the list. Bulleted items are easy to scan. It's a bit like getting a bird's eye view of what you're about to read and working out whether it's relevant or not, before actually reading it. 6. Overcoming Ambiguity: In this last lesson, we will cover how to use bulleted sentences to overcome ambiguity. So what do I mean by ambiguity? I'm talking about the use of the words 'and' and 'or'. I find that sometimes people use 'and' when they mean 'or' and sometimes use 'or' when they mean 'and'. To add to the confusion, some people try to cover all bases by using and/or The problem arises from limitations with the English language. And this is where we can all find ourselves struggling with, or should I say why readers can struggle with what you have written. The words 'and' and 'or' simply don't cover all the logical permutations we need when writing. But what do I mean by this? Let's have a look at how software developers solved this problem. They have clearly defined what each of these terms mean and to complete the logic they have XOR, so AND means both. OR means one or the other or both, and XOR simply means one or the other, but not both. Now, I'm not suggesting that you use these rules when you're writing an email or report, given that most people have never heard of Boolean Logic, let alone what it is. Using XOR is not going to add clarity to your writing. But wait. We can, in most cases, get around the ambiguity of using 'and' and 'or' by being clever with our lead sentences. You have seen this before. It's the bulleted list from earlier in this class, In the lead sentenced the phrase 'any of the following' removes any ambiguity. Let's look at a simple problem. With the sentence 'Show me all the red and blue berries' What springs to mind for you? Were you thinking 'Show me all the berries that are red or blue'? or 'Show me all the berries that have both red and blue. I could rewrite this as a standard sentence and that's okay, or I could simplify it right down using bullets. 'Show me the following: red berries and blue berries' If I was to send an employee out to buy some red and blue cars, am I asking for some red cars and some blue cars, or cars that have a two-tone colour scheme of red and blue. Ambiguity can lead to expensive mistakes being made. Here is another one. I wear a raincoat when it rains and snows. Does it rain and snow at the same time? I wear a raincoat when it rains or snows. Is this any clearer? I wear a raincoat in any of the following with the conditions, rain, sleet, snow. That's a lot clearer. Here we have a range of ideas for lead sentences. The point here is that you use the lead sentence to clearly communicate the relationships between the items and the bullet points that are to follow. Here is an exercise. Pause this slide and have a go at rewriting this extract. As a hint, you can rewrite it with a lead sentence and a bulleted list, or as a bulleted sentence. So how did you go? Here are two examples of what it could look like. The first one is written as a bulleted sentence. The second is written up is a bulleted list. So now we're onto the bonus exercise. Just kidding. This paragraph can be broken down into easy to digest chunks. If you want to pause the lesson, do it now and have a go rewriting all of it. So here is the countdown so you can pause and give it a go. There is a lot happening here. We could pick out a chunk of information and convert it to a bulleted sentence. However, the major change we're making here is to speak directly to the audience. If you have a legal background, this is an opportunity to try plain English. So here goes, To speak to the audience more directly. I'm using the words 'you' to refer to the reader and 'we' to refer to the person who's the hirer. It's more direct and friendlier at the same time. We now have a clear heading for this contract clause. Then we're straight into setting the expectations. It's plain and to the point. There is plenty of space around each chunk of information, and whoever is reading this doesn't need to read it multiple times to work out what the writer is trying to say. 7. Bye: Hey, thanks so much for watching this class. I'm really glad you made it this far. Remember that as the writer, it's your job to do all of the work so that all your reader has to do is read it once to get it. And this is so vitally important in this day and age, when your audience receives a lot of correspondence, probably has a lot of reports to read, a lot of decisions to make. You know they've got their own day job to do. So, if you're sending them something, make sure that what you send them is going to rise to the top of the list in terms of what your audience wants to read. If you can gain a reputation for writing clear and concise correspondence and documentation this increases the chances that what you write is going to be read, and that puts you ahead of the pack. So there's just three more things to do. One is to follow me on Skillshare Two is to leave a review of this class. So please leave a review. It does help other students determine whether this class is worth watching. Also, tell your friends so if you've got a lot of value out of this class, and you think some of your friends could improve on their correspondence or their reports, send them this way and tell them to watch this class. And the third thing is, please leave a comment in the discussions area below, particularly if you would like me to add more lessons to this class or if you would like me to create more classes along these lines. So if it's the start of the week, have a great week. If it's the end of the week, have a great weekend, and I hope to see you again one day. Not that I can actually see you, but you know what I mean.