Write Like Your Boss’s Boss

A common fashion tip in the business world is to dress for the job you want, rather than the one you have.  Let’s turn that on its ear.

Write like someone in the job you want, rather than someone in the job you have.

Most of the people who meet you professionally will meet you via email first.  Intended or otherwise.  The importance of projecting a polished, professional image over email cannot be overstated.

Contrary to conventional belief, “professional communication” is not the same as “big words and lengthy run-on sentences.”  Next time you attend professional training, a seminar or lecture, listen to the presenter (assuming they’re good).  Or read the web copy posted on your company’s website.  The majority of polished, professional communication is clear and concise.  In contrast, communication (written and oral) from many entry-level employees tends to be too quick, poorly thought-out, and very rough.  Do you want to stand out?  Improve your written communication.

Consider Madison Avenue’s average depiction of a teenager on the phone.  They’re yapping a mile a minute without really saying anything.  In contrast, listen to one of the many good presentations from Steve Jobs.  Or read an all-department email from your Senior VP.  It’s not that successful professionals can’t talk fast.  They choose not to.

The same applies for written communication.  Shorter is always better.  Flowery language only muddies the waters in corporate communication.  By the time I send out any major communication, it’s probably half the size I started with.  I edit every important email three times.  Once while I write it, and twice thereafter.  Each time I cut down my words until only the heart of the matter remains.  Personally, I tend to fall victim to a few tendencies.  (I used them right there–did you notice?)

Metadiscourse is a waste of space and a common culprit.  My personal pet peeve is, “I was just going to say . . .”  I hear that right after two people start talking at the same time.  Metadiscourse is also used when the writer or speaker isn’t confident in their response.

“I guess the hardest thing about my last job was the unusual hours.”

“I think this is probably the best way to do it.”  I’d rather hear “This is the best way to do it.”

“It’s my opinion that we should move forward.”  I know it is–you just told me.

Adding extra emphasis is quite common, but easy to avoid.  When I edit my own writing, I invariable remove a handful of reallys and verys.  “The meeting today was really energizing.”  “Thanks for your feedback today.  I’m very happy to have you on board.”

Here’s an example of a thank you card I might receive after an interview:

Dear Charlie,

I want to thank you for taking the time to meet with me at your office this past Friday.  I can’t tell you how much it meant to hear how exciting of a company your company really is.  I really feel I can contribute and make this company even greater than it already is.  Both you and the other person I interviewed with really spoke highly of the company and how I could contribute.  I look forward to meeting with you again soon.

To pick apart my own example, let’s cross out the overkill:

Dear Charlie,

I want to thank you for taking the time to meet with me at your office this past Friday.  I can’t tell you how much it meant to hear how exciting of a company your company really is.  I really feel I can contribute and make this company even greater than it already is.  Both you and the other person I interviewed with really spoke highly of the company and how I could contribute.  I look forward to meeting with you again soon.

There are plenty of overly fancy writers out there, too.  Don’t use bigger words when simple, smaller words will suffice.  Especially if you’re not sure they work.  In my line of work, I hear people say “methodology” instead of “method” all the time.  I also hear “irregardless” more than I should.  (I should never hear it.)  One of my favorite writing blogs has this to say about fancy writing, so I needn’t say more.  Though I will echo the point that fancy writing leads to errors of pretension.

Twice yearly, I teach a two-week training course for recent graduates.  It’s filled with great tips and tricks (I hope), but a few are more important than others.  One applies here:

Something either adds or detracts value.

The first time we discuss that tip is during the half-day on building impactful presentations as it applies to adding color, graphics, etc.  But it’s a great guideline for any professional communication.  If you don’t need a modifier, clause, or sentence to make your point, take it out.  If it doesn’t help, it hurts.  Even if it’s not directly harming the message, it hurts simply by adding clutter.

The more clear and concise your writing, the more professional you appear.

I fully expect a dozen messages correcting this post by the time I log back in tomorrow morning.  Fire away!

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