Most of the documents we write at work are intended to influence readers and achieve a specific outcome.
You may need to write a board paper requesting approval of a recommendation. You might be asking the executive team to commit resources to a new project. Or you might want approval for a change in policy or procedure and must convince staff to implement those changes and to comply with the revised approach.
It’s important to be able to write in a way that ensures you get the results you need. So, how do you do that?
You’re not writing for yourself
One of the biggest mistakes writers make is to write for themselves, rather than for their readers. What I mean by that is that writers often:
use the language—and jargon—that they’re familiar with;
focus on the issues that are important to them; and
organise their ideas in a way that is logical for them.
And what’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, if you’re going to influence people to make the decisions you want, and take the actions you need, you need to approach your writing from their point of view.
Think about your language
First of all, think about the language you’re using. Within the compliance profession, and in your own functional team, it is natural and appropriate to use the specific terminology and jargon associated with compliance. But if you have to explain your situation to people with a different background, you need to do it without using terms that they’re not familiar with and may not understand. If you do need to use technical terms that people may not know, explain them.
Use plain language
No one ever complained that a text was too easy to understand! In the writing courses I run, participants often expect me to teach them to write using complex words that will make them look clever. But complex language is not only hard to understand, it can also create a pretentious tone-of-voice that sounds patronising and can alienate.
Using plain language is important, and studies show it actually makes the writer look smarter. Plain language includes using simple rather than complex words and using short sentences and paragraphs. You’re not dumbing down the information—you’re thinking about the reader. Even readers with double degrees or doctorates understand simple language more readily than complex language. All of us are busy multi-tasking and meeting short turnaround times, so the easier it is for us to read and understand a message, the more likely it is that we will respond in the way the writer intends.
Think about structure and design
Plain language is about more than the words you use. According to the Plain Language Association InterNational (PLAIN), a communication is in plain language if the language, structure and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.
To achieve that you need to:
break your information into short paragraphs with plenty of white space; and
use effective headings so that your readers can see exactly what information is where.
The idea behind plain language is simple: if you make documents easy for people to read and understand, you’re more likely to get the results you want.
Take your reader’s perspective
A key failing of many business writers is not considering their reader’s perspective.
It’s natural to be focused on the issues that affect you. Maybe there are new regulations that need to be complied with, which require changes in the business. As a compliance professional, it’s natural that your focus is on ensuring the business complies with the new regulations. You want to show your readers how important that is.
Handle readers’ concerns and objections
Put yourself in your readers’ shoes. What’s important to them? The things that they care about are probably different to the things you care about. For example, you might want to ensure the business meets new requirements, while they may be concerned about the extra work for their area if those changes are implemented.
Readers may have a range of concerns or objections to whatever you are recommending. It’s important that you address these concerns or objections explicitly in your document. Otherwise, your reader will—rightly—believe that you have failed to see their perspective. It may be that you can see their perspective but don’t want to address it because you worry it might open a can of worms. It’s far better to acknowledge their perspective and justify your approach or handle their objections.
Organise your content for your readers. What do they need to know?
Another mistake writers make is organising their content in a way that makes sense for themselves, rather than thinking about what’s most helpful for their readers.
For example, I often see writers organising their information as a timeline, telling readers first this happened, then I did this, then I did that, etc. This makes sense to the writer. But this may not be helpful—or relevant—to the reader. While you may want to tell them about all the details you’ve been focused on over the last few months, they may only need an overview.
On the other hand, you may fail to provide sufficient context for the situation you’re in because you’re so familiar with it and assume everyone else in the business is too. Think about what you need to explain to your reader to bring them up to speed. Make sure you signpost this information clearly within your document by breaking it into separate chunks and adding appropriate headings.
It’s not all about you!
If you are writing a document where you are trying to influence your reader to do something you want, you need to put yourself in their shoes. Think about:
using language that is meaningful to them;
taking their perspective to focus on what’s important to them; and
organising your content in a way that makes sense to them.
Remember, you are not writing for yourself. You are writing for someone who may have a different background and a different point of view to you—someone, therefore, who is impacted differently by the situation.
Write with their needs in mind, and you are much more likely to influence them and get the outcome you want.