4 writing tactics that compel readers to take action

Why do we communicate at work? To get things done. Follow these approaches to motivate recipients to do what you need.

“This is just FYI.”

Next time you draft that sentence into a business message, stop. Admit that you are either:

  • Wasting your recipient’s time; or
  • Lying.

You wouldn’t really bother your busy target audience with a message that doesn’t require their involvement, would you? You must expect some action or response. There is an outcome you hope to achieve.

The point of business communication is action.

We craft messages so people will understand, believe and do what it takes to move business forward.

You can create a message to achieve practically anything—as long as you know what must be done. Ask: In order to move from where you are to where you want to be, what must your recipient do? The options are nearly infinite. Here’s a sampling, from A to Z:

My X word is a stretch, but you get the idea. You have many opportunities to get people involved in your message. Choose wisely.

Write for action.

Once you’ve settled on a desired action, you can write in that direction. Here are four strategies that will help you compose a message that makes things happen:

1. Tell me what to do.

One of the biggest favors you can do for your audience (and yourself) is to be direct and specific about not just what you want them to do, but how and where and when.

Think in terms of how-to instructions. “Let me know what you think” has a friendly, casual tone, but it leaves a lot to the imagination. “Please complete and return the attached questionnaire to me via email by 3 p.m. Central time on Friday, May 6,” is more likely to get the results you need.

With detailed direction, your recipients won’t have to guess or ask what you want. They’ll know how to respond.

2. Get to the point.

If you’re asking for the right action—one that makes sense and matters to your audience—your message may not need much setup. Open with the most important details, including your call to action.

If the circumstances demand more detail, follow with context or rationale, but keep it short. Link to or attach nice-to-know information, trim unnecessary words, and write in the active voice. Active sentences are almost always shorter than passive ones.

3. Don’t miss the point.

You’re rushed. You’re so close to the subject that you can’t be objective. Maybe the message has been through so many reviewers and revisions that you can’t remember what’s in and what’s out. Any of these situations can cause you to omit useful details—or forget the call to action altogether.

Don’t let that happen. Review your work, and have someone else review it, too. On a scrap of paper, write out your intended call to action, including every essential detail. Keep this note in front of you while reviewing. Use it to cross-check your message, to be sure the right words are actually on the page.

4. Format for skimmers.

Consider the way you consume email. Most of us glance at subject lines, select messages worth opening, then scan the content for need-to-know information. We don’t read. We skim.

Help skimmers get what they need by using visual strategies such as these:

  • Include headings to divide content into manageable, meaningful sections.
  • Highlight important phrases with bold text.
  • Focus on a big idea with a single-sentence paragraph-the shorter the better.
  • Use bullet points and lists to organize and prioritize information.
  • Replace complex data with images, charts or diagrams.
  • In link text, share the “why” of clicking. Not “Click here,” but “Learn about X.”

It’s not enough to reach your audience. You need to involve them. By writing a message that’s clear, concise, complete and skim-worthy, you improve the odds that people will respond the way you intend.

A version of this article originally appeared on SpencerGrace.com.


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