A guide to brief and effective workplace communication

Remember adding as many words as possible to your grade-school papers so they would meet the teacher’s length requirement? It’s time to stop following that formula in the workplace.

In grade school, my teachers would assign book or topic reports, and they always had a length requirement.

Make sure it’s two pages and single-spaced.

Kids would struggle to make their reports long enough, using extra-large margins, leaving big gap under the title and/or writing really big.

In high school, we advanced from reports to term papers that had to be 25 or 50 pages typed, double-spaced, and had to include supporting research for every fact. You had to show how you built your case.

That formula continued into college: Make your reports complete, accurate and long. Show your research.

Get to the point

In business, the last thing anyone wants to do is read a long report filled with details about how you got to your point.

Effective business communication is brief and relevant to your audience.

For many, the school approach is hard to shed, because teachers drilled it into us as the correct way to write (in America, anyway).

I see business presentations and documents all the time that remind me of school term papers. They are too long and not tailored to a specific audience. They make you slog through facts and endless supporting data.

People present proposals as though the audience is a professor who will grade on grammar, punctuation and the hypothetical completeness of the argument-not a busy executive deciding whether to bet the business on your idea.

Accurate versus effective

Your communication can be 100 percent accurate and zero percent effective. To be effective, be as brief as possible.

If someone asks you to share information or create a proposal, think, “How can I create the most compelling case in the fewest amount of words, screens, pages or slides?”

Create a version of your content that fits on one page. You can create more pages for a complete version you’ll use for discussion or backup, but if you want people to read and act on your work, you need a one-page version. Try to include a chart or picture, as well.

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Here are some steps for brief and compelling communication:

Thinking and preparation:

1. Who is your audience?

2. What do your audience members care about? (Remember, it may not have anything to do with you.)

3. Which words do they use to describe what they care about?

4. Use their words to create a dictionary of the words you are allowed to use when writing.

Outlining:

  • Determine your desired outcome: Decide what should happen as a result of this communication.

Example: Outcome = Executives have confidence in you and give you funding.

  • Open strong: Create a hook for your communications by making the first thing you write be something the audience cares about. Use your audience’s words from the dictionary you created.

Example: “Web self-service proposal” becomes “A plan to address the revenue shortfall in Europe.”

  • Get to the point: State your desired outcome up front, but hang it on the hook you created in your opening so the audience will also care about your desired outcome.

Example: “This presentation shows that we can increase revenue by 10-20 percent in Europe by improving our Web self-service-even if we don’t change anything else.”

  • Make the choices clear: I can’t tell you how many presentations I’ve sat through as an executive where 45 minutes into a one-hour presentation I had to ask, “What are trying to tell me? What are you expecting me to do or take from this?” Don’t make your audience figure out what you need them to know or want them to do. Spell it out.

Example: “We need your approval to extend two contracts and invest $225k. The ROI is in one quarter.”

  • Be brief: Describe the plan and ROI as briefly as possible. Put all the data about how you got this answer or recommendation in your backup document. Don’t take people through your process unless they ask.
  • Have a big finish: Ask for something that will drive the outcome.

Delivering the communication:

Create a one-page summary. If possible, include a picture, block diagram or chart.

Make the document as short as possible; it should contain only the necessary information. Offer additional details upon request.

Before the meeting or presentation, distribute the one-page summary with a brief email (so people don’t ignore the summary or file it for later) that has the action requested in the subject line. Ensure none of the sentences in the body copy wrap to a second line.

Consider this example:

Subject: Action Requested: Need Your Decision by Friday (Europe Revenue)

Hi Jay,

I have attached the plan to address the revenue shortfall in Europe.

It’s a one-page summary that describes two choices. FYI: I recommend choice A.

Action requested: I need your decision by Friday.

Thanks so much.

(I have additional information if you have questions.)

Sell your ideas

Don’t let your need for completeness shoot you in the foot. You need to sell your ideas, not just document them. Take responsibility to close the deal and get the outcome.

Patty Azzarello runs The Azzarello Group. This article originally appeared her Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is “Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

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