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Webucator's Free Business Writing Tutorial

Lesson: Communicating to the Audience Effectively

Welcome to our free Business Writing tutorial. This tutorial is based on Webucator's Business Writing Training course.

The purpose of the communicating process is to convey information in a way the audience understands. When writing in a business environment, the writing project must be planned and the tone must be adapted to the audience. Focusing the content will bring a clear, concise message to the audience as well.

Lesson Goals

  • Learn how to plan the writing project.
  • Learn how to adapt the tone of the project.
  • Learn how to focus the content.

Planning the Writing Project

Business writing projects can include:

  1. Reports
  2. Statements of work and scope documents
  3. Cost/benefit analyses
  4. Requests for bids or projects

The first step in the writing project is to create a plan.

The second step is to consider the team members who will be collaborating with you on the project and present the plan to them. Some steps in the plan will include:

  1. Determine the audience
  2. Scope of the assignment
  3. Purpose and goals of the writing project
  4. Style and format of the project
  5. Outline the content
  6. Assign research items
  7. Create a schedule for the project

Looking at each of these steps individually will help you as you devise your writing project plan.

Determine the Audience

It is important to know who your primary audience is in order to focus the document and establish the proper tone. Consider the following:

  1. The decision maker will be in the primary audience.
  2. The decision maker may be the only member of the primary audience.

Therefore, so you want to make sure you are directing your comments, proposals, and research to that person. Your message may be contained in:

  1. Comments
  2. Proposals
  3. Research

The primary audience is not the only audience to be concerned with, however.

Think about the secondary audience, the group of people who may influence the decision maker. This audience is going to be affected by the decision that is made as a result of your writing project and will want to have some participation in that decision.

While they may not actually make the decision, they certainly will have some kind of influence on the outcome of the decision. For example, they may be the managers and supervisors who will be required to implement the decision.

There is yet another audience that needs to be considered, at least peripherally. That is those people who will be affected by the decision, but do not have any influence on the outcome or the decision maker.

This audience is usually the group of people who end up doing whatever work is required as a result of the decision. They will be "following orders" of the managers and supervisors.

Scope of the Assignment

In this part of the planning you will want to look at the parameters surrounding the writing project. Is it to cover a certain time period or is it to present a series of ideas?

It is a good idea to get a firm grip on exactly what the parameters are before starting a project in order to prevent the project from getting bigger than it was originally intended to be.

Something that frequently happens when working on a large project is the generation of new ideas. If these new ideas are outside the original scope of the project, they should be separated out and set up as their own, separate but supportive projects.

These kinds of projects are called "spin-offs" and should not be discounted, but need to be separate from the original project.

An example would be if you and your team are working on a proposal for purchasing a new software package for the graphics design department and someone suggests another software package from the same company, but one that would benefit the finance department.

The second package is outside the scope of the original proposal, but some of the information gathered in the original project may be useful for the second proposal, making them related, but still separate projects.

Purpose and Goals of the Writing Project

When thinking about the purpose and goals of the project, you need to look back at your notes about the audience. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What do I (we) hope to accomplish?
  2. What do I (we) expect the audience to do with this information?

Once you have the answers to the questions, you will be able to determine the tone and the format of the project. Is it:

  1. Informational.
  2. Persuasive.
  3. Entertaining.

Remember, there are three reasons we write these kinds of projects:

  1. To provide information about something.
  2. To persuade someone to do something.
  3. To write the project in such a way as to engage the reader enough to read the entire document and respond accordingly.

Style and Format of the Project

The style and format of the project may be dependent upon templates already in existence in the company. Before starting any major writing project it is wise to check with someone to see if there are approved style sheets, templates, or format guidelines that need to be followed.

If there are none, this is an excellent time to create something that can be used in future writing projects.

Also consider whether to use graphics, charts, images, and photos. Note the following:

  1. The position of graphic elements in a document needs to be consistent. For example, charts and graphs should be adjacent to the text that they support and should be used sparingly.
  2. The use of graphics and images breaks up the text, making the report easier to read, but they must be:
    1. Relevant.
    2. Free of copyright issues.
    3. Appropriate to the tone of the document.

Outlining the Content

An outline will give you the opportunity to organize your thoughts, the concepts to be explored in the report, and the flow of information.

There are some guidelines for creating outlines that, if followed, will produce a tool that is invaluable in the completion of the writing project.

The following table lists things to keep in mind as you create your outline.

Parallel Headings The structure of the headings and subheadings should be in parallel structure. For example, if the first word in heading one is a present tense verb, the first word in heading two should also be a present tense verb.
  1. Determine Actions
  2. List Strategies
Coordinating Information The information in the first level of headings should have the same significance. As you move down the outline, the second level headings should be of the same significance, one step lower than the first level headings. For example:
  1. Determine Actions
    1. Identify Possibilities
    2. List Alternatives
  2. List Implementation Strategies
    1. List Deliverables
    2. Create Timelines
Determine Level of Detail The information contained in headings is general, while the subheadings contain more detailed information. For example:
  1. Describe Your Favorite Leisure Time Activity
    1. Favorite Vacation Spot
    2. Favorite Outdoor Sport

Dividing the Outline Properly

Each heading in the outline should have a minimum of two or more parts.

In other words, if you have a top-level heading, you need a second top-level heading, and each subheading should have at least one more sub-level heading. For example:

  1. First Top-Level Heading
    1. First sub-level heading
    2. Second sub-level heading
  2. Second Top-Level Heading

A benefit of outlining is the ability to re-arrange the information quickly and easily to make it flow easier. Outlines will also help you focus your content.

Assigning Research Items

Review the outline and determine which items need further research. Assign those items to members of the team who will then provide titles of resources for each of the areas that need research.

Those lists of resources will be divided up among the team members who will actually do the research and provide information back to the team for compiling into the project.

Creating a Schedule for the Project

This is an important step. Everyone on the team must know what the deadlines are for each phase of the project. Do not just set the final deadline, but include in the schedule any benchmarks, or steps needed to complete the work, and when those benchmarks are to be met.

Assign ownership of the benchmarks to members of the team, impressing upon them the importance of meeting the benchmarks in a timely manner and communicating to the team if there are foreseeable problems with meeting set deadlines.

Check for Understanding: Plan the Writing Project

Duration: 5 to 10 minutes.

In this exercise, you will read the following scenario and respond to the questions at the end.

Raul and Eloise are in the break room discussing the project they have both just been assigned to.

Raul: Are you ready to get started on the quarterly report? I already have my numbers ready. It should be a snap!

Eloise: I thought Ruben was going to give us some research assignments when he finishes the initial outline of the project.

Raul: Yeah, that is what he said, but I don't think we need to do any research at all. Just submit your numbers from the last quarter. That is all he needs.

Eloise: I don't think so. From what I heard he wants to include some analysis and projections based on some of the numbers. I think I will wait and see what he needs before I send him anything.

Raul: You think so? Maybe I better think about this, too. I will wait to see what Ruben asks so I make sure he gets the information he wants, not just what I think I should send him.

  1. Why does Eloise want to wait before she sends her information to Ruben?
  2. Why does Raul think Ruben just needs numbers for the report?
  3. Why is it important to understand the scope of the report before starting to work on it?

Solution:

  1. Ruben has stated he will assign research topics when he finishes the outline.
  2. It is likely that Raul had preconceived ideas about the scope of the project and decided before even attending the meeting that he already had his assignment done.
  3. The scope of the project will provide direction and help focus the information needed to complete the project.

The following presentation will provide more information on how to define the scope of a project and its importance.

Adapting the Tone of the Project

Tone in writing is just like the tone of your voice; it conveys the writer's attitude toward the audience and the content in the message.

In order to ensure you have the proper tone for your written communication, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What is the purpose of this writing project?
  2. Who is the audience for the document?
  3. What do I want the reader to understand after reading this document?

What Is the Purpose of This Writing Project?

Consider the message you are trying to convey:

  1. What action do you want the reader to take after reading the message?
  2. Once you have determined this, the tone will become apparent. Obviously you will use a professional business tone, but:
    1. Will it be formal or more casual?
    2. Will the tone be enthusiastic?
    3. Will the tone be appreciative?

Adapt the writing to convey the message in the light in which you want it conveyed.

Who Is the Audience for the Document?

The audience will determine the level of formality in the message. If you are writing the document for the Board of Directors, or the CEO, the tone will be more formal than it would be if you were creating a report for your colleagues.

Once you have determined who the audience is, you need to decide what you want the reader to do or understand after reading the document.

Consider the following situations:

  1. If you are simply conveying information with the message, the tone will be professional and informative.
  2. If you expect the reader to act upon something in the message, the tone will be professional, as well as direct.

You do not want to make your reader guess what it is you want him or her to do.

Guidelines for Considering Tone

Keep the guidelines listed in the table below in mind for your written communication when you are considering the kind of tone you want to use:

Be Confident Your reader will know if you are not confident because the writing will not be well organized or clearly written. Proper preparation for the writing project will show in the writing and your reader will then not only recognize your confidence, but will also assume you are competent. A tone conveying both competence and confidence will leave your reader with a good impression about your professionalism.
Be Courteous and Sincere Courteousness is a given when writing a business document in a professional manner, but sincerity is sometimes harder to convey. If the politeness extended appears to be phony, the reader will immediately think you are being condescending. The way to get the reception you desire is to be honest and respectful when writing. Consider the wording you are using and how the reader will receive it.
Use Appropriate Emphasis If there are certain elements you want to emphasize in your writing, you use short, to the point sentences and place the information at the beginning of the paragraph, following it up with supporting sentences and detail. To de-emphasize some information, use compound sentences and place the information in the middle or toward the end of the paragraph. Use active voice to emphasize who or what is performing an action and passive voice to emphasize the action that is being performed.

You can also use language to emphasize or tell the importance of something. Using words like "primary," "major," or "most important" will certainly clue the reader in to the importance of something. Conversely, words like "secondary," "minor," or "least important" will let the reader know that the point being made is not as critical as other information may be.

Using Nondiscriminatory Language

In this day of political correctness, it is necessary to use the kind of language that does not demean or belittle anyone. Avoid the use of stereotypical terms as well.

Some guidelines for proper, non-discriminatory language are:

  1. Use neutral job titles: flight attendant, NOT stewardess and chairperson, NOT chairman.
  2. Avoid stereotypical terms: women or men, NOT girls or boys, when referring to females and males over the age of 18.
  3. Do not use words that imply gender: doctors and their spouses, NOT doctors and their wives.
  4. Do not use information that assigns someone to a specific group: Susan ran the race well, NOT Susan ran the race well for her age.
  5. Use non-gender-specific salutations if you do not know the reader's gender: To Whom it May Concern, NOT Dear Gentlemen.
  6. Do not use masculine pronouns if the nouns are not gender specific: Every person needs to bring his or her own lunch, NOT Every person needs to bring his own lunch.

Stressing the Benefits for the Reader

WIIFM: What's in it For Me? This is the perspective the reader is coming from. Instead of writing from the perspective of what you can do for the reader, use the perspective of what the reader can do for you.

For example, if you are letting a reader know when his or her printing order will be done, write it like this: "Your order will be ready for pick-up tomorrow." Do not write it like this: "I will have your order ready tomorrow."

Writing at an Appropriate Level of Difficulty

To do this, you must know your readers and how well they know the subject you are writing about. If the audience is a general one, do not use complex, jargon-laden sentences.

Match your writing style to the reading abilities of your audience by using appropriate examples and language to ensure understanding by the audience. If your readers are very knowledgeable about the subject, be careful that you don't insult them by using simple language and examples.

Check for Understanding: Adapt the Tone of the Project

Duration: 5 to 10 minutes.

In this exercise, you will read the following questions and provide the correct answer.

  1. If your audience is knowledgeable about the topic, which of the following approaches to the writing project will you take?
    1. Write in simple, easy-to-understand terms.
    2. Use multiple, but easily understood, examples.
    3. Write with confidence, using appropriate jargon and technical terminology.
    4. Focus on what the reader can do for you.
  2. What aspect(s) of the writing project is important when trying to determine the tone?
    1. The audience.
    2. The topic.
    3. The organization of the material.
    4. The number of references.

Solution:

  1. C. Write with confidence, using appropriate jargon and technical terminology.
  2. A and B. Both the audience and the topic.

Focusing the Content

When creating a business document, keep several things in mind. We have already talked a great deal about the audience and the purpose of the document, and now it is time to bring that all together and talk about how to focus the content so it meets the audience's needs and fulfills the purpose of the document.

Some guidelines to focusing the content are:

  1. State the main purpose early in the document.
  2. Consider what response you want from the reader.
  3. Tell the reader what you plan to cover in the rest of the document.
  4. Keep the focus narrow enough to hold the reader's attention.

Let's look at each of these guidelines in detail.

Stating the Main Purpose Early in the Document

This is sometimes referred to as the thesis or theme of the document. It is essential to let your reader know within the first few lines or paragraph what the document is going to be about.

Your reader will make a decision early on in the reading whether or not to continue and stating the theme or thesis early helps him or her make that decision. Don't make the reader wade through several paragraphs to determine what the main idea is.

Considering What Response You Want from the Reader

If you just want the reader to read and understand the information, it needs to be presented in a logical fashion, moving from one idea to the next in an order that is easily understood.

If you want the reader to respond by doing something, you need to appeal to the emotions of the reader, as well as present the information using strong rhetoric and declarative statements.

For example, if you use verbs like "says" or "relates" or "comments" you will lead your reader to make a conclusion or summary of the content. But, if you use strong power verbs, you will persuade your reader to take action or to see your writing as more analytical and incisive.

Some power verbs to consider are:

  1. "affirm"
  2. "challenge"
  3. "emphasize"

Telling the Reader What You Plan to Cover in the Rest of the Document

Once you have stated the thesis or main idea early in the document, you need to provide your reader with information about what is going to be covered in the rest of the document.

The sentences following the main idea need to include a preview of the information to follow. This will engage the reader and ensure he or she continues to read. Here is an example:

(Thesis or main point) We need to allocate at least twenty-five percent of our marketing budget to trade show participation. (what will be covered in the rest of the document) The following information about dates, costs, and locations of trade shows will help us launch our new product line.

Keeping the Focus Narrow Enough to Hold the Reader's Attention

When creating a business proposal, letter, memo, or other business document, it is important to keep the reader engaged. If your focus is too broad, the reader will become confused or distracted while trying to keep everything straight.

The key is to balance the amount of information so you provide enough to keep the reader involved, but not too much or too little. If your focus is too narrow, you will find you do not have enough to write about.

One way to narrow the focus is to review the subtopics in your outline.

Make sure they are narrow enough to provide interesting information, but not so narrow that there is not enough information to write about. A broadly focused document (one with all the information possible about the topic) may actually become very boring for the reader, who has to wade through all the detail to get to the point of the project.

Check for Understanding: Focus the Content

Duration: 10 to 15 minutes.

In this exercise, you will read the following example introduction to a business proposal and note the techniques used to focus the content to keep the reader engaged.

Handy Mobile provides customers with a software platform for mobile delivery of email, voice mail, and messaging. Our software enables the customers to deliver their most important communication channels on any Palm, iPhone, or iPad device. Handy Mobile's value is in the increased productivity of users while managing multiple devices and the communication channels connected to these mobile devices. Handy Mobile's software addresses the need of users to be in continuous contact through their communication channels, even when they are away from their desks. Handy Mobile's main offering, Handy 1.0, provides users with a unified view of their email, voicemail, and other messaging channels on their mobile or remote device.

Solution:

Using the notes you created about the introduction to the proposal, watch the following presentation about identifying the main point (the company offers a software solution for mobile delivery of multiple messaging methods) and the information that will be covered in the remainder of the document. It will also be noted that the focus of the document is all about mobile delivery of messaging methods.