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Webucator's Free Business Writing Tutorial

Lesson: Effective Written Communication

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

In this lesson, we will explore strategies for finding the right tone, anticipating how your audience will respond to both good and negative news messages, and summarizing the communication effectively.

Lesson Goals

  • Anticipate audience response.
  • Choose the right tone.
  • Deliver positive and negative news.

Anticipating Audience Response

One step in the planning process for written communication needs to be anticipation of the audience response. If you find yourself having to search for answers to questions you did not see coming, you have not done enough research into your audience. Positive presentation of your ideas and confidence in your topic will show your audience that you are competent. There are some things you can do to find out who your audience is and anticipate how they will respond to what you have to say:

  1. Decide who your audience is
  2. Determine your audience's demographics.
  3. Learn how much your audience knows about the topic.
  4. Determine what the audience expects and how they will respond.

Now let's look at each of these strategies in detail.

Determining Who Your Audience Is

Your audience is composed of both primary and secondary readers:

  1. The primary audience is who you are actually writing the document for. Decide who, in this primary audience, has the most decision-making power and address their concerns first.
  2. Your secondary audience needs to be considered, of course, but the concerns of those who can affect company decisions need to be considered first.

In order to determine what the tone of your communication will be, think about your place in the chain of command or hierarchy of the company. Your status in the company will also play a role in how your message is received.

For example, if you are directing your communication to a supervisor, the tone you employ will not be the same as if you are addressing a subordinate.

Determining Your Audience's Demographics

Demographics of the audience also play a role in how you address them, and in the tone you employ in the document. The table below lists some considerations for determining your audience's demographics.

Gender The imagery you use in the communication should be gender-neutral. For example, if you use sports analogies or analogies involving housekeeping, you may inadvertently offend someone in your audience. Of course, the use of sexist language is never appropriate in business communication.
Race and Ethnicity As with gender, the language you use needs to also be neutral concerning race and ethnicity. Your statements appealing to the concerns and attitudes of diverse groups need to be written without writing anything that can be considered to be racially biased.
Culture As you are writing your document, take into consideration any cultural differences you may be exposed to and do not inadvertently offend someone. Some cultural differences to take into account are how you address the person or deadlines stated in the project that may conflict with different holiday or religious schedules.
Class The language you use is dependent upon the socioeconomic class of the audience. You want to use language that is familiar to the group and not demeaning in any way. In order to persuade your audience, you need to use language that will not inadvertently offend them.

Learning How Much Your Audience Knows About the Topic

If the topic is something new that you are introducing, you will need to include introductory material and details; however, you will need to avoid overwhelming your audience with a lot of technical information or jargon.

Jargon is the language that those very familiar with the subject will use. Knowing how familiar the material is to the audience will help you determine the tone, the language, and the amount of detail you will include in the document.

Determine What the Audience Expects and How They Will Respond

If you can anticipate the questions your audience will ask, you can answer them in the original document. This will help:

  1. Establish goodwill.
  2. Show your reader you are competent.
  3. Eliminate a lot of back-and-forth communication about the document.

To do this, you need to know what your audience expects regarding the content you are providing. Do some research, ask questions, and get a feel for how they will react to your communication.

Check for Understanding: Anticipating Audience Response

Duration: 5 to 10 minutes.

In this exercise, you will consider the following scenario.

Julian and Marco are in the lunch room at work. They are discussing a presentation they have to do in two weeks. Read the following scenario and answer the questions that follow it.

Julian: How are the slides coming along in the presentation?

Marco: Pretty good, but I have some questions about the content of the outline you gave me.

Julian: Oh? I thought the information was pretty clear.

Marco: It is, but I am not sure it is the right amount of information for the audience.

Julian: What do you mean? Aren't the members of our department the audience?

Marco: Well, yes, but the primary audience is the CEO, isn't it? He is the one who will make the ultimate decision on this proposal.

Julian: You are right! We need to focus on him, not so much on the department. They already know all the details because we have been talking about this for so long. The CEO doesn't have any idea about the details.

Marco: Do you want to re-write the outline, or should we work together on the slides, adding in additional detail where it is needed?

  1. Why is Marco concerned about the information in the presentation? Is there too much or too little information in the outline prepared by Julian?
  2. Why would the information for the CEO be different than for the department members? What kinds of things will the CEO look for in this presentation in order to make a decision?
  3. Think of a time when you have made a presentation or created a document in your workplace that was focused on the wrong audience. What happened? If this has not happened in your experience, speculate on what would happen.


  1. The main reason Marco is concerned is he thinks that the primary audience has been misidentified. There is not enough detail in the presentation for the CEO.
  2. The CEO is probably not aware of the details of the proposed project as he has not been privy to the discussions in the department. The details that will make the difference for the CEO will be budget, timelines, benefits of the proposal, etc.
  3. Watch the following presentation on audience response to learn more about how to determine what kind of and how much information needs to be included in a written business project.

Choosing the Right Tone

Tone in writing is just as important as tone in speaking. The tone of the message will affect the reader just as the tone of voice affects the listener.

Your attitude toward the reader and even toward the content of the message will influence the tone of the document. You want the readers to perceive the message as a professional communication meant to either provide information or persuade them to do something.

There are two basic questions to consider when determining the tone of the document.

  1. Why am I writing this document?
  2. Who is my primary audience and what do I want them to understand?

When answering the questions, take a minute and reflect on how you feel about the content of the document as well as the recipient. Keep your thoughts:

  1. Neutral.
  2. Professional.
  3. Purposeful.

as you set the tone of your communication.

Why Am I Writing This Document?

Take the time to think about the purpose of the document.

  1. What is it you want to happen as a result of this document?
  2. Is it an information piece that needs no response or is it something that requires the audience to take action on?
  3. Do you know a lot about the topic itself or are you writing about something you are not quite sure of?

The tone of your document will convey your confidence (or lack thereof) to your reader, so be sure to use language that will make you sound not only competent, but confident. Your reader will trust you more and be more likely to do what you want if he or she feels you know what you are talking about.

For example: Marcella has accepted a position at another company. She is not quite sure what tone to employ in her letter of resignation. She asks herself what she hopes to accomplish with the letter.

The answer she arrives at is she wants to let her current supervisor know that she appreciates the opportunity to work for the company and she has learned a lot. She does not want to burn any bridges in making this move to a new company. Once she has thought about those things, she is able to write the resignation letter with a professional and grateful tone.

Who Is My Primary Audience and What Do I Want Them to Understand?

When thinking about your audience, you need to consider how much information you need to include, how to include it, and what level of language you are going to use. All of these things come together to convey the tone of the message.

If you are writing a memo to your team members, letting them know that deadlines have changed, the level of detail and language will be much different than if you are sending an email to a supervisor to update her on the progress of the project.

When writing a business message, the tone should be confident, courteous, and sincere. Language becomes important as well as the level of understanding in the document. Some general guidelines that will help you write professional, competent messages with the appropriate tone are:

  1. Write with confidence.
  2. Write sincere, courteous messages.
  3. Use appropriate, non-discriminatory language.
  4. Emphasize the benefits for the reader.
  5. Make sure your reader understands what you are writing.

Let's examine each of these guidelines.

Writing with Confidence

In order to get your message across with confidence, you need to be prepared. You need to be knowledgeable about the subject and write with confidence without being overbearing.

You do not want your reader to think you are being presumptuous or arrogant; therefore, the goal is to present yourself in a confident manner, showing your competence in the subject matter.

For example: You are writing a memo to your supervisor asking for approval of a proposal:

  • INAPPROPIATE: Any fool can see that denying this project will result in a huge loss of revenue.
  • APPROPRIATE: Review of the cost/benefit analysis for this project shows that going forward with it is a sound financial decision.

Writing Sincere, Courteous Messages

Politeness in a business message is not enough. You must also be sincere. You want your readers to believe that you actually mean what you say and are not just being courteous because you think you have to be.

You need to be respectful and honest in your communications, even when delivering negative news. Your readers will be more willing to accept the message if they feel they have been treated with respect.

For example: you are writing a note explaining why a request was denied:

  • INAPPROPIATE: You did not sign the required paperwork like you were told to; therefore, your request is denied.
  • APPROPRIATE: I had to deny your request because the paperwork was not signed.

Using Appropriate, Nondiscriminatory Language

Language that singles out specific people or causes someone to feel he or she is not being treated fairly is discriminatory. There are several ways to avoid the use of discriminatory language in a professional business environment.

  1. Use neutral job titles like Chairperson instead of Chairman or Chairwoman, unless of course you know the gender of the person. It is also acceptable to refer to the head of the committee as the Chair.
  2. Do not use demeaning or stereotypical terms like "the girls in the office." Instead of the demeaning word "girls," use "women" or rewrite the statement to eliminate all reference to the person or people. For example: WRONG: The office is closed when the girls go to lunch. RIGHT: The office is closed during the lunch hour.
  3. Do not use words that imply gender. For example, do not say: "All the husbands of the admin staff are invited." Instead, say: "All the spouses of the admin staff are invited."
  4. Do not use language that identifies someone as a member of a certain group. For example, it is inappropriate to say: "Umberto Gomez does a great job, considering his age." Instead say: "Umberto Gomez does a great job."
  5. It is not appropriate anymore to use the masculine pronoun as a universal, all-purpose pronoun. For example, "Each officer on the police force must buy his own gun." Not all the officers are men, and the use of the pronoun "his" is not a generic pronoun that includes both men and women. The proper way to write this is: "Officers on the police force must buy their own guns." OR "Each officer on the police force must buy his or her own gun."
  6. The same rule applies to the salutation in a letter. Do not use the masculine form of greeting (Dear Sirs or Dear Gentlemen) if you do not know the gender of the recipient. It is appropriate to use "To Whom it May Concern" in this instance.

Emphasizing the Benefits for the Reader

If your purpose is to persuade your reader, you will want to give him or her some incentive for doing what you ask.

Therefore, it is important to write from the reader's perspective. In other words, use a structure that will answer the question the reader is asking him or herself: "What's in it for me?"

Writing from your perspective is: "I will not be working on your project until next week." Turn it around and let your reader know what is in it for him or her: "I will complete your project by the end of next week."

If there is some kind of reward or other benefit for the readers, tell them. For example, "You will see an increase in productivity in your department once this process is implemented."

Making Sure Your Reader Understands What You Are Writing

The style and structure of your writing must match the reading ability of your audience. If you are explaining a new software program to a group of IT professionals, you will use jargon and technical language that you know they can understand.

On the other hand, using that same technical language and jargon to the end users of the software program will only frustrate them. Technical language needs to be simplified for non-technical readers, but not "dumbed down" to the extent you insult them.

Here is an exaggerated example of using technical language for a common nursery rhyme (from http://spiritofthebeast.deviantart.com/art/MENSA-Nursery-Rhymes-52577345:

  • Three visually impaired rodents,
  • Three visually impaired rodents,
  • See how they traverse at a gait faster than walking, not quite a run, as rodents tend to amble or canter, but still they moved rather quickly,
  • See how they traverse at a gait faster than walking, not quite a run, as rodents tend to amble or canter, but still they moved rather quickly,
  • They all pursued the female of the Homo sapiens race, matrimonially affiliated with a male of the Homo sapiens race, usually associated with agriculture; who physically removed their rear appendages with a curvaceous chunk of stainless steel, that had been rendered rather deadly by an act of repetitive grinding at various angles, by a specialist in metal working
  • Has one ever witnessed such a bizarre, phantasmagorical spectacle as three visually-impaired rodents?
  • While this is an absurd and extreme example, you can see how using technical language in that nursery rhyme would do nothing but confuse the audience: a small child.

    Check for Understanding: Choosing the Right Tone

    Duration: 5 to 10 minutes.

    Choosing the right tone for your business communication will affect the results of the communication. Review the following scenario and answer the questions that follow.

    You applied for a job as a salesperson at a local cable TV company. You were invited in for an interview, which went well. However, after thinking about the hours and benefits of the job, you have decided you are no longer interested, but they offer you the position before you have had a chance to withdraw your name from consideration. You decide to write a letter turning down the offer.

    1. What do you hope to accomplish with this letter?
    2. What kind of tone will you use?
    3. Who is the letter addressed to (the primary audience)?
    4. Who is the secondary audience?
    5. Compose the letter and have it available when you watch the presentation.


    1. Your answer should include comments about on not burning bridges, professionalism, etc.
    2. The tone of the letter should be polite, honest, and sincere.
    3. Who the letter is addressed to depends on who made the offer. Was it the HR department? The hiring manager? The supervisor? The response should go to the person who made the offer, with a copy going to the person who interviewed you if it was someone else who made the offer.
    4. The secondary audience is anyone who is directly affected by your response to the job offer.
    5. Watch the following presentation on constructive and positive messages.This presentation will introduce the next section in this lesson as well as give you some more information on the letter you wrote for this exercise.

    Delivering Positive and Negative Information

    Delivering good news is something we all like to do. The process for giving someone the good news is relatively simple: state the main idea or the good news, explain the circumstances or the details, and close with a comment encouraging future interaction or providing future expectations.

    Here is an example of a good news communication:

    Dear Ms. Smith,

    We are pleased to announce that your bid for the artwork display was accepted by the committee. The sculpture you proposed will enhance our entryway and we are excited to see it on display. We would like to meet with you early next week to finalize the work schedule for installing your sculpture. Please let us know right away when you are available for a 30-minute meeting.


    Ms. Jones, Chair of the Selection Committee

    Negative news, on the other hand, is more difficult. You want to deliver the negative news without sacrificing the goodwill of the company or alienating the recipient of the negative news.

    Being a clear communicator is a key characteristic of a leader, and clearly communicating negative news is one of the challenges leaders face.

    There are some steps to take when delivering negative news that will help you and the person who is getting the negative news get through the process:

    1. Write an introduction.
    2. Buffer the negative news.
    3. Provide a remedy, lesson learned, or course of action.
    4. Conclude the message.

    The process of delivering negative news can be eased by following the steps listed above. Let's look at them individually.

    Writing an Introduction

    The introduction will set the tone and context for the message.

    You want the message to be received in a way that does not sacrifice goodwill. Start out with something positive or by describing a beneficial outcome. If that does not fit, explain something positive about the future.

    In the previous example, if the bid was not accepted, you could write something like this:

    "First I would like to convey to you our gratitude for your bid on the art project."

    This introduction is going to lead to negative news, but it will serve to make the artist feel appreciated.

    Buffering the Negative News

    The example above also serves to act as a buffer for the negative news. The artist may have an idea that her bid was rejected by the context of the first few lines, but she will feel that the effort she put into the proposal was recognized. You can further buffer the negative news by adding a sentence like this:

    "Although we did choose another proposal for our art installation, we appreciate your taking the time to submit your bid. There were numerous outstanding bids and it was not easy to choose."

    The negative news is in there, but it is not a cold, impersonal statement.

    Providing a Remedy, Lesson Learned, or Course of Action

    To continue to build goodwill and reassure the recipient of the message that you want to help him or her, you can provide some information on how to change things so future positive results can be attained.

    Continuing on with the message about not accepting the bid for artwork, you could write the following:

    "We will be looking for another art installation at our other site in about six months. That site is smaller; therefore, a smaller sculpture would be more appropriate. We do hope you will consider submitting a bid on that project."

    Now the artist has some hope that a future project may be accepted. She does not feel completely rejected and still has goodwill feelings toward the art selection committee. Of course, this statement must be true or else you are inviting future, even more difficult, communication.

    Concluding the Message

    Once the negative news has been delivered, along with any lessons learned or courses of action for the future, it is important to conclude the message showing that you care and have genuine empathy for the recipient. It is important here that your ending is sincere.

    "Again, let me express how sorry we were to not be able to accept your proposal, but hope to see ideas from you in the future."

    Not all negative news messages will go as smoothly as the one illustrated here, but if you remember that the key to delivering negative news is trust, you will be able to deliver a message that is credible.

    Check for Understanding: Positive and Negative News

    Duration: 5 to 10 minutes.

    In this exercise, you will pick one of the following scenarios and write a negative news letter to address it.

    1. You must turn down a customer's request for credit.
    2. You need to tell your supervisor why the project failed.
    3. You must explain why you cannot approve a proposal submitted by a subordinate.


    The following presentation provides examples of all three bad news messages. Watch it and compare the one you wrote to its example. How did you do?