Friday, June 16, 2006


"Write to express. Not to impress."

"Listen to understand. Not to respond."

How do you write to express? Write like Mark Twain. Simple style and concise prose. Twain said "writings of famous writers is like wine. mine is like water. everyone drinks water." Twain also had advised some youngster to keep his simple style when he had come to ask for Mark Twain's suggestions as how to improve his style.

Regardless of style, there are many other things that we can practice to improve the effectiveness of our writing. With information overload that we all experience, it is very easy for recipients to miss our message. We all get so many e-mails everyday and we know which e-mails are easy to read and act on. We love people who write such e-mails. What are some of the secrets of effective business writing? Let's limit to business wiring.

1) Write in small sentences

2) Use  a lot of white space

3) Use double spacing all the time.

4) Indent appropriately especially when natural hierarchy exists (such as problem and possible causes, symptom and reasons)

5) Get to the crux ASAP

6) Greetings, apologies, BS, suck up etc. are needed. But, keep them at the end. Let people end with a happy note.

7) Use SEER format. SEER format is normally used for writing reviews. It is equally useful for other memos too. It involves dividing your writing into four distinct parts - 1)Statement 2) Explanation 3)Example to provide better explanation 4) Review (or summary at the end)

8) Use bold, underline, italics etc. very sparely. If you leave a lot of white space and indent properly and use right fonts for headings and sub headings, bold and underlines are not much needed.

10) Where possible, get the verb as early as possible. Always write in active voice. This ensures that verb appears ASAP.

11) Use bullets, numbers liberally. How often we have gone into a meeting with some document and there is a long list everyone is struggling to come to a common understanding (third bullet from the top. No, No, I meant third from the bottom. Numbering avoids this.)

13) Use tables, graphs, pictures liberally. On graphs, please do explain axis clearly.

14) Limit business memos to 2 pages at the most.

15) Do not let a section run into more than 2 pages at the most. If a section runs into 2 double spaced pages, you can easily break that into several sections.

16) Keep the reader in mind

17) Some people learn by reading and some people learn by listening / speaking. Do not send memos to people who learn by listening/speaking. With such people, spend time and then summarize in a brief memo. Everyone is happy.

To be an effective communicator, we need to listen well. Listen with  a quiet and attentive mind. It is said that for every minute we speak, we better listen for five. Listening is not hearing. It's okay to take time to respond. This will free you to listen when you are supposed to be listening. We fear that we have to respond as soon as we hear anything remotely objectionable. Keep in mind that acknowledgement is not agreement. In fact, every one should expect that they are acknowledged and not automatically agreed. If the other party takes your acknowledgment for agreement, it is their problem.

It is not only important to listen but also let the speaker know that you are listening. Make eye contact as much as possible. Use effective body language as nodding, smile etc. Avoid body language which upsets or intimidates the speaker. Speaker may hide much from you if you come across as hostile. 'Poker face' is good if it can help to make the speaker comfortable.

Lincoln said - "if you are silent people may think you are idiot. by speaking you will remove any doubts." Not that we do not have anything meaningful to say but in general people speak more than listen.

One of the best quotes on silence and listening is -"I can speak of only what I know. If I remain silent and let others speak, I know what they know."

Pass your words thru 3 gates. First gate, is it true? if not send it back. Second gate, is it kind? if not send it back. If it passes these two gates, then next gate is to ask if it is necessary? if not, you do not have to send back always. Sometimes to keep social interactions going we can speak words if they are true and kind.

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