10 rules of written communication for business

Ian Jones takes us through a few simple, but often-overlooked, rules for effective written communication for business.

We live in an information-saturated world with more ways of exchanging knowledge, ideas, feelings and general thoughts than ever, most of which are instant. The barriers to communication have virtually all been removed, but one remains: the content of the communication. The skill of the communicator is still a crucial aspect of effective communication.

A communicator, whatever the tools at their disposal, will not transmit the relevant information to the recipient if they do not follow a few simple rules. These are the rules we were taught early in life, but are sadly forgotten in the chaos of modern business. The resulting communications are often jumbled streams of consciousness, ill-structured and ineffective, and worse still, such communications increase the chaos.

In this article I take a look at the building blocks of good written communication for business. These simple rules should ensure that your communications – particularly those to non-lawyers – achieve their intended purpose and help you stand out as an effective communicator.

Rule 1 – Understand the purpose of your communication

Most lawyers focus on ‘what?’ – the first question usually asked is: ‘What needs to be done?’. That is because we want to fix a problem; we are people of action. In communication, the important question is ‘why?’ – why are you being asked to communicate with the proposed recipient? If you identify the motivation behind the need to communicate, you will shape your communication appropriately.

For example, are you:

  • providing an opinion?
  • asking for a course of action to be taken?
  • giving or requesting a decision?
  • giving or obtaining an endorsement?
  • providing information?

If there are several reasons for sending your communication, make sure that you meet those requirements (eg to give an opinion and ask for a decision).

Rule 2 – All communications are a transaction

Every communication is a transaction – even this one. My assumption is you are reading this article because you are interested in what I say and may want to learn something. As the writer, my job is to make sure that transaction takes place. To ensure the desired transaction takes place, tell the recipient at the outset the reason why you are communicating with them. Say: ‘You have asked me for an opinion on …’ or ‘Please could you decide which option…’ so they know that you understand their needs and what you need from them.

Rule 3 – To whom are you writing?

There is a big difference between writing to a friend or immediate colleague and the CEO of your organisation (unless they are the same person). You need to adapt your style accordingly. This may be obvious, but it’s amazing how many people fail to put this in practice.

One of the issues with electronic communication is that people often end up jettisoning the etiquette they would follow when meeting in person. Be polite in how you address the recipient. You must create the same relationship patterns as if you were physically with them. Moreover, if they wrote to you, look at the clues as to their style and mirror it. If someone writes to me ‘Dear Ian’, I always respond ‘Dear …’.

Everyone is busy, but some are busier and have more responsibilities than others – such as senior management. A piece of advice I was given by a former special adviser to a cabinet minister was ‘always write briefs as if you were writing them for twelve-year-olds’. Not because busy people have the intellect of a 12-year-olds, but because they are so busy that they have the same attention span as a 12-year-old. This advice may seem a bit extreme, but you need to break down information and deliver it in bite-size pieces to grab people’s attention, particularly if your subject matter is important but dull and dry. 

Rule 4 – Choose the form of communication

Yes, you can choose how to communicate in 99 per cent of cases, so make sure you consider which method of communication will be most appropriate. And in the remaining 1 per cent, you are probably writing a formal document, so the format will be dictated for you.

In the business world of today putting the ball in someone else’s court is high on the agenda, and the usual response is to bash out a stream of consciousness and send via email. Such a writing style may have worked for James Joyce, but anyone who has to read Ulysses will know, it is impenetrable at first reading.

The more complex the issues, the better it is to speak to the recipient rather than write. You can always follow up a telephone conversation (or even more radical, a face-to-face conversation with your colleague across the office) with a confirmatory written piece of work. If you are unable to speak to them (as opposed to not wanting to speak to them – a big difference!), then take the time to write your communication properly.

Rule 5 – Have a structure

The ‘stream of consciousness’ approach is unstructured. It speaks volumes about the writer. The style suggests a lack of structured thinking – something which would cause alarm amongst many recipients. It also displays underinvestment on the part of the writer in the needs of the recipient.

When I teach communication skills, the point that comes as a revelation to many students is that all communications are a story. Written work has a beginning, middle and an end. The recipient is taken on a journey through your thoughts and arrives at the point that they come to a desired end.

The following is a simple structure and easy to use in even the briefest of communications:

  1. What? – what is the idea?
  2. So what? – why should the recipient care about it?
  3. What now? – what action is needed? (often called the ‘call to action’). 

A more formal structure might look like this:

  1. Introduction: the reason for the communication.
  2. A brief summary of the facts that give rise to the communication.
  3. Set out the areas of information, concern or requirement (if any more than three, I suggest you use a meeting – see rule 4).
  4. What you need the recipient of the communication to do (eg note the information, provide a view, make a decision etc.).
  5. Provide a timescale for action and explain any urgency about the communication.

Rule 6 – Keep it simple

The simpler it is to read, the more effective your communication will be.

If writing to a non-lawyer, avoid peppering your communication with case names, section numbers, the names of acts, quaint Latin legal maxims and so on. The non-lawyer recipient is unlikely to be interested – or impressed. Go easy on the adverbs: they slow down the reader. Use the simplest words possible and don’t be vague. Be ruthless with the word count, stripping out words that have little or no function (‘very’ is frequently overused). Don’t be melodramatic – a ‘catastrophe’ is something life affecting, the issue is likely just to be ‘critical’. Simple, declarative sentences of between 11 and 20 words work best.

And avoid ‘management speak’ – there really is no need to resort to ‘soup to nuts’ or ‘drill down’ unless you are in the restaurant trade or oil business.

Rule 7 – Remember that presentation aids communication

What is easy on the eye is pleasing to the brain. A densely packed page of text in a tiny font in lengthy paragraphs is off-putting for the reader. Adopt a bigger font size – 13 rather than 11 in a clearly discernible colour. Use bullet points and shorter paragraphs – one idea per paragraph.

Headings are also good as they give the reader signposts to the next aspect of the communication.

The easier you make it for the recipient, the more likely it is that your communication will succeed in its purpose.

Rule 8 – Have an opinion

As lawyers we are advisers and so should express opinions. In my legal career I was astonished by the number of lawyers who, for whatever reason, did everything they could to avoid expressing an opinion. Getting beyond equivocation appears to be a problem. Even a plain ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is to some people a Herculean challenge. Just consider what business colleagues have said about the lawyers in the past.

So have an opinion. Caveats are fine – all opinions reflect assumptions. In business, we must decide one way or the other (not deciding is, in itself, a decision). Yes, you may be wrong on occasion, but most of the time you will be right. So do not be afraid to say what you think.

And avoid phrases such as ‘I think’ or ‘In my opinion’ as these are redundant in your communication (see rule 6). If they are the opinions of others, attribute them.

Rule 9 – Appreciate the difference between written and spoken communication

Have you ever had an email when the sender appears to be having a rant at you? You then phone them or go to see them to talk about it, only to find them to be reasonable, polite and happy to help. The most likely explanation is that when you read the email, the two main factors in communication – the tone of their voice and their body language – were not available to you. Our words only shape 7 per cent of how we communicate face to face. A person’s tone of voice is 38 per cent and body language 55 per cent.

So when writing a communication, keep this in mind. Without 93 per cent of the clues available in face-to-face communication, you have to make sure the remaining 7 per cent is expressed so as to reduce the likelihood of misunderstanding and upset.

Rule 10 – Adopt your own voice

Writers talk about ‘finding their voice’. It is the most difficult thing a writer can do. It is shedding the style of others and writing authentically. By doing so, they make their work more powerful and compelling. But takes time. By taking a little more time and investing effort, you can develop your style, too. Business leaders are always on the lookout for employees who are authentic.

The investment will pay off as your communications will be well received, read properly and achieve greater results. It will also contribute to perceptions of your professionalism. Overall, your business colleagues will value your views, even if they do not always agree with them. You need not become Graham Greene or Jane Austen, just someone who writes clearly and succinctly.

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