I'm Rebecca Mahoney, a freelance journalist, fiction writer & manuscript editor who likes to chat about books & writing, share editing tips, and muse about the freelance life. Visit my full website at rebeccamahoney.com.
Proposals. White papers. Case studies. Newsletters. They’re a part of every company’s communication strategy.
But how many people are actually reading these reports? If you’re making one of these eight mistakes, the answer is probably this: Nobody.
Here are the biggest pitfalls I see in business writing today—and how you can avoid them.
1) It’s boring. Running a company is serious work. But that doesn’t mean your documents have to be deadly serious, too. Not every report has to be a no-frills, straightforward, just-the-facts-thanks document. In fact, that dry approach is almost guaranteed to lose your reader. The fix: Consider using storytelling techniques, such as vibrant language, interesting examples or anecdotes, and rhetorical questions to spice up your reports. Even a little careful humor can go a long way.
2) It’s all about you: Too many businesses focus on themselves—their services, their products, their goals, their work approaches. This is especially true in proposals and case studies. But that can come off as arrogant and impersonal. The fix: Remember: it’s not about you—it’s about your reader. When writing for a specific client, such as in a proposal, customize your piece to their needs & company. In case studies, focus on the client – their problem, the solution you created just for them, and the impact on their business. Always put your reader first.
3) The introduction is dull. You have less than fifteen seconds to grab your reader’s attention. If you don’t hook them right up front, they will not read beyond the executive summary—if that. The fix: Find a fresh way to begin each document. Revise it again once the whole document is complete. Test it out on a few colleagues for interest and readability and revise it again. Plan on spending more time on the intro than any other part of the document.
4) There’s no story. The most successful business documents have a narrative quality—an overarching theme, a clear beginning, middle and end, and a nice flow from start to finish. This is a big part of makes a piece memorable and distinct (and keeps your reader reading) but many documents are missing that narrative element. The fix: With each document your organization produces, ask yourself: what is the story here? Tailor your document to tell that story.
5) It’s too long. Too many companies think their document has to be all things to all people. People are busy. Don’t make your client wade through page after page. If they want more information, they’ll ask for it. The fix: Keep it short. Show your client you respect their time by keeping your document succinct, informative and focused.
6) It’s loaded with cringe-worthy jargon. Too many business professionals rely on cube-farm catch phrases: Move the needle, core competencies, mission critical, let’s take this offline… are you cringing yet? These business phrases are clichéd, annoying and unoriginal, and that’s not the impression you want to make. You’ll get the same reaction if you use too much insider jargon—internal acronyms or terms like “deliverable” and “upsell.” The fix: Be conversational. It’s perfectly acceptable to write respectfully and professionally without relying on business-speak.
7) There’s no cohesive voice. While it’s always a good idea to have more than one person review a document, it’s not a great idea to have more than one person actually writing it. Yet many companies do exactly that, and their pieces come away looking like five people wrote it, with different styles, structures and voices. It can be jarring to the reader and looks unprofessional. The fix: Have one author write the document and incorporate edits & revisions so the voice and style is smooth and cohesive.
8) The message is buried. From emails to case studies, too many documents force the reader to wade through a pile of information to get to the important stuff like key findings, action items or messages. In journalism, we call this burying the lead. It’s annoying and a sure-fire way to lose your reader. The fix: Ask yourself, what is the most important piece of information for my reader? Start with that.
Finally, when in doubt, hire a professional business writer or editor to help you with your documents. There are people (like me!) who know how to take even the most dry, complex information and make it sing. Check out how I can help at http://www.rebeccamahoney.com/business-writing.html