Author Archives: Steve

Effectively Using Lists

Effectively Using Lists

Good use of lists can make instructions or other sets of details much more readable and easier to grasp. Let’s look at an example.

Without a List:
To ensure your garments are properly cleaned, conduct the following steps, in order. First, take the soiled garments from the basket and place them into the washer. Add the correct amount of detergent to the washer. Close the lid and then set the timer. Remove clothes when wash cycle is complete.

With a List:
To ensure your garments are properly cleaned, conduct the following steps, in order.

  1. Place garments into washer.
  2. Add detergent.
  3. Set timer.
  4. Close lid.
  5. Remove clothes when wash cycle is complete.

Are both sets of directions clear? Yes. But the second set is much easier to read and can be comprehended more quickly and easily. That’s important in this type of business writing.

Here’s another example, this time with a bulleted (instead of a numbered) list.

Without a List:
The shortfall we have recently experienced is likely to be short-lived. To save money, there are areas of spending that can be cut. Training new employees later will be costly. Downsizing may be perceived as weakness by our competitors.

With a List:
There are several reasons why it would be a bad idea for our company to lay off employees at this time. These include:

  • The shortfall we have recently experienced is likely to be short-lived.
  • To save money, there are areas of spending that can be cut.
  • Training new employees later will be costly.
  • Downsizing may be perceived as weakness by our competitors.

Again, both ways work, but a list like this just makes it easier to quickly grasp key points. This is because every point is separated into a different line, and the reader can choose to focus on any one line very quickly, as opposed to having to read through the whole paragraph.

So, make good use of bulleted and numbered lists. They are a good tool to make your writing easier to be comprehended quickly.

Wake Me up…

Wake Me up…

Last quarter, as you all are aware from the minutes of the previous Board meeting, held on 30 June, 2007 at 5:30 p.m. Central Standard Time, in this very office, we, that is to say, this esteemed Board, felt obligated to delineate, and indeed to emphasize the value of the progress and growth of our fine company, as could only have been made possibly through the continued efforts of the fine men and women of each of our sundry but equally valued departments, all of which shall herewith be named, in turn, and each member duly honored…


Huh? Oh…sorry, must have nodded off. And who wouldn’t, given such a desperately dull account as that listed above? Speeches are meant to inform, not substitute as a sleeping aid. Here’s how to write speeches that are informative and interesting.

Rule number one: Make it relevant to the audience:

In all business writing, there is no rule more important than this. To use the example above, no one cares what time zone the previous meeting happened to be in. And is it really necessary to point out that we are an esteemed Board?

Since the intent of the above speech is to honor company employees, why not try something like this:

Our company’s continued progress is due mainly to one key factor: you. Each department plays an important part in making us an industry leader. With this in mind, it is my pleasure to sincerely thank each of you for the fine work that you do…

What makes this so much better? Mainly the fact that it’s you-focused. There is one other thing, though. The old standby of speech killers is stilted language (why people ever thought they had to speak in such language is somewhat beyond me—but I digress). Specifically, using words like sundry, herewith, delineate, etc. is not only necessary, but can often be off-putting (avoid words like “off-putting,” too).

So, make it relevant, keep it you-focused, and use language that is easily understood—your audience will appreciate it.

Be Careful What You Say in Emails

Be Careful What You Say in Emails

Email is permanent. Oh sure, it may not seem that way, because most of us delete unwanted emails every day. But what if you didn’t delete them? They would be around for as long as someone wanted to keep them—perhaps years into the future.

Why is this important? Because it stresses the importance of not writing emails that are stupid, irresponsible, mean, libelous, or anything else that you might really regret later on. It’s kind of like the old adage about taking a few hours, or maybe a day, to simmer down before sending off a letter you wrote in anger. In all likelihood, when we look at our writing after the emotions have calmed, we think, “Man, I’m glad I didn’t send that!”

The trouble is that with email we may not be quite so careful. Email is fast. And the email that takes 30 seconds to write and send may take years to undo.

Here are some definite don’ts:

  • Don’t write an email when you’re angry. Instead, you can write a Word document and save it for tomorrow, when hopefully you can look at it with a clear head.
  • Don’t gossip in emails (or anywhere else, just to be on the safe side). Just imagine if the person being gossiped about gets hold of your email.
  • Don’t write something stupid. Such as? Well, anything that, if you looked at it several months from now would really make you embarrassed.
  • Don’t send inappropriate material. Not only is it highly inconsiderate—it can also get you into big trouble if the wrong person sees it.

So, remember to be very careful when sending email. Frankly, most people, even business professionals, are not. Interestingly, many of these people would never be so careless with pen and ink, but for some reason, a computer makes it somehow seem different.

Avoiding Jargon and Corporate-Speak

Avoiding Jargon and Corporate-Speak

Have you ever come across a website where the About Us page says something like this?

Our value lies in providing you with a full turnkey solution that encompasses support, analysis, and continuous improvement. We proudly employ TQM and strive to optimize our quality assurance levels to satisfy our valued customers, as evidenced by our increased dominant market share and…

In a word, Yuck. Why not just speak English? I mean, really—who actually talks like this?

There is a tendency, it seems, to indulge one’s penchant for jargon—one might say, a predisposition towards an individual’s cant of choice. Mind you, this assertion is not ipse dixit; the evidence is mountainous, given the pedantic disciplines of medicine, engineering, and computer science alone…

Pardon me; I just slipped into jargon mode myself. Now, if you happen to be an English major or professor, maybe that stilted mess made sense. But an average reader will probably move on at the first indication that the writing is overly (or unnecessarily) not written with him or her in mind.

Here’s the point. If you want a good grade, you should write to please the professor. If you want to sell widgets, you should write your website or other sales copy to entice people to buy widgets. You have to do this at their level, not yours. They may not have a doctorate in widgetology, and your industry-specific terms, far from impressing them, will drive them to your competitors.

So, when writing copy for your product or service, remember:

Talk to your customers at their level:
This would not be at the level of yourself and your peers, who happen to be experts (unless, of course, your customers are also experts).

Avoid jargon:
If someone sees several unfamiliar terms, they’re going to likely go somewhere that will tell them the same thing in plain English. Sometimes jargon is unavoidable, but avoid it when you can.

Protecting Privacy When Using Email

Protecting Privacy When Using Email

We’ve all gotten emails from people who put every recipient’s address in the “To:” field. Now, in a perfect world, that might not be such a big deal (although all those addresses can take up a lot of space at the top of the email). Unfortunately, it only takes one unthinking person to cause a lot of problems for everyone on that list.

What’s the danger? Well, some people (and you may even know some, yourself) think something along these lines:

You know, I really like getting jokes in my email every day—they’re so funny! I’ll bet all these other people would sure appreciate it if I forwarded these jokes to them each day.

The above scenario would be bad enough. Unfortunately, some people go beyond this:

Hmmm….Fred from this group reminds me a lot of Barney from this other group. I think I’ll go ahead and sign up Fred to all the email lists that I know Barney’s a part of. He’ll thank me for it! But since I’m such a humble guy, I won’t even tell him I did this for him—I’ll just rest content, knowing that I did a good deed.

Suddenly, Fred is getting hundreds of spam emails from heaven knows where. He wonders how this could have happened—he never signed up for any of this, and he email address is nothing that a spammer would just happen to guess.

As bad as this is, it could be worse:

Wow—look at those foxy ladies! I think the old fuddy duddies in the office could use a little livening up. I’m gonna sign them up for these sexy pics that I’m getting every day. Ooh, I can’t wait to see the looks on their faces at the office tomorrow!

Yikes. Now everyone in the office is suddenly getting some of the most vile, sordid emails—and they wonder how this could have happened.

There’s an easy solution, though. Create an email list. Put everyone’s email address on it. Use the list—not the individual addresses—in the “To:” field. Alternatively, you could paste everyone’s address in the “BCC:” field. The point, though, is that privacy is important; do your part to protect it.

Keeping It Interesting

Keeping It Interesting

Whether it’s a sales letter, proposal, or other business correspondence, it’s important to keep things interesting to the reader. A couple of ways to do that are to make good use of white space, bite-size paragraphs, and an enticing first paragraph.

Good subject line:
If your writing has no subject line, you’re likely in trouble from the start. Since no one has time to do anything these days, spending 10 minutes to read through your whole paper is going to be out of the question for all but the Maytag repairman.

That said, how should your subject line be? First and foremost it should offer a very concise, one-line summary of what the paper is all about. A secondary consideration—but a very important one—is that it should, if possible, be likely to appeal to or interest the reader. Always use a “What’s in it for the reader?” approach.

White space:
One sure way to keep your writing from being read is to have a huge block of text with no breaks. To the reader, it looks like an impenetrable brick fortress that it’s best to just leave alone. After all, it’s no fun to read halfway through something like that, only to lose your place and then have to find it again. So, keep the paragraphs short, say, between two and five sentences.

Captivating first paragraph:
If you can’t grab the reader’s attention within about 5 seconds from the time your paper is first examined, it’s likely going to end up in the dustbin. What you need in this part is a tasty little summary of what’s in the paper, or of what your company can do for the company to whom the correspondence is addressed. The point is that you want to make the reader interested enough to read the rest of the document.

These are just some of the ways to help make sure your business writing gets read and acted upon. For more tips, keep checking back.

Getting Your Point Across

Getting Your Point Across

Making your point can be relatively easy in spoken conversation. In writing, however, it can be more of a challenge. While we mean one thing when we write, what the reader interprets may be something totally different. Sometimes the consequences of this can be significant.

How not to do it:
One thing you don’t want to do is to shout at the reader. Yet, many professionals still use ALL CAPS whenever they compose an email. This may be thought to indicate a greater importance for their message, but to most readers, it comes across like shouting.

Let’s look at an example. An instructor in the math department of a community college needs to borrow a projector from the English department. The email that the math instructor sent looked something like this:


How to do it:
Believe me—emails and memos like this happen a lot. Aside from the obvious formatting changes (such as a subject line, salutation, closing, and a bit of punctuation), the words themselves need a little tweaking. Here’s a possible revised version:


This is Fred from the Math Dept. Could I please borrow your projector for tonight’s class?


Is there a lack of emphasis? No. Rather, there is clarity, concision, politeness, and readability—just what you want in most business messages.

What to remember:
Avoid using ALL CAPS. After all, who wants to be shouted at? Instead, try to imagine that you are the receiver of the message, and think how you would like to be addressed. And here’s a big tip: Read your message aloud and see how it sounds. Does it sound harsh? If so, then the reader will probably find it to be so, too.

In short, then, it is certainly possible to get your point across without the shouting of ALL CAPS or the harshness of not considering the recipient’s point of view.

Don’t Be a Sesquipedalian

Don’t Be a Sesquipedalian

Given to or characterized by the use of long words.

I have to admit that sesquipedalian is one of my favorite words. From the Latin, it means, literally, someone who uses words that are a foot-and-a-half long. Cool word? Yes. But actually being a sesquipedalian is not something that’s recommended in standard business writing. Here are some examples to illustrate this point.

Business correspondence:
Here’s how a sesquipedalian might respond to a customer inquiry:

Dear Mrs. So-and-so:

Our esteemed office has become cognizant of the investigative matter detailed in your recent querulous epistle. We find your assertions to be ipse dixit, and, as such, are compelled to dismiss them pejoratively.

We remain,
The Hoity-Toity Firm of Greater Metropolis

Lovely. Will the customer who wrote to this company ever return to them? Unlikely. But consider how a non-sesquipedalian writer might have responded to the same customer inquiry:

Dear Mrs. So-and-so:

Thank you for your recent inquiry; we appreciate your business.

Regarding the matter you raised, we would like to help. To do so, however, we require the following information:

  • Document A
  • Document B

As soon as we receive this information, we will be happy to process your claim.

Thanks again for choosing our company.

The Regular Folks Firm of Anytown, USA

Interoffice memo:
Better, huh? Now, let’s look at another example.

Arthur A. Sesquipedalian requests the presence of yourselves, each and every, at the corporate office meeting at precisely 2:30 in this very afternoon, upon the 16th day of the month of March in the year 2007, in which divers interrogative postulations will be addressed and a plethora of sundry company-related matters of significant import will be expeditiously assessed.

Oh boy—can’t wait to attend that meeting. But what if the memo read like this:

Please come to the office meeting today (March 16) at 2:30 p.m. We’re going to discuss the various issues that many of you have recently raised; with everyone’s input, we should be able to put together some solutions. Look forward to seeing you there.

Norm Normal

Well, I’m not crazy about meetings, but I’d probably show up at this one.

So, in conclusion, don’t be a sesquipedalian—it would not behoove one to so be.

Delivering Bad News through Email

Here is how not to convey an email message containing bad news to a coworker:


Hey, Fred—just found out you’re going to get the sack today. Tough luck. But hey, that means more time for those Red Sox games. Go Sox! Ha ha. Later, Bob

Unless you really don’t like Fred, you should take a different approach. And yes, emails like this do actually get sent by people who (presumably) don’t know any better.

Here’s another way not to convey bad news through email:



Hey, did you see the game last night? What a blowout! Was that disappointing, or what?

Well, I didn’t write just to talk about sports. The fact is, I want to talk about what a great job you do here. I know you’ve been with this company a long time. Over the years, I’ve watched your work and learned from you. The projects we’ve collaborated on have really helped me learn the ropes.

That’s why it bothered me so much when I heard you’re getting canned today. Man, that’s really a bummer.

Well, call me later and we’ll hang out after I get off work.


Here, the problem is that the message is entirely misleading—even the subject line doesn’t really say anything. Then, instead of being upfront about the bad news, the issue at hand is clouded by the writer. Finally, with no warning at all, the bad news hits the reader like a ton of bricks. (Do you think Fred will want to hang out with the genius writer of that last email?)

But just how should one handle composing a bad news email? How about something like this:

SUBJECT: Bad news


I’m afraid I have bad news. Due to budget cuts, you’re one of the 40 workers whose position has been phased out. I’m very sorry.

Management assures us it has nothing to do with the quality of anyone’s work. Some of the people they let go have been here for over 10 years.

Fred, I know that with your qualifications and experience you’ll have no trouble getting on somewhere else. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.


What makes the third email preferable? It shows concern for the person who is about to lose his job. It does so by using a truthful—but not thoughtless—subject line. Then, it gets right to the point. The middle paragraph offers a little comfort and a more complete perspective. Finally, the closing provides sincere encouragement.

So, when it comes to delivering bad news through email, remember:

  • Use an honest subject line
  • Get to the point right away
  • Offer some perspective
  • Provide encouragement
When to Use What

When to Use What

Grammar can be confusing. All the more so when you throw in the jargon that only English professors and editors of high stature understand (What do you mean, it’s an irregular verb? Looks pretty normal to me.).

Let’s consider some fundamentals that many business writers have trouble with.

Question marks:
Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you write a question, end it with a question mark. If you don’t write a question, don’t end it with a question mark.

Sound overly simple? Consider the following common errors:

  1. Can you let me know.
  2. I think this job is demanding but I’m not sure?
  3. How much are you asking for your equipment??????????????????????

Okay, the last one’s not actually an error—it’s just silly. One question mark is sufficient for every business situation.

Exclamation points:
Normally, these should be avoided in business writing. However, sometimes it is acceptable to use one:

Remember your safety equipment!

However, always avoid using exclamation marks like this:

Here’s the third quarter annual report!! Our numbers are up again!!! Yay!!!!

Commas can be tricky. You need to use them occasionally, but not always where you might expect. Here’s a very common error:

Let me know about that report, I need the results by tomorrow.

The problem? This is a comma splice error. The portion of the sentence after the comma could stand on its own as a separate sentence. Therefore, the sentence must be written in one of the following two ways:

  • Let me know about that report; I need the results by tomorrow.
  • Let me know about that report. I need the results by tomorrow.

On the other hand, not using commas enough creates its own problems:

  • The report is due but I don’t know if our department is ready willing and able to make it.
  • Correction: The report is due, but I don’t know if our department is ready, willing, and able to make it.

Of course this barely scratches the surface of everything involved with using correct punctuation, but it’s a start. If you understand the principles listed above, you’ll be ahead of many business writers today.