Business Advice

Seven easy steps to improve what you write

Michel Hogan /

This week I’m handing over my blog to the wonderful Nancy Hellmrich (@getnance). A bit over 15 years ago when I was looking for a writer to work with, a colleague said, “oh, you have to meet Nance” and I’ve been forever grateful. We all need people around us who help us shine and Nance is one of those people.

You write things every day, and if you’re like me, it’s something you feel you can always do better. So, over to Nance for seven easy steps to improve what you write, starting with the business black hole known as the group email … 

We need to talk about your writing

You’re smart, capable, and gosh darn it, people like you. Yet, when the job requires you to commit something to writing, even if it’s just a simple internal email, you panic. Your defense mechanisms kick in and try to save you.

The result is bad writing. Now for the good news.

1. Groups of people cannot read

Individuals read. Groups of people read individually, then share, which means you should write as though you are talking to one person. Not everyone. Not several similar people. A. Person. Emails that start “Dear all…” are rarely worth reading because, while you were writing it, there was a wild ruckus of different voices in your head. Even if your message is indeed going to thousands, write as though you were talking to one person on that list.

Try to pick a friendly face, not your arch-nemesis. (Oh, come on, we all have them.)

2. Everyone is self-centered

Self-centredness is a requirement for human survival. Which means, to connect and persuade, you need to start by shining a light on your recipient.

While weather reports are neat (“Happy Spring!”) I prefer to actually give something away—a thank you, a book recommendation, a compliment. I’ve used, “I really like what you’re doing with your hair”, on more than one occasion. It never fails to get a smile.

3. Nobody has time for you

Once you’ve received your smile, hit return and, in as few words as possible, explain why you’re writing. Like this: “Speaking of appearances, we’re having a get-together Monday at 11:00 a.m. in the Panther conference room. We’re going to talk about XYZ.”

Keep it short, around 50 – 75 words. Resist the urge to give away all the details. In fact, keep the whole message under 250 words. It’ll make you seem smarter and more exciting.

4. Everyone needs a personal invitation

In closing, graciously ask for an action. Instead of demanding mandatory attendance (remember, we’re writing to someone you actually like) try telling them how much their presence will be valued. “You always have useful perspectives. I’m looking forward to having you there.”

Do this even if you don’t, in your heart, believe everyone receiving the message will offer a valuable contribution. Sometimes, when you challenge people, they step up.

5. Nobody cares about your secret language

Now that we’ve got structure nailed, let’s talk style. Zero people think you are smarter because you use optimal outcomes, dynamic digital touch points, and enterprise level obfuscation. They roll their eyes and say stuff behind your back. So ix-nay on the argon-jay. I’m all for the occasional unusual word but, please, write like a real person talks. It’s that simple. Would you talk to your mum like that? If not, you’re using jargon.

6. You need to get over yourself

Please stop abusing reflexive pronouns. Nobody can do anything to yourself but you. That means nobody can email, talk to, or touch base with yourself but you. So stop telling people they can contact “Jeff or myself” with questions. And no, it’s not “I” either. It’s me. “Send an email to me if you have questions.” There’s a whole Wikipedia page on this. Reading it will make you smarter.

7. Talk like a real person

Go to a café, not the one where your co-workers hang out. Sit at the counter and listen for an uncomfortably long period of time. Listen to how people talk. Notice how we don’t talk in prose. We talk in fragments. Short sentences and fragments are amazingly useful. Try using them to make your writing more conversational. Then go back to that café and read your message aloud to the person next to you. If they walk away, glaze over, or punch you—rewrite the message. Keep doing this until the person hugs you. Then order a coffee and call it a day.

* * *

Thanks Nance and see you all next week.

Michel is an Independent Brand Thinker and Adviser dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. You can find Michel at michelhogan.com or you can follow her on Twitter @michelhogan

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Michel Hogan

Michel is an independent brand counsel advising organisations on the risk to their purpose and values of making promises they can’t keep — with a strong, resilient organisation and brand as the result. You can find Michel at michelhogan.com or you can follow her on Twitter at @michelhogan.

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