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Write to Persuade in Business: Better Business Writing in 5 Easy Steps

One of the best ways to lead, to persuade others to follow, is to master better business writing skills. Business needs to learn the art of persuasion in writing.  Imagine getting to work on a Monday morning after a long weekend.  You had to do your spring cleanup on the yard, pick your sister up at the airport, and to top it all off the baseball game you wanted to watch was blacked out in your area since it was sold out.  You’re looking at a full work week and you want to get off to a good start.  Your in-box is stuffed to the gills, so you begin to wade through it to find what the keepers are.  Someone has written you a letter that begins like this:

“Dear Sir or Madam:  I appreciate the fact that you must have a full business calendar.  If I could have but a few moments…”  This one goes in the circular file as you move on to the next piece of potential trash.

Here’s a question for you.  How would you like the author of that last letter to have been you?  It could be.  Your goal is to make your business writing come alive or, at a minimum, avoid boring him to sleep.  If you have a message, you want it to get read.

Another one of my posts hightlights some of the main situations in small business today that call for writing as opposed to the spoken word.  Today I’m going to give you a simple formula for 90% of business writing.  You see, in almost all business writing we want something, and the recipient of our correspondence may be in a position to do something about it, or at least react to it.  The format of persuasive writing, then, is applicable for many of the situations you will face.  Different twists can be made on this basic format whether writing a sales proposal, a report, or a follow-up letter.

The Hook

The very first sentence of any business correspondence, just like the first sentence of a speech, must be your best.  It must hook the reader so he wants to read on.  Attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, so within ten seconds you’d better have ‘em.  Use a startling fact like, “Did you know that an Inc. Magazine survey found that the average business owner spends 35% of her time in wasteful meetings?”  This will grab the reader, especially if he identifies with it.  Your job is to arouse interest.

There are other methods as well.  You can make use of a quote from a respected authority, say something humorous (be very careful here!), or offer something of value to the reader so he’ll continue.  In essence, bribe him.  A great technique is to ask a pain-inducing question, such as “Is limited cash flow keeping you from growing your business?”  Your goal is to set up a problem, a problem that, of course, you can help solve.

The Message

Tell the reader what you want in clear, concise terms.  Do everything possible to avoid jargon or what I call esoteritisms.  State the best possible outcome for the company from the reader’s perspective.  Give a prelude to how you will make your case in the remainder of the correspondence.  If you have overall recommendations, here is where to state them.  Don’t make the reader wade through the entire report, letter, or request to find out what your suggestions are.  Put the best stuff first, right after your attention-grabbing hook.

The Support

This section of all business writing is often called the body.  This is where you provide data and analysis that makes your point for you.    If a chart helps, throw it in.  Use expert testimony that supports your point of view.  Your objective here is to convince the reader, the person whom you want to influence, that your recommendation or what you want is best for the company. 

The body is also where you provide the details—the plan.  This provides indirect support for your position, because you actually have a plan!  In the body of your writing, make sure that you use facts, not opinions.  Don’t make any unsupported assertions.  Use concrete, understandable language.  Remember, KISS—Keep It Simple…Susie 

If you want to make your business writing easy to read, use bold headings for each section.  Headings call attention to each section so that your reader can go right to where he wants in your document.  This is particularly true in the support section, which is the longest section in most business writing.  You may have sections on Budget, Cost/Benefit Analysis, and Staffing.  They all have different information, so use headings to separate the information and make a happy reader.

Ask For It

Never assume that the reader, or listener when you’re giving a speech, automatically knows what you want her to do with your information.  After you’ve proved your point, ask for it!  Tell her specifically what you want her to do now.  Be clear and specific.  “Please consider the plan that I have outlined herein” sucks.  The reader can consider it and throw it in the round file.  Here’s a better version:  “I need you to approve the budget for this project by next Tuesday.”

WIIFM

You may recognize this acronym stands for “What’s In It For Me?”  If you want your reader to take action, any action, there must be a compelling reason to do so that goes beyond your hope that he’s a nice guy.  To piggy back onto my “Ask for it” example, you can use, “Failure to act now will cost our company $10,000 a month.”  That one is using negative reinforcement, but you can just as easily turn it around with, “You’ll be the man responsible for saving the company $10,000 a month, and bonuses are delivered at the end of the quarter.”  If you were approving whatever project we’re talking about here, would these reasons be important to you?

There are plenty of ways to write effectively for business.  This article gives you a recipe that can’t miss when writing to persuade your reader, assuming your information is valid.  If your the boss writing a corporate policy memo or a design engineer trying to get capital for the next project, remember–hook him, tell him what you want, back it up, ask for it, and give him a reason to act, and you’ll end up getting more of what you want.

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