Keeping It Real: Simplify Your Business Communications
Business writing often gets a bad rap for its lack of clarity. That’s because many people can’t resist the urge to use complicated vocabulary and long sentences, rather than stating things simply and succinctly.
This habit of writing in what I refer to as “corporate speak” can actually detract from your audiences’ ability to understand your meaning. That’s why I always advise my clients to use short sentences and active voice.
Contrary to what you may have been taught, using a conversational tone and an active voice does not violate any laws of business communications. In fact, writing clearly and concisely will increase the likelihood that people will actually read and understand your communications. Authenticity adds credibility.
Getting into the habit of using an “active voice” is one surefire way to improve the quality of your business writing. I realize that the “active versus passive voice” debate may bring back some unpleasant memories from your high school years. Essentially, writing in the active voice can be as simple as doing something instead of having it done to you.
For example, we can all follow the logic of the infamous, “why did the chicken cross the road?” joke. Although, if I were to say, “why was the road crossed by the chicken,” you’d probably need to read that again.
Since the subject of the sentence above is not performing an action, the reader is forced to backtrack. Suddenly, the attention has shifted from the chicken to the road, which takes the reader’s mind away from the purpose of the sentence.
This same confusion occurs frequently in business writing. For example, when proofreading our clients’ employee benefits materials, we often come across sentences like this:
You have the right under the Plan to direct the investment of your existing balances, which includes contributions and any earnings on those contributions, and your future contributions to any of the Plan’s available investment options.
The sentence above does not emphasize action. Instead, the reader struggles to keep track of “you” and “the Plan” among various details, which are all happening at the same time. Plus, at 36 words, the sentence is simply too long.
The excerpt below shows what happens when you split this complex sentence into two shorter and more active sentences:
The Plan allows you to direct existing balances and future contributions into any of the Plan’s investment options. Your existing balances include any contributions, plus any earnings you may have accrued.
By keeping sentences short, active, and focused on one subject, your readers will be able to understand your meaning the first time around.
Of course, there is no place for slang or unnecessary abbreviation in the business world. The shortcuts you might use when texting a friend won’t pass muster in a business setting. Leave the emojis behind too. However, using shorter sentences and writing in the active voice will keep your work professional while making your meaning easier to comprehend.
Try putting this advice into action the next time you draft a memo or an important email. But if this all seems like too much work for you, consider hiring professional writers, editors, and proofreaders to manage these tasks for you.
Neil Rhein is President of Bullseye Communications, where he and his team specialize in content review and content development for financial services companies and other clients.