The grammar can be right, the message can be great, but people can still get it wrong sometimes when their writing style is not appropriate for the audience.
In some ways, English is easier than other languages because you don’t have to tie your brain in knots about which form of “you” is appropriate for the situation. However, it’s still important to make sure that the style of your writing is appropriate for your audience. Here are some tips and things to consider.
1. Don’t be too familiar
There’s nothing more annoying than a complete stranger acting as though they’re your best friend. Maybe this is less of a problem in other parts of the English-speaking world, but in the UK, and particularly when we’re talking about business communication, rather than making someone feel at ease, you’re more likely to annoy them. This is particularly true if the other person has no idea who you are!
It’s ok to be friendly, but there are lines that you shouldn’t cross. Otherwise people will think you’re either too familiar, or just that you’re so casual with your communication style that you’re not very professional.
2. Don’t be too formal
As with many things, you need to get the balance right. Some of the phrases in older business English books are outdated, and way too formal for our fast-paced email culture. Using them can make you look pretentious!
“Please can you” is enough. You don’t need to be “ever so grateful if you would be kind enough to…”
If you don’t know, for example, if you’re joining a new company and you don’t know how formal or informal the colleagues are with one another, play it safe and observe for a while. This is better than finding out later that people are uncomfortable about something that you said or did.
3. Don’t use language that the audience won’t understand
It’s easy to start using abbreviations and terms that most people in your company know, but if a new person joins the team, or you’re writing to someone in another department, they may have no idea what your random groups of letters mean. This could lead to them ignoring you, misunderstanding you, or just putting your email on the “I plan to do later but in truth will never get round to this” list. They may even feel too embarrassed to come back and tell you that they didn’t understand your message.
4. Sometimes people want facts and figures
There are different theories about selling products and communicating ideas. Some people say you should totally focus on the emotions and that will get people’s attention. However, there are times when that just makes you look as though there is no substance to what you’re saying.
If I’m going to buy your course, I want details about what it covers, how it will help me and what exactly is included. I don’t just want you to bleat on for ages about how it will make me feel with no reference to any of the details.
On the other hand, some people would be bored by what I want, because they want you to appeal to their emotions.
You can’t guess how people are going to react, which is why, as with most of these tips, the best way to make sure your message is appropriate for your audience is to actually know something about your audience, or to choose your audience carefully!
5. Sometimes people are bored by facts and figures!
Sometimes facts and figures, or even too many unnecessary details, can drive people crazy. They don’t need to know the whole conversation that led to the decision – they are only interested in what has been decided. They don’t need to know each step of the process you’re going to follow. They just need to know that you’ll get the job done.
Reading your email takes time out of someone’s day, so don’t be like the person who stands at your desk, trying to have a chat, even though they can see you have a hundred things to do! Keep the email relevant. Add details of where the other person can find more information if you need to, or say that you can provide further information if needed, but don’t overwhelm people with information that may not be relevant to them.
6. If you’re angry, go for a walk
Love letters and novels are the places for passionate emotions. Generally, business correspondence should be more objective. Ok, you can be really excited about a new venture, or happy that something has been a success, but if you’re furious with a colleague or you want to give someone a piece of your mind in a complaint, try to wait till you’ve calmed down before you start to type. Or at least, type a draft, go for a coffee or a walk, and then decide whether you still want to send it!
7. Think about the structure and length of your text
Think about the reason for your text before you send it off. If you’re asking for something, is it clear what the other person needs to do? If you’re complaining about something, have you set out the facts and the problem in a logical way? If you are talking about a problem, have you explained enough so that the other person can follow what’s happened, even if they haven’t been directly involved? Do all of your sentences add value? Nobody likes repetition!
8. Is writing the best option?
I generally prefer people to write to me. As someone who provides training, it would drive me crazy if my phone kept going off all the time, even if it is on silent, because in most cases the conversations I need to have with people are either in the training session or by email.
However, there are some situations in which a phone call or personal conversation would be better. This is particularly true if it’s bad news, trying to deal with problems between colleagues, or something that is likely to make the other person worried or upset.
9.What would happen if other people read it?
Sometimes things are better when they’re not in writing. Maybe I just spent too much time working with lawyers, but I’m very careful about what I put in writing, especially if it’s something that wouldn’t look good if it got into the wrong hands. Email accounts get hacked. Papers get left on trains. People share things when they’re not supposed to. Sometimes people can’t be trusted. I’m not talking about criminal activity, but I tend to keep certain more controversial things only for spoken conversations, because I don’t want emails to be used against me by people who might want to take a few sentences out of context. This isn’t so relevant now that I work for myself, but it was something I considered when working for a larger company.
10. How does the message sound when you read it aloud?
It might look ok to you on the page, but how does it sound when you speak the words? Does it sound as though you’re barking orders at someone? Does it sound confused? Make sure that if you got this email, you’d feel ok with it in terms of the tone and wording.
More from English with Kirsty
If you want to read more about effective communication, why not visit my resources for good communication page?
Also, if you want to develop your writing for different situations, this is something that I look at more closely in my writing course.