. . . But Were Afraid To Ask

No matter what the profile, industry or professional level, our business writing class participants will always pose the same questions. Some of the most popular queries are answered below. Any of them resonate with you?

How do I get the reader to do what I need done?

Where do I start? The basic problem is in the positioning of the question. You are asking the reader to respond to your needs, to put your work before his. Where is the motivation? You have to make the request matter to the reader: your input matters, this is a team project, etc.

How do I give the reader all the detail she needs?

The reality is the reader doesn’t need a lot of details, nor is she going to read your comprehensive explanations (particularly on a handheld device). Readers scan, grab a few key points—usually those at the top of the communications—and make decisions. Think USA Today rather than Wall Street Journal coverage. Give the reader the basics of the situation, pose your question and offer to provide more information if needed.

My emails aren’t getting opened. How do I change that?

Over one-third of all emails will never be opened, no matter how many times you press urgent, important or high priority. It’s your subject line’s job to generate interest and orient your reader as to what your message is about. Capture the reader’s attention and motivate him to open that message with a question, a familiar reference, or at least a verb.

Just how long should a subject line be?

Somewhere along the way, we decided a subject line should be short and pithy – mostly short. This has led to two- and three-word subject lines that are, alas, not apt to motivate the reader to open that email. You need to make that subject line work. You have the space – up to 76 characters can be included in a subject line.

My reader usually answers only the first one or two items in my email. How do I get her to address all the points?

Every email reader is moving to the beat of an unseen, very fast metronome. As a result, your email, anyone’s email, gets only a finite amount of attention. This becomes especially true when you pose a series of requests in one or two or even three paragraphs. No one is going to read all the way to the bottom of your email or keep a running list of what you need. Use bullet points – create a laundry list that is easy for the reader to address.

Are bullets okay in an email/business letter?

Not only are bullets okay, they are de rigueur in today’s information-intensive world. A well-organized, uniform list of bullets simplifies action for the reader and compels a response far faster than does a narrative sentence.

And if he still doesn’t respond to more than the first few bullets?

Set a meeting or phone call to go over all the points that need attention.

Doesn’t a good vocabulary convey intelligence to the reader?

Study after study has shown readers are more impressed by simplicity. They want ease in reading. Throw a perfectly good, multisyllabic word in and the reader has to pause in her scanning process, think through what you mean and then, hopefully, pick back up her train of thought. Use the word incorrectly or pepper your text with several “impressive” words and, the studies show, the reader sees you as posturing. Worse, she thinks you are less intelligent.

For more clues on improving your business writing skills, click here to purchase the Better Business Writing workbook.


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