IMAGINE not writing anything at all for an entire day at work. The feeling is curiously liberating but unnerving.

That is because, in the business context, the written word is taken seriously. It represents confirmation and permanence.

That is why we are often given this advice after negotiating a verbal agreement: “Get it down in black-and-white (writing).”

The written word is so powerful that it can be submitted as legal evidence. It also makes a statement about the writer’s personality and credibility.

But like speech, writing can also be a source of miscommunication because of discrepancies between:

* The images in the writer’s mind and the images in the reader’s mind.

* The tone of voice that the writer hears and the tone of voice that the reader hears.

These discrepancies are referred to as “noise”.

The purpose of clear written communication is to eliminate “noise” and increase clarity.

This is crucial in business because misunderstandings impact productivity, harm relationships and ultimately affect the bottom line.

At work, it literally pays to write with accuracy and clarity.

Increasing clarity

* Use parallel sentence structure

Many business professionals have read or written something like this:

Example 1

We will need new employees to:

* Check their access cards

* Making sure they have reported to HR

* Acknowledgement of login details

Not all of these bullet points are consistent. A useful method to check parallel sentence structure is to expand each bullet point into a full sentence:

* We will need new employees to check their access cards. — correct

* We will need new employees to making sure they have reported to HR. — wrong

* We will need new employees to acknowledgment of login details. — wrong

Build bullet points so that they can be combined with the heading to form grammatically correct sentences:

Example 2

We will need new employees to:

* Check their access cards

* Make sure they have reported to HR

* Acknowledge login details

Using parallel sentence structure in your communication ensures that every point you make reads consistently.

Use abbreviations appropriately

Not everyone knows what abbreviations stand for. Use the full form the first time the term occurs and indicate the abbreviation in parentheses. Use the abbreviation subsequently.

Example 1

Please ask the ESC about access control. The ESC will help you with similar enquiries.

Example 2

Please ask the Employee Safety Committee (ESC) about access control. The ESC will help you with similar enquiries.

The first example may confuse people who are unfamiliar with what the abbreviation stands for.

The second example clarifies what “ESC” stands for before utilising the abbreviated form. No deciphering is required and clarity is established.

Know the importance of punctuation

Avoid excessive punctuation like double question marks, which come across as rude:

Example 1

When can I expect the result??

Use exclamation marks sparingly. Look at the difference between Examples 2 and 3:

Example 2

Thanks! I appreciate your help!

Example 3

Thanks. I appreciate your help.

The writer in Example 3 sounds more mature, composed and calm.

Punctuation marks represent vocal inflections.

A person reading your correspondence will hear these sounds in his head and respond in kind.

Getting the message across in e-mail

* State action steps clearly

If you have requests and action steps for your recipient, state them clearly, with the heading in bold:


Please update me on the following 3 issues regarding access control procedures:

1. The number of visitor passes issued daily.

2. Which elevators allow access to the viewing gallery.

3. The names and reference numbers of the guards.

Setting your expectations clearly not only helps recipients understand what outcomes you would like, but also makes it easier for them to pass on your message to other key personnel.

* Treat subject fields like the cover of an envelope

In the age of overflowing inboxes, the subject field helps to capture the attention of your recipient.

State the purpose of the e-mail in the subject field, so that your recipient associates the e-mail with results.

For example, instead of writing “Business cards”, write “Confirmation of business card design — Please provide input”.

Finally, it is worth remembering that what you write is here to stay and will continue to create an impression long after you have hit the send button.