Chapter 10: Writing at Work
One of the first considerations when writing anything is your audience. Are you writing to a colleague, your supervisor, the owner of the company, or a customer? Are you writing to one person or many? Do you know them or not? What do they need in order to take the action you want them to take? Consider your audience to determine how long, how short, how direct, and how friendly you should be.
What do they already know? Start by assessing your audience’s familiarity with the information you are sharing. Will your audience understand the specialized language of your industry, or do you need to use more general terms? Do they know the project well, or will you need to provide more details to help them understand? Do they need to know how to do something or why something is significant?
What do you already know about them? Now that you know a bit about your audience’s background, assess your relationship with your audience. How familiar are you with your audience? Are you writing an email to a colleague you know quite well and can use more informal language? Or are you writing to an important client, and therefore should use more formal language? What demographics does that person occupy? Is there anything about their employment status, customer status, or client status that should inform your communication?
Who are they in relation to you? One particularly important aspect of your relationship to your audience may be the hierarchical or functional connection you have to them in their position. Similar to familiarity, consider the position of the person you are writing to. An email to the president of the company or a potential investor will have a more formal tone than an email to your colleague about a project you are working on together.
What is the audience reach? Next, try to determine if the communication is public or internal. This means you need to determine if it is only for people within your workplace, or if it is going to be for clients, customers, or other stakeholders. There may be types of information that should not be released to the public but would be appropriate to share internally. If you are sending a public message, definitely have it approved first! You may also need to consider the company image or the need to provide a unified message or brand.
What demographics are represented? You may need to tailor your message for different groups and audiences. If you were developing social media content, for example, it may mean considering TikTok for a younger audience versus Facebook for an older audience. When writing to an older audience, you may want to consider the form of your writing, a letter may be preferable to a text or email. Often, when it comes to writing, you may need to think about how to send a similar message in multiple formats to reach the different groups you want to reach.
Next, you want to understand the purpose of your writing. Most professional communication will fall into either giving or requesting information, writing to persuade someone of something, or to instruct. Like audience, the purpose of your writing will help you choose tone, style, and format. Before you start writing, try to articulate clearly why you are writing. This will help you focus on clarity and may also give you some hints about what kinds of conventions to follow.
- Requesting Information. Information requests need to be simple and direct. You want your reader to know right away what to help you with and when. If you are writing a request, keep it short, polite, and to the point. Start with your ask.
- Providing Information. When you are providing information, start with a direct response. Answer the questions that the reader asked for first. If you need to provide additional details to explain yourself, do so after. Make it easy for the person to find what they need in an organized and easy to follow manner.
- Persuading. Sometimes persuasion requires a different approach. You may find that you need to build up your reader’s expectations and identify their values before you ask or suggest they do something different. Really focus on your audience and what they perceive as being credible, emotional, and factual. You may want to leave your request for the end. Check with your employer first.
- Instructing. If you are explaining a process or a procedure, make sure your information is organized clearly into that process or order. Take advantage of document design to make it easy to follow the process. Use numbers or images to support your work. Keep it simple. If you are writing instructions, don’t explain why you need to do something if it is not necessary. Focus on the how.
- Problem Solving. Customer service often requires you to make changes and adjustments when things don’t go your way. So, you may need to process a request for a return, exchange, or other adjustment as a part of your work flow. Remember, this is normal! If the person who wrote you is angry, ignore it. Be polite, be professional, and be brief. Begin your message by confirming specifically how you can help. End your message positively to maintain a good relationship.
Has a parent ever told you to “watch your tone” when you get a bit angry? Tone is present in our speaking voices, but it is also a part of our written voice. What does tone even mean? Tone is the way you sound to your audience. Think of it like your attitude. A professional business tone takes time to develop. In a Canadian context, there are a few different factors that really impact tone: directness, confidence, sincerity, and positivity. These factors work together to convey to your audience that you are competent, respectful, and easy to understand.
- Be Direct. It is important to state your purpose immediately and clearly in most everyday writing (especially in your emails). Directness is prized in Canadian workplaces because it makes it easy to turn your writing into action. Being direct means that you make your main point first. Don’t hide it or minimize it. However, being direct does not mean being rude. Be direct whenever you think your message is routine. If this is a regular, positive or neutral situation, it is likely best to be clear and succinct about exactly what you want or need.
- To be direct, try: I’d like to request a refund.
- Instead of: You made a mistake. I was overcharged. I want my money back!
- Be Confident: Write in an appealing way that projects confidence. One way to do this is to know the information that you are writing about and if you are unsure, check your facts or with someone who can ensure that you are giving the right information. Another way to do this is to write using the active voice rather than the passive. If you would like more information on active and passive voice, check out this video: Active versus Passive Voice.
- To be confident, try: Our trained staff will carry out quick and efficient delivery of your order.
- Instead of the passive voice: Quick and efficient delivery will be carried out by our trained staff.
- Be Sincere: Sincere writing elicits trustworthiness. One way to achieve this is again to include accurate and complete information, as well as specific terms and even include numbers. The detail in your message adds to your credibility and it makes it more likely that your reader will validate your message.
- To be sincere, try: We have helped 115 customers reach over 22,000 new customers through social media.
- Instead of the more general: We have helped many customers reach their social media goals.
- Being Positive: Your writing should sound encouraging and enticing. If you put your audience first, you writing almost always can be framed positively. You can even say no in a positive way. Whenever possible, describe what can be done rather than what cannot be done. Whenever possible avoid negative phrasing such as the following example:
- To be positive, try: To guarantee delivery and top-quality service, please accept the contract by Thursday.
- Instead of the negative: Please accept the contract by Thursday. If not, we will be too busy to process your order and it may not be completed.
A few days into Amy’s work placement, she sits down with Mark to discuss the airport marketing plan she will be assisting with. During the COVID 19 pandemic, air travel became less common. As vaccines became available, more flights returned to service. However, uptake has remained slow. The airport is losing money and business, even though their safety standards are high. So, Mark and the marketing team want to encourage more people to fly. Amy took notes during the meeting.After the meeting, Amy brainstormed for audience, purpose, and tone based on her meeting with Mark:
- locals within 300kms who primarily want to go to or from Vancouver, Edmonton, Victoria, and Calgary
- families who want to visit their relatives
- business and government professionals
- time savers who want to avoid long distance driving
- tourists (likely not the biggest draw at the moment)
- people who are fully vaccinated and at low risk of infection
- associate air travel with physical health and safety
- get people excited about renewing emotional bonds
- sell more seats
- encourage more travel
- positive and encouraging
- focused on feelings of reunification
- credibility/trustworthiness from safety facts and statistics