Posts filed under ‘Writing’

In a World of Excess, Businesspeople Prefer Simple

By Emily Godwin

As students, we spend our academic career developing one skill just to find that most of society prefers a more basic version.  We progressively learn to write more elaborate, lengthier, and complex documents, when in reality, most people, especially in business, communicate through plain language.write

Plain language is “communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it.”  Writing in plain language helps the reader understand the concept more quickly and clearly. Sounds simple, right? Like we are traveling back to elementary or middle school? Well, think again. Going back to the simpler days may be harder than you think.

Think simpler. Think about what you want the reader to take away from your writing. Here are five tips from the Center for Plain Language that help people quickly read and clearly understand the message you are trying to convey.

  1. Identify and describe the target audience

Define the purpose of your writing and the intended audience.  This strategy will enable you to decide on the format, document design, and language of the piece.  Knowing your target audience keeps your writing focused on exactly what you want the audience to do or learn.

  1. Structure the content

Organization and structure are crucial to plain language. The reader needs to understand the purpose of the writing quickly. The structure of the document may vary depending on the target audience. Three universal tips for writing more effectively include organizing content logically, keeping sections short, and including verb-led headings.  The reader can skim and find information quickly in the document.

  1. Write in plain language

Say exactly what you intend the audience to know. Make sentences short, logical, grammatically correct, and to the point.  Provide important information first in each section or paragraph and use a conversational tone, active voice, appropriate vocabulary, and parallel structure when listing words.  The reader should grasp the concept quickly and accurately.

  1. Use information design

Document design will vary for different audiences.  Create a neatly organized and visually appealing document the reader will understand quickly. Use headings and spacing to structure information and typography (font size, color, bold, etc.) to direct the reader’s attention.  If necessary, include art (graphs, pictures, charts, etc.) to help the reader understand the content more clearly.

  1. Revise document design and content with target user group

Working with the target user group to test the design and content ensures readability and effectiveness.  Look for the following when reviewing: grammatical errors, structural layout, and purpose.  Documents are successful when the target audience can quickly find information, effectively understand, and confidently act on it.

In conclusion, don’t overthink plain language. Write a visually appealing, to-the-point document that your target audience will easily understand.  That’s it.  Keep it simple.  People will thank you.

 

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November 19, 2015 at 7:05 am 5 comments

Effective Business Writing Demonstrates Excellent Problem-Solving Skills

By Paul Piscitelli

An ability to identify enticing investment opportunities is one trait hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones looks for in an employee; however, Jones also believes the ability to effectively write a memo is paramount. In fact, in a Bloomberg interview, Jones disclosed that he literally rips up a memo if it isn’t written effectively – to watch this interview, please refer to the end of this post. Why does Jones do this? Because in business, time is money. Because managers are responsible for making hundreds of decisions every week, efficiency is key. My experience at a leading investment firm demonstrated this emphasis on efficiency.

During my summer internship, I was responsible for delivering several memos to summarize research I had conducted.paul One of my first tasks was to summarize a current event that had the potential to impact our business. Following research, I delivered a one-page summary, which was almost immediately emailed back to me. Why? The memo failed to (a) enable the reader to understand its purpose immediately and (b) state the implications for the business. Although the memo wasn’t “ripped up,” it likely came close!

Effective business writing enables a manager to understand the purpose, the issues, and the implications, immediately. Utilizing the writing pattern: opening, agenda, body, and closing will advance such efficiency, as well as increase your chances of receiving the sought-after full-time offer following your internship.

Opening. The opening of a memo specifies the purpose of your message, and more importantly, why it’s important to the reader. Other than for messages that deliver negative news, a direct approach is effective – state the main idea first, followed by the supporting evidence. For example, you may begin with: “Since talking with you last week about the potential investment in Google, I’ve performed several analyses. Currently, I’m not convinced that it meets our investment criteria.” Because such an opening states the climax at the beginning, it enables the reader to decide if he/she would like more information. 

Agenda. The agenda creates a roadmap of the message – foreshadowing its main points. Given today’s fast-paced, “time is money” environment, an agenda enables the reader to further understand the essence of the message. For example, “My analyses included a discounted cash flow model and technical analysis. Additionally, I’ve determined the decision’s potential impact on fund performance.” This systematic approach saves time by highlighting the key supporting points, which enables the reader to quickly refer to the information deemed most relevant.

Body. The body of a memo supports the main message, and it should logically follow the agenda. The body’s content is vital to your message and should abide by the following standards:

  • Clear: be organized
  • Complete: contain the “5W2H” details – who, what, when, where, why, how, and how much (see Figure 1)
  • Correct: contain no misleading information
  • Considerate: be cordial
  • Convincing: be persuasive

To foster efficiency, provide the most important information first. Additionally, graphs and charts enable the reader to visually interpret the impact of the message quickly.Figure

Closing. The closing of a memo should recommend certain actions that you want the reader to take. If the body contained a significant amount of information, the closing should also highlight the message’s key points and draw appropriate conclusions.  Additionally, the closing should invite additional communication with the reader. An example of an appropriate closing may be: “To avoid negatively impacting fund performance, I recommend not executing the Google trade. If you have any questions, please contact me at (XXX) XXX-XXXX.”

Paul Tudor Jones, along with many other senior business leaders, value an effective business writer for several reasons. In addition to fostering efficiency in the time conscious business environment, good writing demonstrates desired skills. An ability to analyze an issue or idea and distill it into its main points in a short and concise document demonstrates problem solving skills. Specifically, this ability proves that you understand the “big picture” and, therefore, can draw meaningful conclusions. So, be sure to follow the above writing pattern the next time you write a memo. Doing so will significantly increase the likelihood that your message is understood immediately, as well as demonstrate highly valued skills.

Watch Paul Tudor Jones discuss why he rips up a poorly written memo.

November 14, 2015 at 4:26 pm 1 comment

Lessons from Warren Buffett: Three Steps for Adding More Personality to Your Business Writing

By Abigail Barnhill

Has writing with incredible concision limited your ability to show personality in business writing? Business WritingThis limitation exists for many people. Business writing demands straightforward, clear, concise, and grammatically pristine writing. At times differentiating your voice from all the other business voices can be hard. This differentiation is even harder if you want to ensure the appropriate degree of formality. You can spice up your business writing to make it unique and still adhere to business-writing standards. I recommend a three-step method to achieve the most personable business writing: transparency, diverse word choice, and structural variety.

Be Transparent
What does it mean to be transparent? Transparency in writing involves openness, honesty, and responsibility. Regardless of the situation, someone writes each piece of writinga business person, an executive, an applicant, etc. Writing is a very human way of communication, so let parts of your humanity shine through in the form of honesty. For example, Warren Buffett, in his letter to shareholders from 1983 utilizes transparency to help explain his thinking. Below is an excerpt:

“My own thinking has changed drastically from 35 years ago when I was taught to favor tangible assets and to shun businesses whose value depended largely upon economic Goodwill.”

Buffett is known for his superb writing skills. Part of this skill is being open and honest at the appropriate moments—moments in which it enhances your message and adds credibility. In the above excerpt, he states “my own thinking has drastically changed,” which adds an ideal amount of personality. Moreover, this statement makes the writing relatable because the reader can understand that Buffett too is a business person who makes mistakes but also learns from them.

Developing transparency may take you a while. Practice is essential to mastering this skill. Start by reviewing your own writing and looking for places to where you could be more straightforward and honest. Try to give the reader a better understanding of your methods of thinking about the given topic. After some practice, you’ll find it easier to express your actual line of thought while writing.

Diversify Your Vocabulary
How can you enhance your vocabulary without using flowery language? It’s simple. Strong adjectives and verbs don’t have to be superfluous, unclear, or jargon-based. Many of us feel obligated in business writing to keep the language as clear and simple as possible. While this practice is necessary, you may also miss out on opportunities to express personality through vocabulary.Warren Image

To start, make a list of some of your favorite words that you like to incorporate into your writing. You could search through many lists of powerful words online. Choose words that not only help you express yourself better, but also words that continue to provide clarity in your writing. Again, Warren Buffett is a great example of how to use a variety of strong words that break often monotonous word choice.  He picks words like entice, shun, incur, dismiss, and many more. These verbs are not only concise, but they are also active verbs that keep readers engaged.

The key is to remember to add words that enhance and clarify your writing rather than cluttering it. With practice, mixing up your vocabulary will become more natural.

Add Structural Variety
How do you show personality through structure? Just choose your favorite structural elements and use them. Decide how to structure your writing in ways that best fit your unique way of thinking. Possible structural elements to consider are headings, bullets, sentence length, paragraph length, spacing, and punctuation.

The best place to start is to figure out your preferred structural elements. You may find that parentheses are most helpful in clarifying your thoughts, or that you prefer large, bold headings. These details can be small ways to express yourself in writing and perhaps distinguish your writing from the writing of others. Customizing the structure of your writing without sacrificing formality is fairly easy.

Over time, you will become practiced at creating any piece of writing to best depict your thinking. By being transparent, using diverse words, and generating unique structure, you will be able to express your personality without informality or cluttered writing.

If you’re interesting in learning more about voice in business writing, click here to read an article that describes the positive attributes of Warren Buffett’s writing.

December 4, 2014 at 8:44 am 2 comments

A Tour Through the Art of Persuasion

By Andrea Gawkins

Do you want to persuade your boss to use your ideas? Do you want to persuade your parents to buy you a new phone? Do you want to master the art of persuasion? If you answered “yes” to the first two questions, then you must say “yes” to the third. Using impactful persuasive techniques can help you become an effective writer and presenter. It definitely helps me as an Undergraduate Business Ambassador as I conduct tours and persuade prospective students. Thanks to the seven logically persuasive tools provided by the Kenan-Flagler Business Communication Center, we get insight into how good business writers like Warren Buffet persuade with: statistics, history, analogy, example, comparison or contrast, consequences, and authority. I’ve described my Undergraduate Business Ambassador experience to demonstrate the benefits of using these seven persuasive tools.

Statistics. Use numbers! Adding quantitative data to your writing and presentations adds realism for the audience. After reading or hearing many words, your readers or listeners will remember a spark of numbers. Most importantly, presenting statistical data raises your credibility through the primary or secondary research you conduct. Take advantage of statistics you discover as you prepare your paper or presentation. As stated in the Kenan-Flagler Business School Business Writing Conventions and Expectations, about “70 percent of the population values quantifiable data as their way to understand their environment.”

Did you know the Kenan-Flagler Business School is ranked as a top-10 undergraduate business program in Bloomberg Business Week? As I give tours to prospective students and families, I always include our current rankings to emphasize our prestigious program. We take pride in all of our rankings, which also includes the MBA and Masters of Accounting results, since they show that the Kenan-Flagler Business School offers the best of the best in more than just one program. 

History. Some people believe history will repeat itself, which explains the significance of adding historical facts to a persuasive argument. Writing or speaking about previous events and their subsequent consequences can connect others with the current issue you address. Your audience will consider the historical fact you just presented and what might happen in the future — which aids your persuasive pitch. The art of persuading others is so powerful that teaching persuasive strategies started centuries ago with Aristotle in ancient Greece — signifying its importance.

Let’s look at the name “Kenan-Flagler” and discuss the two individuals responsible for the prestigious program we know today. I’ll bet you didn’t know Henry Morrison Flagler partnered with John D. Rockefeller to found the Standard Oil Company. Also, Mary Lily Kenan’s great-great-grandfather, James Kenan, helped construct Old East, the beautiful building on North Campus. Using our founders’ histories in my tours helps to show that the rich roots of our business school date back many years. 

Analogy. Mastering effective persuasion is as difficult as completing endless amounts of chores; however, once you do so, the result is quite enjoyable. Using analogies can help your audience relate to your topic — especially if the subject is complex. Additionally, if you are presenting on two topics that differ, try an analogy to help your audience understand the occasional similarities your topics share.

Using an analogy during a tour comes in handy when describing the undergraduate business school’s application process. The application process to become a Tar Heel is to swimming as the application to become a Business Administration major is to completing a triathlon. The UNC application might require many essays and letters of recommendation, but in order to receive acceptance into Kenan-Flagler, one must show college leadership and academic excellence. Hence, a triathlon is harder than just swimming a few laps. A student must show he or she is a well-rounded college student who really wants acceptance to the Kenan-Flagler Business School.  

Example. Saying “for example” occurs quite often in conversations. Explaining with examples enables you to illustrate your persuasive methods, and this approach helps your audience understand when this topic or event might actually happen. For example, if you are presenting about ways to create an appealing PowerPoint, use your own PowerPoint as an example to show the various visually attractive techniques Microsoft offers.

As a current student in the business school, prospective students and parents want to hear specific examples about Kenan-Flagler’s engaging professors and professional career focus. A typical example I use is the Capital Markets Lab, which demonstrates students are able to transfer textbook knowledge to reality. To show our diversity, I explain Café McColl’s atmosphere, which bustles with diverse people from all walks of life. I hope my tour group can see the reasons we enjoy attending this business school.

Comparison or Contrast. Using Venn diagrams in school helps easily illustrate the similarities and differences between topics. Take this same approach when discussing items from the same class as you attempt to persuade your audience. As you convince people your paper or presentation is effective, try comparing a previous successful project that used the same organization. If you are helping people with their persuasive writing and believe their approach is poor, mention others who used that same structure that failed to persuade their audience.

I use a comparing and contrasting technique on a tour when I am asked why I chose to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and why I majored in Business Administration. Just as I did when deciding on where to go to college, I compare and contrast the Business Administration major to others. Business is very different from the science and medical majors. The prerequisite classes are more focused on math such as accounting in Business 101. Additionally, business differs from economics because you must apply to become a Business Administration major. However, they might seem similar since both focus on the economy. I verbally construct a Venn diagram of the Business Administration major versus other majors. This technique helps persuade those students who are still unsure because they might not know the exact differences between the Economics and Business Administration degrees.  

Consequences. If you do not use these seven persuasive tools, you will not capture your audience’s attention, which will greatly affect your outcomes. Using consequences in your writing or speech shows the audience what will or will not happen if they do or do not take your message seriously.

As an Undergraduate Business Ambassador who is representing our business school, I will not talk poorly of other degrees or business schools. However, discussing job placement and campus recruiting can fit into this consequences section. As a professional school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Kenan-Flagler Business School focuses on high-job placement with more than 90% of our students employed following graduation. Not all departments can boast this percentage. As you can imagine, discussing this topic usually persuades parents very easily.

Authority. Some of the most powerful speakers in the world use these same seven tools to persuade their audience to follow them. Martin Luther King, Jr., is one authority who motivated his audience during his “I Have a Dream Speech” by describing the positive opportunities that would come with ending segregation. When you cite a famous speaker or writer, you strengthen your credibility.

Occasionally, I will mention a well-known alumnus of Kenan-Flagler Business School to either relate with my tour group or show what our business degree can help them accomplish. Mentioning Hugh McColl, Jr., who completed his B.S.B.A. in 1957 and served as the chairman and CEO of Bank of America Corporation can illustrate the long-lasting quality of education you receive from the Kenan-Flagler Business School.Jeff Saturday To discuss someone more relatable, I talk about Jeff Saturday, former Indiana Colts Center (pictured on the left), who combined his 1997 B.S.B.A. with football to become a quality leader on the field.

These seven tools help me give the best tours and persuade prospective students to further pursue admission to the Kenan-Flagler Business School. Therefore, you should use these seven persuasive tools to strengthen your arguments in both written and verbal forms. Next time you prepare to persuade your audience, try using some statistics, historical facts, analogies, examples, comparisons or contrasts, potential positive or negative consequences, and an authority. I guarantee you will achieve your desired results.

December 1, 2014 at 3:44 pm 4 comments

Magic Messages: Be an Email Wizard at Your Summer Internship

By Meredith Richard

Congrats! You’ve landed a sweet gig interning for the summer and are excited to enter the world of cubicles, coffee runs, and copy machines.wizard You’re ready to tackle another glorious day in the life of an intern and then you see it…43 unread emails and counting! You think to yourself, “How am I going to get through this onslaught of emails…magic?!” Most workers plow through 81 emails per day. That is a lot of information to sort through. How do you make your emails break through the mass so that people read them? Use these magic tips to become an email wizard.

Harness the wondrous sorting power of Cc: and Bcc:

“Cc:” is an abbreviation for the old school term “Carbon Copy.” Recipients of both “To:” and  “Cc:” can view and respond to an email. Key difference: You’ll place recipients in the “Cc:” box when the email is not directly for them, but when they might be interested in the information exchange. Use the “Cc:” function to keep everyone in the loop.

example again

“Bcc:” stands for “Blind Carbon Copy.” Email addresses typed into the “Bcc:” box will not be visible to recipients (nor will the “Bcc:” field). Use this function to:

  • Keep recipients anonymous if content is of a sensitive nature
  • Send a mass email when recipients don’t need to see other recipients’ names

More tips on using “Cc:” and “Bcc:” here

Be careful not to spam the masses by hitting “Reply All”

Avoid spamming listservs. You do not want to be “that intern” who meant to respond to the sole sender of the email but wound up responding to all 90 recipients. Your fellow interns and employees get enough emails as is and will not appreciate the extra email clogging up their inbox. In many cases, you only want to reply those in the “To:” box.

Include the bottom line in your subject line

Make your subject lines catchy to compel the recipient to read your email. Effective subject lines include the following elements:

  • Call to action – “Edits Needed for Social Media Guidelines”
  • Key information – “Room Changed to 2045 for Event Planning Session Today”
  • Important deadlines – “June Inventory Analytics due by 7/12”

Your subject lines can be incomplete sentences – keep them short so that your reader sees the whole message.

Don’t go on a “tagging” spree

Use “High Importance” sparingly. Fail to follow this rule, and you’ll wind up like the boy who cried “wolf.” If you mark every email with “High Importance,” after a while it loses its meaning, and people stop believing you.

Be concise

Less is more. The longer the email, the more scrolling the readers have to do, the less likely they are to make it all the way to the bottom. If your email is nearing novel length, consider discussing the information via phone call or an in-person conversation if possible.

Make your emails easy on the eyes

Emails are not essays. Help readers grasp your message with ease by using these formatting tips:

  • Headings will help readers identify the key takeaways from your email.
  • Bullets will help you keep your points concise (no full sentences required).
  • Bold “call to action” will emphasize the action the reader needs to take.

Dress up your emails from head to toe.

After using the tips above, you’ve got to finish strong with a professional looking signature at the bottom of your emails. Whether you are communicating with people inside or outside the company, include a professional signature so that recipients have all of the necessary information to contact you. Including your position and company name will add to your credibility.

Example:

Meredith Richard | Company X | Marketing Intern
Address | XXX-XXX-XXXX | myemail@domain.com

Note: When you find yourself, emailing back and forth, you can dispense with the whole signature; however, make sure your phone number still appears next to your name so that the reader can easily contact you.

cakeDon’t forget the icing on the cake!

No matter how well you follow all of the aforementioned rules, a seemingly good email can be undone by poor writing and grammar and a few misspelled words. TIP: Most email services include a spell-check function (no excuses!).

 

End the vicious cycle.

When you find yourself in an endless email communication loop, consider picking up the phone. Sometimes a quick phone conversation is more efficient.

Top-notch email skills can help set you apart from your fellow interns. Follow these rules, and your emails will start to be noticed…just like magic!

November 25, 2014 at 11:49 am 11 comments

Rule of Three: A Powerful Communication Tool

By Jacob Baldwin

The rule of three, a powerful communication pattern, appears in many parts of our lives. From three-color stoplights to three branches of U.S. government, countless products, organizations, individuals, and belief systems use the rule of three to communicate. Given the widespread examples of the rule’s effectiveness, you should consider adding it as a tool to your kit of communication strategies.pyramids

My oldest brother, Matt, first introduced me to the rule of three while visiting home for Christmas after taking a class in 2007 with Dr. Paul Friga, then a consulting professor at Indiana University and now at UNC Kenan-Flagler. Matt explained to me that listening audiences more often remember and understand messages structured into three major parts, so Dr. Friga insisted that his students organize their consulting slide deck presentations around three recommendations. As it turns out, scientific evidence suggests that the human mind best remembers information in sets of three (more evidence here).

Since that time, I’ve reflected and realized that the rule is a common thread woven and present throughout my life. In kindergarten, I learned to “stop, drop, and roll” should I catch on fire, and my pastor explained the Trinity—the Christian theological concept of God—in three parts: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However, I can’t recall how many bones are in the human foot (26, it turns out) or how many maids-a-milking are in the Twelve Days of Christmas (8 of them)—details I once had memorized. If I still haven’t convinced you with academic or personal arguments, consider some examples from the business world that showcase the power of three. World-famous speaking coach Carmine Gallo wrote a piece for Forbes that highlighted Steve Jobs’ use of the rule of three:

  • In 2010, Jobs introduced the first iPad with a slide showing the new tablet as a “third device” between a smartphone and a laptop. The iPad, he told the audience, would also come in “three models”: 16, 32, and 64 GB of flash storage.
  • In 2011, Jobs introduced the iPad 2 as “thinner, lighter, and faster” than the original. The three adjectives so accurately described the new device, thousands of blog and newspaper headlines included those three words.
After reading Gallo’s article, I came to realize that we may be attracted to Apple because their strategists effectively incorporate the rule of three in designing and marketing products. Elsewhere, Gallo describes the rule of three as pervasive in the marketing world. Consider the following slogans:
  • Fast. Fresh. Italian.
  • Just do it
  • I’m loving it
  • Taste the rainbow
  • Diamonds are forever
Did you get them? That was Fazoli’s, Nike, McDonald’s, Skittles, and De Beers Jewelry. Any idea what Blockbuster’s current slogan is? Anyone? It’s: “The Movie Store at Your Door.” Not as memorable. So don’t be a “blockbuster”—start communicating with the rule of three today.

November 5, 2014 at 2:08 pm 3 comments

Three Writing Tips to Impress Your Boss

By Christina Cheng

Your writing tells employers and supervisors a lot about your work habits–for example, how careful you are when preparing documents that investors read.  Using jargon and compound-complex sentences in documents does not impress but rather confuses your reader. Additionally, the number of errors in your document demonstrates your work ethic.iStock_000000825429Large

We are all very busy every day and perfecting our writing documents sounds like a hassle. However, three easy writing steps will improve your writing drastically.

1. Eliminate jargon

Using the thesaurus–to a certain extent– is acceptable when writing proposals. However, using the right words for the right context is important. Nothing is more embarrassing than turning in documents with complex terminologies that do not fit the content.  Supervisors should not have to waste time trying to understand nonsensical language. Their time is just as valuable as our time; therefore, using plain words to describe a problem or solution is sufficient. According to “Seven Ways to Talk Your Financial Execs out of Jargon and Bad Writing,plain language instills trust in investors because you’re not delaying the inevitable truth, thereby demonstrating your honesty.

2. Use direct language

Long-winded sentences also tend to make documents hard to follow and understand. Managers often do not have time to read a document in its entirety. Thus, including short, simple sentences makes the document easy to skim. In the same article referenced above, Susan Weiner, states that the audience loses interest when writing averages more than:

  • 42 words per paragraph
  • 14 words per sentence
  • 2 syllables per word

Keeping the word count in mind when writing will make reading the document more enjoyable for your boss. Furthermore, writing concisely is appropriate in business writing. Less is more.

3. Read writing aloud

Go beyond reading your writing piece in your head. Reading aloud enables writers to catch minor mistakes and get a new perspective on the writing piece. Furthermore, reading aloud helps us notice if the information and ideas in the paragraph flow logically. After confirming that the ideas flow smoothly, writers must determine whether or not including a topic sentence could improve reading comprehension. Reading aloud to edit documents will reduce the number of errors, further demonstrating that you are a careful and attentive employee.

Implementing these three writing strategies will improve your chances of impressing your boss. Overall, your writing should be simple, direct, and comprehensible to everyone in the company so that your boss does not have to take the time out of his or her day to explain the document or proposal to other employees.

 

November 16, 2013 at 11:26 am 7 comments

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