Case Study: Better Business Writing Workshop

Business Writing for UNDP

Documents Make a Difference:

In a world of constant email, writing clearly is a must.

The Challenge

A UN manager just back from Haiti’s earthquake zone sat down, perplexed, for individual coaching. In Haiti, to coordinate many relief agencies, she wrote a memo explaining who would handle what. At least, she’d tried to.

“For days, people kept asking me why this or that wasn’t happening, and who was supposed to do it,” she said. “I told them, ‘It’s in the memo.’ ” But they had read the memo and still didn’t know. What went wrong? The memo, I learned, was eight pages of dense, confusing text. Few paragraph breaks, no subheads, no summary or table of contents. And everywhere, undefined acronyms.

How much food hadn’t been delivered? What shelter, latrine or medicine had been late to reach Haitians in need? Clear writing mattered then, and matters in every business that wants to be productive.

I offer business writing workshops with associate Jill Hamburg-Coplan, an adjunct journalism professor at New York University and St. John’s University and, in 2011-’12, in Beijing where she was a Fulbright Scholar. Jill has worked as a reporter or editor for Newsday, Bloomberg News, United Press International- Jerusalem, BusinessWeek, and elsewhere. She teaches students and professionals, in person and online. She also has experience creating written materials for clients including the United Nations, Girl Scouts USA, Citibank and American Express. Jill and I present custom-tailored, multi-day (or shorter) writing workshops, for UN staff, private sector clients, and Iraqi academics seeking appointments after being displaced by war, through the Scholar Rescue Fund. We help them envision their audience and its needs, focus on key issues, be appropriately succinct and plain-spoken.

Writing takes concentration, a mastery of subject matter, and some personal risk. Poor business emails, letters and memos can lower productivity, and even hurt the morale of a global workforce. Writing well means efficiency and success on the job.

The Solution

  • Some of the useful lessons workshop participants say they’ve taken away: Open your written correspondence with a warm, cordial salutation. Then be frank and straightforward: Ask for what you need briefly and directly. In the end, close warmly to cement a smooth working relationship.
  • A clean, airy format and lots of white space makes a document easier to digest. What’s more readable is more memorable, and elicits action.
  • Clear “subject” lines, as well as bulleted lists, make correspondence easy to skim, review, and retrieve later.
  • Understanding certain cross-cultural communication issues can help writers steer clear of business misunderstandings.
  • Recognize instructional writing for what it is: a set of simple step-by-step directions.
  • There are rules for writing bad news in a business context, and for persuasion without seeming manipulative.

Our Approach

My workshops, with university writing instructor and journalist Jill Hamburg-Coplan, use games, verbal and written group exercises, and revising of real working documents.

Before the workshop, we analyze at least two writing samples from each participant. During the workshop, we coach participants individually to supplement group sessions.

In groups and solo, we help participants let their ‘best self’ leap off the page. The most effective modern business writing uses a slightly less formal voice than in the past. That energy, infused into writing, along with visual and organizational clarity, go a long way toward building successful working partnerships.

Participants wrote “A letter to myself” to remind themselves what they hoped to remember about the workshop:

I have had the opportunity to think about the type of writer I am and how I can improve.  This is very valuable to me since I write frequently to [recipients] around the globe. One of the most valuable tips is to write in a manner that anyone can understand. I have learned to use brevity, a clean airy format, that less is more, and to reduce the jargon, if possible. I will immediately begin to use these tips and rules for business writing.

I learnt many things about my writing style. Patricia Kantor conducted the workshop superbly and turned it into a fantastic learning experience.  Many newcomers overwhelmed by the organizational culture-shock could accept that it is right to use simple, clear and direct language as opposed to the entrenched jargon. For old-timers like me, it was timely to review our writing style. I learnt my writing was influenced by jargon and had accumulated a stultified style.  I learnt that writing well means relating to the reader, writing clearly using simple yet meaningful words, in brief sentences, to inform or persuade him or her. Multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual colleagues brought a richness of meaning and a diverse understanding of English words, which helped me to understand better who my readers are and to tone my writing to fit the audience.

I would happily recommend that others in the organization, both newcomers and old-timers, take this course.  It is an eye opener.

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“Every writer, by the way he uses the language, reveals something of his spirit.”

— E.B. White, The Elements of Style

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Comments from participants

The business writing training course was very informative. Some of the key points I picked up:

Before starting to write a complicated message it is always a good idea to brainstorm and organize your thoughts by jotting down your ideas, free-writing on your computer or using mindmaps (a software tool).

Write in clear, concise sentences and try to avoid jargon and clichés.

Understand who your reader is and ensure the language and style is appropriate.

Ensure your email flows properly and is not claustrophobic and that there are enough spaces between paragraphs and thoughts

Use bullets points when explaining a complex process.

Always proof read your message for tone, grammar, spelling, logic, etc. before sending it out. If possible, step away from your desk and return to review your email before sending it out.

I hope I’ll be able to stick to as much of it as much possible. I have the guidebook handy in case I forget something!

Specific tools used:

  • One-on-one coaching
  • Pre- and post-workshop writing sample analysis
  • Written exercises
  • Group games, quizzes and contests
  • Revising real work samples
  • Group activities/sharing feedback about appropriate writing for the organization
  • Handbooks and workbooks with guidelines
  • Follow-up activities, a glossary and handouts with suggested language for difficult situations
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