It’s quite surprising how after teaching you Accounting, Marketing, organizational behaviour and even business psychology, universities and schools forget to tutor students on something they will spend a significant part of their careers doing- writing. If you go into consulting, banking or law, writing is perhaps your biggest weapon or weakest link. If your writing is crisp, so will be your communication. If sloppy, then you might suddenly find yourself responsible for the break down in a big deal negotiation because you decided to leave out a comma in an important email or forget to check up on your numbers. Remember the example:’ Eats, shoots and leaves?’
Here are the top 5 dumbest mistakes people make in business writing.
- Er…your numbers don’t add up: You could have done every calculation right and you’re probably the brains behind the entire idea, but it takes only one table that doesn’t add up to question the sanctity of your entire report. This usually happens when excel sheets are linked and don’t update properly. So don’t trust excel. Make sure your original excel sheets are not linked to anything and have no reference value issues. Two: Paste your table as a graphic if you can. That way if something changes in your excel sheet, it won’t on your document.
- Unsourced data: Business writing is not a thesis. No one is looking for original thought, we are looking for coherent analysis. Everybody knows you didn’t travel to Sierra Leone to find out what percentage of their diamonds are blood diamonds. But someone did. And your data and the following analysis is much more valuable if you make a reference to them.
- Over-reliance on spell and grammar check: Is ‘colour’ also spelt as ‘color’? Not according to my spell check. Spell check is good but doesn’t blindly accept every change. Understand the context. Sometimes Word thinks it knows better than you; it doesn’t.
- Less is more: Keep the body of your main powerpoint presentation or report as short as possible. The best business writing gets to the point immediately. Try to put all the supporting documentation in the appendix. That said, don’t put in your own personal thoughts on why the stock market is about to crash. A good appendix is a useful appendix that enhances the main study. It is not the place where you dump research just because you spent four hours looking for it.
- Passive writing: Write in the active voice.
Example of active voice: Mr Prabakar leads the team.
Example of passive voice: The team is led by Mr Prabakar.
You might think it sounds the same but look at it again. In the first instance, your focus is on Mr Prabakar. The passive voice is clunkier and leaves room for ambiguity. The active voice is more assertive and sure of itself. Only use the passive tense if you want to emphasize something in the sentence. So if you wanted to emphasize the team, you can say.
The team is now led by Mr Prabakar.
But as a rule, stick to the active tense.
Finally, get someone to read your document before you present it. This should take care of language, cross-references, acronyms that need to be expanded and odd ‘xxx%’ which will irritate your MD so much that he might take it into your consideration when paying your bonus.
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For more tips on writing, check out the following books. There is no shame in keeping a small reference library on your desk.