Writing for outcomes – how to structure a business document Part 1

People are always asking me for templates. Have you got a report template, Shelly? A business case template, Shelly? A template that will save all the woes of the world, Shelly?

I’ll spare you the clichés about length of string and teaching men how to fish: I DON’T DO TEMPLATES.

Templates are only good if they’re designed for a specific purpose. There is no such thing as ONE magical template for any kind of document.

But we do have some really clear insights into reader behaviour. And from that, we can build a strong, successful, fit-for-purpose document structure.

What readers want

As humans, when we interact with text, we’re subconsciously looking for 3 things.

  1. What’s this about?
  2. Is it relevant to me?
  3. What’s the bottom line?

The importance of the executive summary or up-front framing

If you can answer those 3 questions before you do anything else in a business document, you’ve got your reader in the palm of your hand. They’re hooked. They’re engaged. And they’ll keep reading (or at least scanning through). It’s like mad-genius-evil-mastermind-writing-ninja material – so use your powers for good.

Answering those 3 questions is the basic formula for an executive summary. Of course, you can add more – but those are the bare minimum. If you don’t want to use an executive summary, make sure those 3 questions are answered in your introduction (or background, or scope, or whatever heading your douchebag template tells you is the starting point for saving the planet).

Let’s test this concept – what do you want as a reader?

Picture yourself going to your car and finding a piece of paper under the windscreen wiper.

(Note: Your version may contain less profanity. Whatever floats your boat.)

  1. What the f*ck is this? You wonder.

(You pick it up and see a company logo – it’s a flyer, not a ticket, thank f*ck)

  1. What are they selling? You wonder.

(There are pictures of food. It’s a restaurant. You’ve been known to eat occasionally. There’s potential here.)

  1. So are the prices any good? You wonder.

(That’s the bottom line – now that I know what they have to offer and that I’m interested, this is the deciding factor. Let’s say they’re cheap AF and sound worth trying so we have a happy ending to our scenario. You’re welcome.)

The rest of the document structure depends on content and purpose.

In a nutshell: the rest of your document needs to be structured in terms of what is most relevant to your reader, and then what they need to know so that you can achieve your purpose. Note the difference here – it’s not about what you want them to know – it’s about what they need to know from where they sit. Those can be vastly different things.

In fact, that warrants more discussion. Here’s Part 2!

How does plain language save money?

So I’m guessing you’re here because either

  1. you LOVE plain language and want to convince someone at work that it’s worth investing in, or
  2. you’ve heard about this plain language thing but you’re not yet sure you buy into it

Either way, I can help you out. So let’s dive into this.

Plain language (or plain English) saves money. It’s a simple fact. Plain language means your business will

  • save time (don’t just skip over that – it’s the most significant financial benefit)
  • improve customer experience and reduce queries
  • increase compliance and reduce risk
  • increase brand trust and credibility

Want more detail? Duh, I know that. THAT was just the intro – the high-level overview. Which, by the way, is a handy plain language approach to structuring documents.

Like how I did that? Now enough chit chat. Here’s what you came for.

Plain language saves time, which saves money. Piles of it. Sometimes great whopping mountains of it.

Save time reading

Joseph Kimble reports a US study using a Marine Radio Regulation. They gave people 1 of 2 versions of the regulation: the original or a plain language rewrite. Then they asked questions, and the readers had to find the answers in the document. The time to read, process, and answer the questions was almost halved – from 3 ½ minutes per question with the original, to less than 2 minutes per question with the plain language version.

How many minutes a day do your staff spend reading regulations, standards, policies, procedures and other indecipherable stuff? Just imagine how much time they could save.

Save writing time

In my trainings, I help people reconnect with our natural ways of expressing ideas – basically, the way we speak. When we write that like that we let go of so many worries and conventions and constructs that slow us down. It’s just faster! And the Plain English Campaign in the UK agrees.

Plain language improves CX and reduces customer queries, complaints, and all those fun games of email ping pong

  • The US Federal Communications Commission once needed five fulltime staff members to field all the phone calls and queries about its rules for Citizen Band Radios. Putting the regulations into plain English freed all five staff members to, well, get other shit done.
  • The Canadian government reports that when they rewrote their Certificate to Register Livestock, the compliance rate soared from a miserable 40% (imagine how much time THAT wasted) to 95%. That’s huge!
  • The Arizona Department of Revenue reported they received 18 000 fewer phone calls the year after they started using plain language letters.

Plain language makes your brand more trustworthy and easier to feel personally connected to. And that, my savvy business friends, will make you money.

  • If you think about the brands you love, you’ll see they speak to you like a human. No formality, no waffle, no fluff. Microsoft’s stated position on this is beautiful. Why wouldn’t the same apply to your company?
  • This Siegel and Gale study is just one of many that prove how readers trust information they can easily understand. Did you hear that? CLEAR AND SIMPLE = TRUSTWORTHY.
  • I’m sorry to say it, but Trump’s use of plain language is one of the reasons people voted for him. (Use your #PlainLanguage powers for good, people.)

Work it out – how much can you save using plain language?

The UK’s Plain Language Commission recommends this calculation to estimate how much money your business can save through using plain language:

Work out the number of sheets of paper, e-mails and faxes in your organization produces in one working day. Estimate the cost of each of these documents at $10 a page. Now calculate by the number of people who have to read them and add $1 for each person reading each document. (To give you an idea of this figure, a typical office worker receives over 100 messages a day). That will give you rough idea of the cost of your paperwork for each day. Then multiply the figure by 240 to find out a realistic cost of paperwork in your organization every year.

The Commission says that plain language will cut this bill by 30 percent.

So the question is, really, can you afford NOT to invest in upskilling your people and embedding beautiful, crisp, clear plain language communication strategies throughout every inch of your business? I think not. I know someone who can help you with that …