What do business readers want?

OK, so you’re not a mind-reader. But to write well in a business context, you do have to have some insight into what your readers want.

Here’s the good news

The good news is, you DO have a very good general idea of what business readers want, so that’s a strong start.

Why?

Because you ARE a business reader. And that’s the trick to successful documents and emails at work.

Don’t assume!

Assumption is the mother of all fuck ups

DON’T assume the people you’re writing to want different things.

Don’t assume the rules are different.

Don’t assume, just because they’re higher up the food chain (for example), that for some reason the rules are just magically different for them.

You don’t want #corporatewankspeak. Nor do they.

You don’t want, long, waffly, unintelligible documents. Nor do they.

So here are 4 things you can really safely assume about your readers within a business context, because these 4 things are also true for you!

The 4 things ALL business readers want

1. They’re busy – so it needs to be concise and punchy.

Think about how YOU behave with a long email or a long document.

You might put it off till later. You might decide not to read it at all, and hope someone else fills you in later. Or you might pick up the phone instead of reading it.

At the very least you’ll skim it, hoping to find the key points – but you won’t find them if they’re hidden in pages of narrative and detail.

Good writers know their purpose and their audience - Shelly Davies

Being busy and time-poor is something that is true of ALL BUSINESS READERS.

So if you would appreciate an email or report that gets to the point, fast, and makes more info accessible but doesn’t get in the way of the main points, you really can trust that your reader wants the same thing.

They do.

I’ve never had a CEO or a board member tell me they prefer long, wordy documents.

2. They have questions, and they’re looking for the answers – so help them find the answers. FAST.

When you open an email or have a document on your screen, why do you read it?

Because you want to know something – or some things. 

At the very least when you read an email you want to know how it’s relevant to you – do you need to do anything?

You reader is EXACTLY THE SAME. They come to a document or email with questions.

Your job is to try to make educated assumptions about what those questions are, and ANSWER THEM FIRST.

BLUF. Give your reader the Bottom Line Up Front. Every time. No matter what. Shelly Davies

Yes, seriously, FIRST.

Don’t give pages of background or context or scope or purpose or definitions or preamble!!! 

Yes, I KNOW that’s what we’ve always done.

But remember – this is about writing in a way that acknowledges the reality of the reader experience. And when you’re faced with pages of those things at the beginning of a document, YOU SKIP THEM. 

True?

True.

So why are we playing this ridiculous game? 

I know you think there are things you have to tell your reader so they’ll understand the findings, or the recommendations, or the actions, or whatever, but the simple fact is, they’ll skim/skip/ignore anything until their questions are answered.

So, the way to engage a reader?

GIVE them the answers to their questions first, and then TRUST that they’ll read the rest of the document so they can understand the justification for those answers.

Plain Language allows our readers to act with confidence, because they understand the problems, reasons or recommendations presented. Shelly Davies

Also, see point 3.

3. They WON’T read that email/report/proposal like a novel, from beginning to end – they’ll jump around.

Make the document easy to navigate at a glance.

You want to renovate your kitchen. You get 3 quotes/proposals. Do you read ANY of the words/pages/sales pitch before you find the quoted price?

Ah – NO. 

You skip everything until you find the price.

See?

What do business readers want? You don't want #corporatewankspeak. Nor do they. You don't want long, waffly, unintelligible documents. Nor do they. Here's how to #dropthebs - Shelly Davies

If you think you have to write a document in a certain order so the reader will read it in a certain order, you’re mistaken. #sorrynotsorry

No matter how much you want to believe that your reader will read 10 pages about the experience and values of your company and the quality methods and materials you’ll use and why they should pick you over your competitors, no one – AND I MEAN NO-ONE – will read any of that until they’ve found the price of your quote.

When reading for pleasure, sure, we’ll read from page 1 and work our way through.

When reading in business, we simply don’t.

So like I said in point 2, answer the reader’s questions first.

AND ALSO, make it super easy to navigate the document. Clear, descriptive, statement and question headings. A clear structure and hierarchy of heading levels (and formatting).

When a reader can easily find what they are looking for, they’re more likely to engage with more of the document.

Frustration levels stay low. Readers stay more open-minded. 

4. They’ll skim read – so use visual tools and cues.

Guess what? It’s not just you! 

You’re not just a lazy reader. WE ALL SKIM-READ. Well, 98% of us in a business setting do, anyway.

The most common lies ever told. 90% I have read and agreed to the Terms of Service.

So you can very safely assume your reader will skim read that document. And what makes things skim-readable?

Visuals.

Headings. Descriptive ones. Statement and question headings that don’t require interpretation.

And subheadings – the same. Use them, a lot of them, and use them well – conversationally.

Bullets. Tables. Formatting conventions that “train” your reader to understand things like,

When text is indented and italicised, it’s a quote.

 See how that works?

Physically lean back from a document and look at it from a distance. How much white space is there and how easy is it to differentiate the various levels of headings?

You’re just not that special.

Look, I love you and all. You’re amazing. Very unique (please laugh).

But when it comes to reader behaviour and the psychology of how humans engage with text, you’re just not special.

We need some new jargon. The public are starting to understand what we're talking about!

And that’s great news.

Because you can connect with the very real experience of what it’s like to open a waffly email or a document that is just SUCH HARD WORK to read.

Remember to trust:

What you want as a reader, your readers also want.

#writelikeareader #notspecial

Hugs!

_____________________________________________________________

There is a better way to communicate.

If you’re working from home, you’re emailing. And in this chaos, no-one has time for email ping-pong!

What if your emails could be skillfully on point, EVERY SINGLE TIME?

You can #writebetteremails, with my ONLINE course.

Use my never-fail formula to build connections with empathy and authenticity.

You’ll quickly be writing professional, clear, concise, fit-for-purpose emails that will:

  • save time and sanity
  • deal with customer complaints quickly and with humanity
  • retain clients and smash deadlines
  • get better results, faster replies
  • more YESes, less chasing-up, and enjoy easier business relationships

It will rock your world! Simple as that.

Are you prepared?

I’ve had the privilege in the last 12 months of watching my 2 youngest daughters very rapidly transition into high-functioning, self-sufficient young adults. It happened so fast. I didn’t realise it was coming like that.

One minute I had a 15- and 16-year-old at high school.

The next minute I had:

  • a 17-year-old licenced driver with her first car, milking full time at a job she got for herself, coming home each day with eyes sparkling and covered in cowshit, and
  • a 16-year-old paying cash for a late-model 150cc motorbike on her birthday, organising every aspect of the process, from the research through to the courses and tests and insurance.

They both want independence. They’re both resourceful and capable.

It’s terrifying and glorious.

But that’s all context for what I really want to write today.

I want to talk about risks, resilience, and preparedness.

Risks, resilience, and being prepared

Your story of resilience will stir up resilience in others

I experienced some of that “terrifying and glorious” at the beginning of this year. Here’s how it went.

I had just got off the phone with my youngest.

I was on another island, hundreds of kilometres from her. And she was just about to take her new motorbike for a spin around our neighbourhood.

There were risks involved in this exercise.

I was confident that she was prepared.

And because of that, both she and I had a good idea of a range of possible outcomes, and were prepared for those.

Being prepared for any possible outcomes is one of the fundamentals of resilience.

How to get prepared

Risks, resilience and preparedness.  What can you do to prepare for possible outcomes, so you know you'll have a resilient response no matter what?

Here’s how she prepared.

The day of her 16th birthday was the day she picked up her motorbike. She got online and organised insurance. The same day,  she sat and passed her written driver’s licence test. Then she took a skills course to make sure she was prepared to handle the bike.

And now she was ready to go for a ride.

She was home alone. No one was there to see her off or supervise or welcome her back and debrief after the ride.

I was shitting myself.

Here’s how we prepared.

The phone conversation went like this:

Me: OK, let’s just run through a couple of scenarios before you head out, since no one’s there with you.

Her: OK.

Me: What happens if you drop the bike?

(She has once already, and it’s pretty heavy, and she’s not a big kid. She needed help to pick it up.)

Her: I’ll try to pick it up, first. But if I can’t, I’ll call Papa.

(Thank goodness for amazing grandparents – my dad used to train Ministry of Transport Motorbike Officers.)

Me: Yup, perfect. You might be able to pick it up. But before you call Papa, look around. Can you see anyone outside their house? Can you see a house that looks like someone’s home? If there’s someone nearby who looks strong enough to help, ask them first.

Her: Oh, ok, yup.

Me: OK, now what if the worst happens and you crash into something, or a car bumps you or something?

Her: I call the police.

Me: Well yep, if it’s bad enough, sure. But let’s say you crash into a parked car. You don’t need to call the police right then. What do you think you can do?

Her: Go into the house where the car is parked and try to see if someone’s home. Is that the kind of answer you’re looking for?

Me: Yup, you can, but I was thinking more of your welfare. You’ve just had an accident, and you don’t need to freak out, because you’re not actually alone. I think the answer is pretty much the same as the first one: Do what you can do yourself, look for help nearby, and call Papa if all else fails. Of course, if you’re hurt, call 111.

Her: Oh, ok. Yup.

(She is not a woman of many words, LOL.)

Me: OK, so call me when you get home so I know you’re safe.

The end.

Being prepared, mentally, can be the difference between life and death

Consequences don't care about the decision making process that led you to them.

It’s like drownings at the beach.

In general, people don’t drown because they can’t swim. They drown because they panic, and that means they can’t make resourceful decisions and they get exhausted, FAST.

If, before you (or your kids) went into the water, you thought through some what-ifs, then when one of those things happens, your brain says, OK, this is one of those things we planned for. I know what to do.

And if you find this train of thought offensive, please know I lost my first husband to a drowning at a beach.

I speak to this because IT IS REAL.

Risks, resilience, and being prepared in career and business

Do not be afraid to take a calculated risk.  All growth comes from taking chances.

And how about in your career or in your business?

Businesses take risks all the time.

We often call them “calculated risks” because we’ve done the calculations and decided that it’s a level of risk we can carry.

I’d suggest we can take more risks more comfortably and be more resilient through the potential outcomes if we ran a number of “if – then” scenarios.

If this happens, we can respond like that. If X happens, we can respond with Y, or Z.

What’s something you’re NOT doing because of fear or risk?

What can you do to prepare for the possible outcomes, so you know you’ll have a resilient response no matter what?

It's OK to be a glowstick; sometimes we need to break before we shine.

Brené Brown tells us, if you enter the arena, if you choose to show up vulnerably, you WILL fail.

Not might, WILL.

The trick is knowing that failure is a very real possibility, and preparing yourself for what you’ll do when it happens.

That’s resilience.

That’s strength, courage, leadership, and innovation.

And within those, I sat, and waited for my daughter to call me and tell me she got home safe.

Resilience is not about overcoming, but becoming.

(PS – she dropped the bike. She asked someone to help her pick it up. She got home safe. See how that works?)

I’m currently afraid of spiders

I can admit it. I’m currently afraid of spiders.

The freaking things freak me out. Creepy crawlies. Spiderwebs. All those leeeeegs. Uggh.

But here’s the thing. At this stage in my life, I understand that being afraid of spiders is a CHOICE.

I’m allowing myself to still let them give me the creeps. I’m allowing myself to fear finding one crawling up my leg, so that when, heaven forbid, that DOES happen, I freak out just a tad…

(Something noteworthy here for my international peeps: In NZ we only have one poisonous spider, and it lives in one very limited ecosystem. So I genuinely have nothing to fear from 99.99% of the spiders I meet.)

What’s stopping us?

I was thinking about this as I watched my young teenage daughter attempting to hang a swing over a branch over our waterhole. She literally spent HOURS throwing that damn rope over and between branches in an attempt to get it in EXACTLY THE RIGHT PLACE.

The swing over the waterhole on Great Barrier Island
The swing on Great Barrier Island

And sitting back, I watched her, and looked at the tree and its branch. It’s not a huge tree. It’s not a particularly high branch. Any one of us could climb that tree and, in minutes, place the rope exactly where she wants it.

But what was stopping us is spiders. None of us wants to climb that tree, because #spiders.

Fear and choices

It’s ridiculous.

But it’s a choice.

And I guess that’s the difference at this stage of my life – I KNOW it’s a choice.

I haven’t yet overcome my fear of spiders, but I know I CAN, when I choose to.

I can ignore them and climb that tree.

I can choose not to think about them, be aware I might touch one or one might crawl on me, but know there’s nothing bad that can happen – an icky spider on me doesn’t actually do any harm.

I haven’t yet had the drive to do that. I haven’t needed to. I haven’t chosen to.

But the fact remains that I know I can, and I will when that time comes.

Our power lies in knowing we can choose

For example, if I was being chased by a bear or a zombie or a serial killer, and climbing that tree would save my life, I’d be able to overcome my fear of spiders pretty damn quick.

If my child was stuck up that tree, I’d do it. If her throwing that damn rope again and again started to put her in some sort of danger, I might find the drive to overcome my fear.

For now, I choose not to. But the KNOWING that it’s a choice? That’s where my power lies.

We also all have choices when it comes to how we respond to this pandemic and the ongoing ramifications of it.

We have the power to choose our response. I choose to remain resilient.

You?