What place does empathy have in business writing?
All the places. All. Of. Them.
If your writing isn’t empathetic to your readers’ needs, you’ve failed. End of story.
Who are you writing for? YOU?
All those bad, waffly, long-winded, not-fit-for purpose documents you see at work? Those are the result of writers writing to satisfy their own needs.
Don’t believe me? How about these needs writers have:
- the need to look good in their role
- the need to come across like they know what they’re doing
- the need to “do it right”
- the need to show evidence of enough work
- the need to sound knowledgeable
- the need to sound “professional”
- the need to not sound stupid
See what I mean?
Those are very real drivers, and I believe they are the root cause of most bad business writing.
But. If you switch your focus to your readers’ needs and write for them, not for you, magic happens.
What happens when you think about your readers
I’m talking about the kind of magic that happens when you:
- Give your readers the bottom line up front, instead of making them look for it.
- Omit those sections that no one ever reads, but that are there because they’ve always been done like that (or just push them further back, like to the appendices, if you need them there to cover butts).
- Answer your readers’ questions before you tell them all the stuff you want them to know.
- Acknowledge the fact that business readers skim-read, and then write to support that behaviour (headings, bullets, tables, white space)
We’ve been lying to ourselves
For such a long time we’ve tried to believe work and emotions are separate. But we do so much work on “soft skills” and emotional intelligence these days. We know those are vital!
We spend millions of dollars building empathetic leaders.
Can we PLEASE bring some of that knowing to our writing at work?
In my trainings, structure is one of the most common things participants say they want help with. They hope I’m going to give them a standard report structure. *snort* That’s like unicorn farts – would probably be really lovely but there’s no such thing. Sorry bout it.
In part one I covered the upfront framing that –
- gives readers an incredibly satisfying experience, and
- engages the right audience.
But I promised more. So let’s move from reader behaviour to a reader-centric document structure.
Let’s be very clear about how documents work
- You’re writing a document because you need to achieve something. An outcome.
- To achieve YOUR outcome, the document has to work for THEM – the reader.
- The upfront framing either engages or loses your reader (we’ve already covered this)
- The structure of the rest of the document determines its success (ie – YOUR outcome).
- Shall I say it again? Write for them. Not for you. That’s the only way you’re going to ultimately get what you’re after.
Purpose, purpose, bla, bla, bla
Any writing trainer worth their salt will tell you to identify the purpose of a document before you start writing. This is true. But I find purpose – both the word and the concept – problematic.
Firstly it’s overly and inappropriately used as a heading (how many documents have you read that have the heading purpose followed by a waffly, non-specific introduction??).
And second, when I ask people what the purpose of their document is, they give me answers like –
- to inform… (for what purpose? We don’t tell people stuff for no reason)
- to analyse… (documents don’t analyse things. People do)
- to define… (see above)
- to describe… (see above above. For what purpose?)
None of which give a writer the drilled-down clarity we need to develop a fit-for-purpose structure.
Instead, I train people to ask 2 questions:
- What does this document need to ACHIEVE?
- If this document works, what will HAPPEN?
Both questions direct us to a tangible, observable action by our reader.
Know your audience, bla, bla, bla
Again, everyone tells us this. And it’s true. But what’s most common in business documents today is that we have multiple audiences, with differing needs. So knowing that can make the writing process even more daunting and definitely not simple and clear.
How about this as an alternative: list all the readers of your document. Who will access it? Who will use it? Who will sign off on it? Who might need to refer to it?
Now look back at the solid outcome you identified with questions 1 & 2.
And ask the 3rd question:
- Who has the authority, ability, or position to make this document achieve its purpose?
Answer that and you’ve identified your primary readers. They matter the most. Write in a way that works for them, above anyone else. (By the way – this also gives you the ability to push back when an approver wants a document written a certain way, but you know that won’t work for the end user. Handy!)
Now create the headings/sections/chunks of your document
With clarity on outcome and readers of influence, you can now create a fit-for purpose structure. I wish I could wave a magic wand and tell you what that structure looks like. But again, unicorn farts. From where YOU sit, with YOUR knowledge, expertise and insight, and with the new clarity about purpose and readers, YOU have all the pieces to the puzzle. You can create a structure that will work best.
Ask yourself –
- What does my primary reader need to know so I can get my desired outcome?
- Does my primary reader need to know X (ie, any chunk of information) for my doc to achieve its purpose?
It’s all connected.
Want to know more? Bring me in for a training. I’ve got so much more!!!!