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?
Being wordy is only good if you’re a dictionary.
If there’s one thing we know about text, it’s that messages get weaker as the word count grows. But, flick our writer switch, and what happens? The more concerned we are with getting our point across, the more words we use!
We’re worried people won’t get it. We’re worried they might miss something. So we say the same thing over and over again, in slightly different ways, trying to cover all our bases. All the “just in case”s. Every eventuality.
You know what that gets us? Really badly written legalese.
Brief = strong
The best business writing is stripped back to just what’s needed to make your points and achieve your outcomes.
So how do we strip our writing back, but still be comprehensive enough to get the job done? Here are a few quick approaches.
Strip out fluffy, wordy phrases
It’s easy, when we’re trying to put our most professional foot forward, to take on an unnaturally wordy voice. Because we want to be taken seriously, we try to sound a bit more formal. Resist!
|to||in order to|
|can||be able to|
|because||as a consequence of|
|consider||give consideration to|
Write less formally and more conversationally
We think a conversational voice is waffly, and that’s true in one respect – we speak in very long, run-on sentences with lots of “and”s.
But if we use conversational to mean the active voice and everyday words, that will be less wordy than a traditional formal voice.
Use headings and bullets
A well-written heading speaks directly to your reader. It engages them. The following approach forces you to think first, write second, and do that in a very focused way.
- Separate your thinking into key points
- Turn those into statement headings
- Then list supporting info as bullet lists beneath them
And no, before you ask, I’m not suggesting that you then flesh out each of those bullets into a paragraph. The bullets are enough! Use them as often as you can (but keep each list short – no more than 7 bullets).
Stay concise and outcomes focused and your business readers will love you for it!