Updated: Jun 22, 2020
Consumer-facing businesses have long known the importance of clear and confident communication. Whether it’s Innocent Drinks, with their chummy ramblings, or Apple, with their punchy statements, these businesses know that how they say something is just as important as what they say.
But the rest of the business world has been slow to catch up. Some organisations are scared of dumbing down. Others are insecure about their reputation. Most have simply never learned a better approach to writing.
Confident communication is something anyone can achieve. The techniques here apply in any business, regardless of your position or who your audience is.
Habit 1: tell a good story
Think back to the last time you attended a conference, watched a TED talk, or took part in a webinar. Are there any talks that you can remember? If the answer’s yes, it’s probably because the speaker used storytelling to help their message stick in your mind.
Abstract numbers, complicated descriptions, or long lists don’t mean much to people. But our brains are wired to pay attention to a good story.
Every business has stories, whether it’s a client’s fortunes changing after you helped them, or a member of staff going above and beyond. Here are some things to look out for that you can turn into a story:
a named individual who acts as a ‘hero'
a challenge overcome
an unexpected result
As a volume business, connecting with consumers is a massive challenge but that hasn’t deterred McDonald and the rest of the DPD management team. In fact it’s spurred them on to launch a number of trailblazing services, including one-hour delivery notifications, real-time parcel tracking, and a mobile app. “We’ve pushed technology to the extreme to make things easier for our colleagues and customers,” said McDonald.
Salesforce customer success story - DPD
Habit 2: leave out unnecessary details
There’s something reassuring about including every little detail. Ticking every box. Pleasing every stakeholder. But confident writers don’t need reassurance.
It might be easier for you to cover all your bases, but it will definitely make things harder for your readers. People have short attention spans and very little time to spare, so anything you can do to help will make your writing much more effective.
Perhaps the biggest change you can make is a very simple one: stick to one point per paragraph. In the example from Accenture, the writing is straightforward and punchy, but the real impact comes from the fact that each paragraph of text has a clear point that flows well into the next paragraph.
Habit 3: embracing emotions
In business writing, people are often wary of making things too personal. Any hint of opinion or emotion is avoided at all costs. But as the old sales adage goes, people buy from other people.
Showing emotions and opinion is the best way to make a personal connection with your reader. And a personal connection is the best way to be engaging and persuasive.
Use more personal first - and second-person pronouns (you, we) instead of talking in the third person (the firm believes that, clients will benefit from)
Try to use active voice (we have shown that) instead of passive (it was shown that)
Offer an opinion or interpretation beyond the facts
Don’t be too opinionated – keep it professional by not making it about yourself
Habit 4: give proof
Anyone can make generic statements. But, as good as it is, your word alone isn’t enough. Readers need facts, figures and examples before they trust you know what you’re talking about.
Whether it’s a quote from a famous leader in your field, or a statistic from an industry report, adding proof points to your writing will make it so much more persuasive.
According to media psychology expert, Scott Sobel,
‘Humans are aspirational. We want to look up to role models and leaders and follow what they ask. Leaders and their words – inspirational quotes – affect us on a primal level.’
Habit 5: don't try too hard with grammar
Business writing is a bit more formal than sending a WhatsApp to a friend. But some people overcompensate, especially when it comes to grammar. In fact, some writers even make things worse when they’re too eager to sound formal. Here’s a common example:
Please send it to Jenny or myself.
What’s wrong with this, you ask? We’ve noticed lots of professional services people tend to say ‘myself’ when they mean ‘me’ (or ‘yourself’ instead of ‘you’).
But it’s wrong. Myself is a reflexive pronoun. You should use it when you’re both the subject and the object of the sentence (both doing and receiving an action), e.g. ‘I did it to myself’. You can also use it for optional emphasis, e.g. ‘I can do it (myself)’.
He sent it to Jenny and I.
This is another example where some business writers tend to use the wrong pronoun when trying to sound correct. ‘I’ is the subject of a sentence, ‘me’ is the object. An easy way to think of it is to replace yourself in the sentence with ‘he/him’ or ‘she/her’. If it sounds right with ‘he’ or ‘she’, use ‘I’. If ‘him’ or ‘her’ fits better, use ‘me’.
Rules are made to be broken
Confident writers know that clarity is key – in fact, that’s the reason for almost any grammar rule you’ll come across. So if your message is clear, you probably don’t need to worry about what’s correct.
In fact, what many people think of as the rules of grammar are just myths picked up in school English lessons. Take the classic: don’t start a sentence with ‘and’. That has never been a real rule in English. There are examples of it ranging from the Bible to Shakespeare.
We won’t encourage you to throw out the rulebook entirely. But the message should always come first – don’t try too hard to sound like a grammar textbook.
Habit 6: consider the context
Your writing doesn’t exist in some abstract form. It always has a context. Confident writers think about that context and how they can use it to their advantage.
If you’re writing a brochure, a web page, or something else heavy on the images, you can let the visuals do a lot of the work. On the other hand, if you’re writing a dense report, you’ll need to use lots of subheadings and bullet points to break up the text to make it easier to digest.
This article from Gartner is typical of their presentation style. They break things down into chunks and use other formats like infographics and charts where possible.
Habit 7: be selfless
Most writing is meant to be read. But many business writers seem to forget that simple fact.
To be a really effective communicator, you need to put your readers’ needs above your own. You might want to break down your organisation’s 180-year history decade by decade, but not many other people want to hear it.
This example from HubSpot could easily have been a long, boring history of office moves and personnel changes. But, instead, every bit of the history mentioned is something that might have some relevance or benefit to the reader.
See what works
The 7 habits are a great starting point for you to improve your writing. But being confident sometimes means following your own intuition and going against advice. If you have an idea that might help you engage with your readers in new ways, why not give it a go?
No one's writing is perfect, so don't be afraid to fail. Collect any data you can, like email open rates, or sales targets met, and improve things for next time. Good luck!