Published April 3, 2006

Ten Rules of Written Business Communication

There's one thing that makes every relationship work: communication. It doesn't matter if that relationship is a romantic one, a peer relationship, or a business relationship; Communication makes the world go around.

When you are communicating through the written word, it's easy to dash off a quick email or blast out a memo to employees or customers to keep them up to date. Unfortunately, when we communicate too quickly with the written word, we can create the wrong impression about ourselves and our business. And it could even cost you business! Here are ten commandments you need to follow when you're creating written communication for employees, suppliers, or clients.

1. Know what you want to say before you say it. If you're writing a longer memo or email (more than a paragraph or two) jot down an outline, even if it's on the back of an envelope. This will keep you on task and make sure you say what you actually want to say.

2. Keep it simple. Don't get convoluted or use big words. Stick to the point to get the business dealt with. Offer a way for them to have more questions answered (with a link, a phone number, etc.). That way, you won't be filling up your message with extraneous stuff that not every reader will want to know.

3. Use bullet points. Bullet points and numbered lists cut down on the number of words you have to write and make it easier for others to read. It's more likely that your work will be read if it's in a list.

4. WIIFM. This is an acronym that no one intentionally asks but everyone must have answered: "What's In It For Me?" No matter who you're communicating with, that question will be unconsciously asked. Make the answer very clear. If you don't know the answer, there's a good chance you don't need to write that memo!

5. Don't get bogged down. Sometimes it's easy to get off on a tangent as you write. Your outline (from point 1) will help, if you created one, but be sure to commit to writing a simple, clear message with one point and one point only.

6. Call to action. Readers will always unconsciously ask "What's in it for me?" and if you're able to answer it, you're halfway there! Once you've clearly stated an answer to WIIFM, you need to clearly outline what they can do to achieve it. A simple example might be, "to make sure that we keep our customers coming back" which creates job security for all of us [that answers WIIFM] or "please be sure to give all customers a Customer Satisfaction Postcard [call to action]."

7. Edit. Now that you've written your communication, go back and read it. Ask yourself, does it give off the impression I want it to give? Is there anything that others can read and misinterpret? If you're not sure, have someone else read it.

8. Spell check. Once you've clearly defined your message, hit the "spell check" button. It will save you many calls from customers who are wondering what a free "nzgjk" is. Also, if you have someone reading your communication before it goes out, have them check for words that are properly spelled but not the word you're looking for. That way, suppliers won't be concerned when they get a letter from you outlining how you'd like your employees to "spay" the supplier instead of "pay" the supplier).

9. Take 5 before hitting send. Although this is a good business practice for nearly every single piece of communication you create, it is especially true for emails and letters that are created in response to someone else's actions or letter. If a customer wrote you an angry letter or an employer made a rude remark to a supplier, it's best to write your email then take five minutes and think about it before sending it. Communication written in anger is less effective.

10. Follow up. Once you've sent the communication, follow up. That might mean a phone call or a quick poll of your employees or it might mean monitoring your email or getting a report from your email provider to tell you who opened their message.

We live in a world with other people and that means we're going to be communicating. Use these 10 commandments when you're creating written communication and you'll spend less time writing and more time doing what you want to do: running your business!