Evaluating Written Communications: Elements of Writing For Business

How clear and easy to understand is your writing? If people, especially customers, are having trouble following what you've written, you could be losing business. Here's how to evaluate your writing for its clarity.

For many people, writing effectively is a difficult chore. But if your proposals, documentation, brochures, sales letters, etc., aren’t focused, easy-to-read, and error-free, they’re already costing you business.

With the markets for computer services and products getting more competitive than ever, excellent communication with your clients is critical. According to Big Six accounting and management consulting firm Coopers & Lybrand, companies with mediocre documentation will not survive the 1990s. So what can you do to avoid becoming a casualty?

The first step is to find out where you stand by assessing all of your written communications, not just your documentation. This is important. For example, if your proposals or sales letters promise clear documentation or on-line help, you must deliver clear text. No exceptions. Inconsistencies between promises and deliveries can cost you your reputation and, these days, even your business. A “communications assessment” will pinpoint areas you can improve and help you figure out how to make the improvements to increase your profits. You can then use the results as part of an internal system for continuous improvement and quality control, a stepping stone for a Total Quality Management environment.

Start by locating all of the written material you send to prospects, clients, employees, suppliers, and the media. Pick out proposals, reports, brochures, press releases, user documentation, training manuals, sales letters, follow-up letters, presentations, newsletters, employee memos, and other material specific to your business. Then, carefully evaluate each one based on several criteria. Here’s a sampling of some criteria you might use:

Is your text clear and focused? What is your typical document’s “fog” index? (This is a calculated figure of merit that illustrates how readable your documents are.) A technical editor can help you eliminate errors in grammar and improve your writing style.
Are your clients calling you with trivial questions because your documentation is incomplete? How can you improve your press releases, articles, newsletters, etc. to increase your credibility and visibility? Have you lost contracts because your proposals did not address every issue adequately? “Red teaming” (independently reviewing) your proposals will give you constructive feedback before you submit them. This can significantly enhance your chances of being awarded more contracts.
Planning Time.
Are you too pressed for time when you write your proposals or documentation? What bottlenecks do you encounter when writing? If your proposals or other documents are similar from client to client, consider getting an automatic document generating program. I have found PDC Generator! by PMI Software (1-800-745-1539, Dept. 13) to be extremely useful in generating custom documents including contracts, proposals, and letters. Also, its built-in spreadsheet makes it easy to produce quotes very quickly.

Other criteria such as layout, format, and follow-up will lead to important questions like:

  • What can you do to encourage repeat business and referrals?
  • Are your presentations (including slides, handouts, etc.) selling your ideas?
  • How can you take advantage of the media to generate more leads?

Once you’ve evaluated your material, you need to evaluate your writing process. Schedule time with key managers, staff, and (if possible and appropriate) end-users to go over your method for producing written material. Take careful notes, asking your staff detailed questions that take you from a document’s conception to its final form. Such questions are especially important in evaluating proposals and follow-up responses to clients and prospects. Even if there is only one person handling all of the writing tasks, describe how relevant information is gathered, how each draft is generated, and how the document is reviewed and approved. Properly done, these steps will uncover many ways you can improve quality, productivity, and profits.

Sound like a lot of work? A typical assessment should take less than a week. One word of caution: don’t let your ego stop you from being objective in your analysis. In performing your own assessment, you or your staff may unconsciously (or consciously) overlook certain obstacles or inconsistencies. An outside organization can help you stay objective and quickly provide you with unbiased feedback.

While there’s no magic bullet for getting more business and certainly no prescription that covers everyone, a communications assessment will give you a lot of valuable, constructive feedback to help you boost productivity and increase profits.

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