How to write business communications
Writing is a company’s lifeblood. Ideas live in writing, ever growing and adapting. Communications endure in writing, often bearing the hardship of misunderstanding and confusion.
I discussed why writing matters in the workplace in my previous essay. Now, we’re going to discuss a general nine-step framework for your (and your team’s) written communications. The written communications we consider in this essay are commonplace writing through email, workplace messengers (e.g., Slack), and texting (e.g., WhatsApp, WeChat). We’re not considering business writing for documenting thoughts, such as memos, PowerPoints, proposals, and manuals. We will discuss these other forms of business writing in future essays.
The General Framework will soon be second nature, but at first, it may feel daunting and time-consuming. However, you’ll start seeing significant and compounding results. Your and your team’s writing will be clearer, significantly reducing confusion and misunderstanding. You’ll find yourself and your team sending fewer messages, receiving better responses, and getting things done faster and with higher quality.
The General Framework for Written Communications
Step 1: Identify your purpose
Why are you communicating? Answering this question is critical to writing a crisp communication or avoiding unnecessary communication. You may be communicating for any number of reasons, from confirming receipt of an email to scheduling a time to connect to updating someone on your work’s status to answering a question to adding your thoughts to an idea.
Step 2: Identify your goals
What are you hoping to accomplish? All communications should have a result. The result may be for your audience to understand information or your thoughts. The result may be to get one or more people to take an action. Having a good grasp of your intended result will naturally make your goals clearer to your audience.
Step 3: Identify the communication type
Are you initiating the conversation or contributing? Are you just delivering information, or do you need someone to take action? The answers to these questions frame the Four Types of Communications: Inform, Answer, Request, and Advance. Knowing your communication type is critical to your communication’s success by clearly identifying what should happen next (e.g., Is there an action to take?).
Inform: You initiate a conversation and provide information. You do not have actions to ask someone to complete. You do not expect a response. Common Inform communications include updates, newsletters (like this one), and announcements.
Answer: You reply to a request by contributing information. You don't have a subsequent action for the other person to take. The other person may act on your information, but you are done and don’t intend the conversation to continue. Common Answer communications include resolving a question or requested action, providing information or an idea, or acknowledging receipt.
Request: You initiate a conversation and need someone to take an action (i.e., do something that may or may not require a response to the communication). Requests can sometimes include information, but the message intends to get someone to take an action. The conversation is likely to continue. Common Request communications include selling or asking someone to do something or respond to a question.
Advance: You are contributing to a conversation. You advance the conversation to the next stage, meaning there is an action for someone else to take (or you will take later). The conversation is expected to continue. Common Advance communications include clarifying information, contributing to a thought or idea, acting that then requires another person to act, and reminding someone of something they need to do or accomplish.
Each of The 4 Communication Types has simple structures that apply to various subforms of each communication type. We’ll cover a generic communications structure in Step 5 and will cover other structures in future essays.
Step 4: Consider your audience
Anytime you send a communication, you need to consider your audience’s perspectives, motivations, and background knowledge. For their perspectives, do they already have an opinion or belief you need to consider? For their motivations, what do they care about or what makes them successful? For their background knowledge, what do they already know, and what do they need to know to successfully use the communication?
The thought you need to put into your audience’s perspectives, motivations, and background knowledge varies based on the “stakes” of the communication. The higher the stakes, the less forgiving your readers may be with mistakes or lack of clarity in your writing. Higher stakes communications can materially advance or hinder your career. The lower the stakes, the more forgiving your readers may be with your writing. Lower stakes communications may influence your reputation among your peers, reports, and colleagues, but each communication is less likely to have a material impact on your career. I like to determine the “stakes” by considering power dynamics and communication frequency.
After determining the stakes, you can better attend to your audience. You can think through how much the audience’s perspectives or motivations matter and if you need to consider them in your writing. You can more clearly identify what background information you’ll likely need to include. You can also determine how much time and effort you need to put into the communication.
High Stakes: When I think of high stakes, I think of sales. You are selling something to a decision maker. It could be selling a product to a customer or selling an idea internally or externally to your company. It could be communicating with someone you infrequently interact with at a current customer (customers almost always hold the power in conversations). Clarity is critical for high stakes communications because your audience is typically unforgiving: you may only get one shot. You need to pay special consideration to your audience’s perspectives, motivations, and knowledge. For example, if you’re selling something, your audience may not know who you are and what problem of theirs you solve. I receive at least ten cold sales emails per day where I’m unable to quickly determine what the company does and why it is relevant to me.
Consequential: There are two common types of Consequential communications: to your bosses and to your customers. Both hold power over you, and you communicate with them fairly frequently, meaning the consequences of poor communication could be significant (e.g., your boss or your customer perceiving you as incompetent). Clarity matters in these conversations, but you may get another opportunity to clarify your thinking further. The biggest mistakes I see in Consequential communications are making incorrect assumptions of the audience's background knowledge and perspectives. Often, the person writing the communication has deep knowledge of a situation or idea. The person proceeds to write in a way that assumes knowledge the audience does not have or may have forgotten, leading to confusion, misunderstanding, and the dismissal of good ideas.
Moderate Stakes: Moderate stakes communications are often internal to your company. You may not have frequent communications with people outside of your team, but your audience may have similar or lower power dynamics. Your audience is likely to be more forgiving in these situations, although clarity still matters for speed. For example, you may request someone to take an action such as providing you information. The person will likely do it because of the power dynamics; however, the person may not complete the request timely or correctly if the message creates confusion or misunderstanding. Closely attending to background knowledge and perspectives may not matter as much in these communications, provided the actions can be completed with the information provided.
Low Stakes: Low stakes communications are frequent communications you send within your immediate team or people you regularly work with within your company (or contractors). These communications are often forgiving because the audience feels comfortable asking for clarification as needed. It’s also safer to assume prerequisite background knowledge of items team members are intimately involved with, and you may not need to attend to your teammates’ perspectives as much if they are at a lower power dynamic. You still want to be clear in your communications to increase speed and work product quality, but you probably don’t need to perseverate on every word.
I will write in more depth about audience in a future essay as your audience is the single most important consideration in your writing. You don’t want readers thinking: how is this relevant; these points don’t make sense; these points don’t feel thought through; what is going on here; what do they want me to do, or what action should I take?
Step 5: Identify the channel you will use
Your workplace culture and practices are the most important considerations in which channel to use. For example, at Prompt, we use Slack for all internal communications. Often, the longer-form ideas we’re communicating and documenting are in Notion (a Google Docs-like collaborative tool). We use Slack because it feels lower-stakes and more forgiving even when there are power differences involved. Most of our external communication is by email, although we sometimes use texts for more urgent external needs. Ultimately, it’s sometimes easier to call or Zoom someone depending on the type of request or answer you are providing. The main points here are that your choice of channel matters, and you should use channels in the same way most people use them within your company. For example, if your company is email-first, use email for standard communications and messenger for more instant needs. If your team and company don’t have channel norms, you should implement norms. I’ll be writing on written communication channel strategies in more depth in a future essay.
Step 6: Identify your structure and create a plan
You will use the communication type, stakes, and channel to determine the structure you will use and the types of content you will include within your communication. There are many types of structures that I’ll cover in future essays. However, I’ll cover a generic structure here that works well for most communications. I typically plan in my mind before writing, but I do write an outline for longer-form communications.
Greeting – Hi!
Context (if applicable) – What is the situation? Is there any clarifying commentary that would be helpful prior to stating the purpose? This is often unnecessary for lower-stakes communications.
Purpose and goals – Why are you writing? What is the intended result? Include a heads up for people if there will be specific actions for them to take.
Details – The meat of the communication. This could be anything from an update to an answer to a question on a new idea.
Actions (if applicable) – What specific actions do others need to take? Are there next steps you will be taking?
Sign off – Enjoy!
Step 7: Write
You’ve already done the hard work. You know what structure to use, and you’ve planned your content while considering your purpose, goals, and audience. Now, you just need to write the message. People often flexibly switch between planning, writing, and revising throughout the writing process. This is important as you should continually self-assess and evaluate your writing from your audience's perspective to make sure it contains all of the information, context, and components required for success.
Step 8: Revise
After writing, I always revise before sending. The one exception is low-stakes, relatively short communications with my team over Slack. We’ve been intentional about having a culture where minor mistakes (e.g., grammar) are acceptable (i.e., no one will judge you). It’s also likely the conversation participants will have enough background knowledge to fill any gaps in thinking and context (the Slack edit button can be your friend if there is confusion).
When revising, I do two passes: first for content and structure, second for style. I wrote at length about what makes a good writer in a previous essay, and I attend to all of these things while revising. I first consider my audience and their perspectives, motivations, and background knowledge. I read with a close eye for identifying places that may cause confusion and misunderstanding. Second, I read for style. I dive in on readability and flow, but I also deeply consider grammar. While I believe grammar perfection isn’t necessary for understanding writing, many people perceive it to be important. Therefore, I make sure to read through every word assisted by a grammar checking tool such as Grammarly.
Step 9: Determine the time to send
Once a message is ready, you need to determine when to send it. This will depend on the urgency, audience, and channel. Typically you want to send during business hours or a time when you know the other person is working. You can often set a delayed send on an email. If you do not want to (or cannot) delay sending it until regular business hours, be clear about when you expect a response and clarify that the recipient doesn't need to look at the communication right away. This is especially important for power dynamics where the person you are sending to is lower.
Where to go from here
The General Framework for written communications in the workplace will eventually become second nature to you. Your goal from today forward should be to deliberately practice using the framework and introduce the framework to your team. Prompt can help. We have professional written communications courses that don’t just teach strategies; we deliberately practice written communications through individualized instruction and feedback. Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in a course for your team or company.
Over time, you’ll find yourself and your team improving how you communicate. You’ll also find yourself getting much faster with using the framework. You’ll find yourself and your team getting things done faster and having higher quality. Writing is truly the lifeblood of any organization.
Make sure you subscribe to The Writing Times (if you have not done so already). Also, share this issue with your friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.