Few things are as intimidating for those starting in corporate America as writing reports, especially when you are coming from the outside. Whether you are new to the country, industry or workforce, this is a difficult process. When I started a research and development job as a recent chemistry Ph.D., I was unpleasantly surprised to learn that I was required to write a biweekly report adhering to an awkward list of rules, such as being under one page but with no restrictions on font. My peers' reports often consisted of text blocks of 10-point type compressed within quarter-inch margins, with no white space between paragraphs. My first attempt at a ‘biweekly’ was sent back with red marks all over it. The work was fine, but it was written for the wrong audience.
Once I overcame my intimidation, I realized that I had a lot to learn about writing in a corporate world; specifically, that the lengthy, academic style of writing I’d perfected wasn’t going to help me succeed. My enthusiasm for writing helped me embrace this new medium, and the quality of my writing bolstered my standing. I credit my ability to write well with gaining support for my research proposals, winning competitive internal assignments and promotions, and opening up opportunities for my subordinates. Here are two important business writing skills I learned that I hadn’t practiced in academic writing: putting the bottom-line first and eliminating excessive hedging.
1. Punt storytelling in favor of getting to the bottom-line
Academic researchers draw conclusions from extensive observations, data, or testing. This logic transfers from the brain to the page as an ‘inductive’ or storytelling writing style, in which data or observations are stated first, followed by conclusions. Here’s a typical example:
“Product development research showed that Polymer A has promise in Product Y. We designed experiments to test the biodegradability/removability of Polymer A in simulated wastewater treatment. We then ran into solubility issues that required us to re-design our experimental approach. With a new sample preparation, we completed our experiments and found that Polymer A was 40% removed in simulated wastewater.”
While this is a perfectly logical explanation of a research process, in the business world you’re likely to lose your reader after the first sentence or two. And this example is typical—a manager of a coaching client shared with me that his employee, a promising scientist, needed to work on his writing because he tended to lose the key message (and the reader) in a forest of detail.
It’s critical to remember that good business writing, even when communicating technically complex information, is designed to help leaders make decisions that impact a project, product, or service. For persuasive professional writing you need to skip the preliminaries and communicate directly what your conclusion is and why it matters. Some call this bottom-line writing, or as Kabir Sehgal refers to it in his HBR article, “How to Write Email with Military Precision,” the BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front) method. This style can be applied to an entire communication (document or email) or paragraph by paragraph.
Let’s turn our example around to lead with the conclusion and impact:
“Last week’s experiments demonstrated that Polymer A is only 40% removed during simulated wastewater treatment processes, which does not meet the minimum criterion for inclusion in the company’s product. We plan to initiate testing next week on polymers B and C, also promising candidates for Product Y.”
Readers who want to know only if Polymer A passed the test will learn the answer in about 10 seconds vs. the approximately 40 seconds it takes to read the first example. That difference may not seem like much, but during a day of reading many reports and emails, your readers may gain back an hour or more of their time!
Another benefit of ‘bottom-line’ writing is that severely time-strapped readers will find the most critical information reading only the first sentence or two of every section or paragraph and will thank you for it. Those who want or need more can read on.
2. Eliminate ‘excessive hedging’
Once you strengthen the impact of your writing with the bottom-line style, you won’t want to weaken it by excessive hedging. Academic writing is full of statements like “it is not impossible that…” or “one might deduce with 95% certainty,” because researchers learn to be extremely careful not to overstate conclusions from data. Hedging weakens your credibility. While it’s necessary to acknowledge any existing uncertainty, choosing stronger words and owning your recommendations will lead your readers to act more quickly and trust you in the process. Business decisions, after all, are about calculated risks. Here are a couple of typical examples:
“Overall, given the situation, I think the team performed well, and that we met or surpassed expectations.”
“Given the situation, the team performed well and, overall, surpassed expectations.”
The revision eliminates the ‘I think,’ and moves the ‘overall’ to the end to condense ‘met or surpassed’ to ‘surpassed.’ The sentence conveys the same meaning with a much greater punch.
It might be expected that dosing with 10 mL instead of 5 mL would be effective.
Here, ‘might’, ‘expected,’ and ‘would be’ are all qualifying words that make the same point—that there is some uncertainty around the increased dose.
We expect the 10 mL dose to be more effective than 5 mL.
OR, if you must remove first-person pronouns from your writing, say:
Increasing the dose from 5 to 10 mL is expected to be effective.
This writer owns the uncertainty by leaving in the word ‘expected,’ but eliminates redundant, strength-sapping qualifiers. Along with strengthening the sentence, these revisions create a more concise statement; using fewer words is another gift to your reader.
Both the storytelling writing style and overuse of hedging are issues that are common to my coaching clients who have written extensively in academia, although they are not unique to those with advanced degrees. Everyone can work to become more sensitive to these tendencies and, after taking steps to correct them, will find that their writing has much greater impact.