Recently, I wrote an article about effective business communication for HBR that spread like hotcakes. You can read it here. It follows the standard HBR style and is therefore written in proper prose. When Missy Lafferty commented on Twitter that the post makes a great checklist for business messages, I decided to convert the ideas into a handy-dandy checklist you can use to give your writing the once-over before sending it out. Thanks @misstoffer for the inspiration!

Business Writing Checklist

The purpose of business writing is to somehow transform your audience. You either want them to think differently after reading it or to do something differently. Focus your writing on that outcome and strip away anything that detracts from your message.

Content Check

  • Facts and information. I included all relevant facts and information required to support the action I’m looking for. I removed extraneous facts that complicate the message.
  • Thoughts and perceptions. I reviewed the message to ensure that both the facts I included and the words I chose support the conclusions and interpretations I want my reader to make.
  • Feelings and emotions. I included information and commentary that are likely to create the emotional response I’m looking for. I avoided triggering unwanted emotions with the facts I’ve included or language I’ve used.
  • I articulated clearly the action I want the reader to take after receiving the message.

Style Check

  • I used the most straightforward words possible to make my case. I have replaced any uncommon or flowery language with simple alternatives.
  • I used only the most standard jargon that simplifies my message and removed any terms or acronyms that will slow the reader down.
  • I checked all bullets to ensure that they have a consistent grammatical form. If one bullet starts with a verb, they all do. I did the same for past and present tense, and first, second, and third person.
  • Active voice. I searched out sentences where the only verb is is (or am, are, were, be, being, been) and rewrote the sentence so that the verb is the action word and the structure is subject verb object.
  • I rearranged sentences to make them shorter and clearer. I ruthlessly cut words and sentences that don’t contribute significantly to getting the required information to the reader.

Format Check

  • I checked the spelling. I checked each instance where the software highlighted a potentially misspelled word.
  • I checked for the common errors that spell check won’t pick up (e.g., to, too, two and there, their, and they’re)
  • I included apostrophes where they are needed (e.g., contractions, possessive) and didn’t include them where they are not (e.g., plural or in the possessive form of its)
  • I chose a suitable font for the message I’m delivering. The font and spacing make the document easy to read. I highlighted or underlined particularly important information or requests.

If you’re shooting off an email to a long-time colleague, you probably don’t need to go to this effort. If you are sending a message where it matters how the reader thinks and responds, it’s worth the investment.

Further Reading

HBR: Stop trying to sound smart when you’re writing

Checklist for effective one-way communication

One thing you can do to improve your communication today



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