If you’re wondering how to improve business writing skills, here’s one easy way: Be specific.

You’re a better communicator when you’re specific. If you mean three and you say a few, you’re being vague. If you mean three and you say three, you’ve been very clear in your business writing. That improvement in your communication adds to your credibility and it speeds up communication because your reader doesn’t have to respond with questions asking for more information or for clarification. Being specific strengthens your business writing, improves your communication, and drives action.

Being Specific Strengthens Your Business Writing
Being vague doesn’t communicate well and it leaves room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation. For example, the statement, “Everyone is showing up late for meetings” is vague and probably not accurate. Is it really everyone? What is meant by late? Is it every meeting? Can such a vague statement bring about change?

Plus, you’re more believable when you’re more specific. That vague statement might leave people thinking, “Whatever.” But if we said, “The sales team is showing up 10 to 15 minutes late for the Thursday morning meetings,” we might make more impact.

An easy way to get specific is to use specific numbers. For example, consider the difference between…

  • A few vs. three
  • A couple vs. two
  • In a few weeks vs. in four weeks
  • Way over budget vs. $15,000 over budget

The specific numbers have more impact and give our brains something concrete to launch on to. Way over budget? Whatever. $15,000 over budget?? What the heck??

In your business writing, try to use specific numbers, but also strive to use specific words. I’m going to show you another reason why in a minute, but for now consider these examples:

  • This week vs. Thursday
  • Great vs. productive or useful or insightful or…
  • As soon as possible vs. Friday by 3 p.m.
  • Let’s touch base Monday morning vs. Let’s schedule a 15-minute call for Monday at 10 a.m.

As with the specific numbers, specific words make your business writing stronger, more direct and clearer. And all of that increases your credibility at work.

Being Specific Improves Your Communication
Let’s do a quick exercise to see how being specific improves your business writing. I want you to picture a car. OK, got it? Now, I have no idea what kind of car you are picturing! None whatsoever. But if I told you to picture a red convertible, I would know what you were picturing. Using specific words means I communicate much more clearly to you, and the image you get in your head is in line with what I want you to see there. I call this making a mental impression, and it’s something you do a lot in business writing, whether you think about it or not. You’re trying to persuade someone of something, or to document something, or to instruct, and in every case, you’re striving to make mental impressions on your reader.

For example, consider these differences and the mental impression made by the specific vs. vague words:

  • Dinner vs. lasagna
  • It’s hot outside vs. it’s 96 degrees outside
  • Dog vs. German Shepherd

When we use specific words in our business writing, we communicate more clearly and we are therefore more productive because we get our point across the first time—or in the first email. Wouldn’t you rather get something taken care of in one email instead of three? Or four?

Choose Your Specific Words Based on Your Audience
One caveat about using specific words to improve your business writing: Make sure they are appropriate for your audience. As a freelance copywriter, I once did some work for a company that made what we’ll call office furniture–only it wasn’t furniture. It was what you and I would call cubicles. But in their website content, they didn’t want to call it cubicles, because of Dilbert cartoons which were very popular at the time.

They wanted to call their products work stations and panel systems, and they did. Do you know what a panel system is? Probably not, unless you work for a company that makes them. It’s a cubicle!

But they didn’t want to be associated with the negativity of the word “cubicle” as it was portrayed in Dilbert comic strips, so they didn’t use it. But their customers did. Do you see the disconnect here? If you went to a website shopping for cubicles and you only saw reference to panel systems, you might just click that Back button and go somewhere else where people talked your talk.

Being Specific Drives Action
To improve your business writing, also being specific about what you want the reader to know and/or do can help to get them to take action. For example, if you need something by a certain day, say so. I had a friend once tell me he worked at a company where “as soon as possible” essentially meant never because there was no deadline involved. If one person says by Tuesday or someone says by July 12, then it gets done. But as soon as possible? Well, it could very well be that it’s never possible because everyone else has a specific deadline. And we will put things off if we don’t have a deadline. Why do we pay our bills on time? We have a deadline. But when it comes to writing a check for that charity we like… well, that can wait, right?

Using specific words can help you get others to act. And when others know exactly what it is you need them to do and by when, they are much more likely to do it, increasing everyone’s productivity. You know the saying about assuming, right? Don’t assume they’ll assume…don’t even leave room for assuming. Be specific that you need their feedback on the report by 2:00 Tuesday. Period.

Sometimes I think people perceive being specific as curt or rude, but that depends on how you’re wording the whole message, right? Other times, I think people are vague due to lack of confidence, which we’ll talk about another day. And then I suspect being vague is occasionally a sign of laziness, because we don’t take a minute to be specific.

But if we really want to know how to improve business writing, we will avoid the vague and embrace the specific—numbers, words and directions.

P.S. To learn more about the power of words, including how to avoid vague words and ways to tighten your text, take this short class.