Business writing at work can do more harm than good when the reader is ignored.
What does it mean to be a jerk when writing at work? It means to write without considering the reader or audience. Because when you don’t write for the audience, you’re being selfish and writing to serve your own purposes only. And that leads to pointless back-and-forth emails, confusing documents, miscommunication and other time wasters.
How do we fix this?
Josh Bernoff has the answer. On page 5 of his book Writing Without Bullshit, Bernoff asks that we apply the Iron Imperative principle to everything we write at work. The Iron Imperative says, “Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.”
Bernoff adds, “…everything that is wrong with the way businesspeople write today stems from ignoring this principle.”
That means simply writing for the reader, treating their time as more valuable than your own, would fix most (if not all) of our business writing problems. And American businesses could save $400 billion per year.
What does it mean to write for your reader?
Treating the reader’s time as more valuable than our own means we write for them. Writing for your reader means knowing your audience and what they do or don’t already know, plus what they need to know—meaning what they will learn from reading your email or document.
I call this being reader-centric, meaning writing for the reader and not for yourself.
Readers are often ignored in business email writing because people tend to write quickly and without thinking when writing emails. You probably know what I’m talking about, because you’ve probably been on the receiving end of writing that ignores the audience (you).
For example, have you ever received an email from a boss or a coworker and thought “What am I supposed to do with this?” If so, that’s because the writer ignored the audience…meaning you.
Here’s what usually happens: They type a bunch of words and then click Send, and assume they were “communicating” because they wrote something…anything. But they weren’t communicating. They were only checking a task off their to-do list. As a result, the email did not clearly communicate to you why you got it and what you were supposed to do as a result of it. The writer did not take the audience (you!) into account. No communication happened.
Or maybe you’ve had to struggle through a long, wordy document full of corporate speak—or a pointless PowerPoint. Again, the writer ignored the audience. They didn’t try to communicate with you or to you. They simply put words in front of you. And that’s not professional business writing. It might look like it, but it isn’t.
Ignoring the reader when writing at work is counterproductive
If you’re writing something, whether a chat message or an email or a longer document—even a presentation—you have a goal. And that goal is to communicate.
Ignoring your reader gets in the way of that goal.
You have to write for your reader…not yourself, not your ego, not your busy day or your long task list. You have to write with the intention of communicating to the person or people on the other end.
When you do, you benefit too, because you communicate clearly in the first place. You eliminate those back-and-forth emails. You avoid confusion. Heck, you dodge unintended offense!
This kind of selfish writing is common in marketing
We see this kind of self-centered writing a lot in marketing because the marketer or small business owner is focused on what they want to say, not what the consumer or website visitor wants to hear. When a website is all about the features of a product but not the benefits, when a sales email is full of the pronoun “we” and devoid of any “you,” the marketer has ignored the audience.
Interestingly, the way to fix the problem is the same for both marketing writing and business writing: Know (and write to) your audience.
How to know your audience when writing at work
To avoid pointless business writing, know whom you’re writing to and why. And don’t just know your audience but keep your audience in mind as you’re writing. By audience, I mean the person or persons on the receiving end of your email or document. Ask yourself:
- Who is it?
- How much do they already know vs. not know?
- Why do they need the information you’re sending or compiling?
- What level of detail will they need to understand your message?
- What is their viewpoint and the lens through which they will read your message? Are they receptive or resistant?
- Which tone of voice is more appropriate for this audience, informal or formal?
- What should they do or think after reading what you’ve written?
- Is there a deadline they need to be aware of?
You’re not writing in a vacuum. You are writing to someone and you have a purpose, a goal, something you need to accomplish. Keep your audience in mind when writing and you’ll communicate better, to save everyone time and improve productivity—and perhaps even morale.
17 ways to write for your reader
To put the Iron Imperative principle in to practice, use at least some of these 17 tips for writing for your reader:
1. First decide if you really need to write it—whatever it is. Is it needed or necessary? For example, if someone sends an email asking you to check on something, you don’t need to dash off a reply saying, “I’ll check on it” when you can wait until you have the information they need and then reply.
2. Slow down. Remember that your goal is not to dash off some words. Your goal is to communicate. Slowing down will help you focus on the reader.
3. Use an introduction when that’s helpful or necessary for clarity. Leave it out if it’s clutter.
4. Include what they do need to know and leave out what they either don’t need to know or already know.
5. Meet them where they are, meaning write to them at the level they will understand without dumbing down your content and insulting them.
6. Make sure your information has a logical flow. Go back and reorder it after writing if necessary.
7. Use their words: If your reader calls them cubicles, don’t call them workstations.
8. Use acronyms sparingly and write them out when you’re not sure if the reader knows their meaning.
9. Use pronouns. When you address the reader as “you” and refer to yourself as “I” or “we,” your writing is less formal and you engage the reader.
10. Be clear by writing it from their perspective. What is obvious to you is not obvious to them, as this delightful video of kids writing instructions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich proves.
11. Be specific and give them specific examples.
12. Use transition words, sentences and even paragraphs. You’re guiding your reader along a path. These transitions keep them on the path and going in the right direction.
13. Use subheadings in longer documents to help move the reader along.
14. Write shorter paragraphs to make it easier to absorb the content but also to add white space, which helps readability.
15. Include a call to action, meaning tell them what they need to do in response to what you’ve written. Even if they don’t need to do a thing, make that clear. Don’t make them guess and don’t assume they’ll figure it out.
16. Edit your writing to make sure you’ve used active voice, cut clutter and written clearly.
Yes, that’s a long list, but it takes time and effort to treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own, to adhere to Bernoff’s Iron Imperative. And in the long run, the investment of your time will pay off as you communicate clearly the first time and free up time for other tasks.