Improving Your Business Writing |

How to Sharpen Your Business Writing

My first post contained 10 tips for improving your annual report. Those tips were universal. You could easily use them for brochures, business plans, newsletters or websites. So this post is the first in a series that will expand on my original list.

Let’s get started with the importance of writing for your audience.

Business writing has been called dull or bull. Or, worse, both. Even good speakers and storytellers have difficulty writing. Words like synergy, utilize and paradigm somehow sneak onto the page. The engaging style of conversation that we enjoy in our personal encounters is often killed by a keyboard.

Usually a well-intentioned and informed writer simply fails to get the message across to an intelligent, interested reader. So it’s not for lack of trying on the part of the writer. If you want to sharpen your writing and kill the bull, here’s what I suggest that you try.

Writing like a person, not a corporation

Effective corporate writing delivers business and financial information in an easy-to-understand style. It aims for reader comprehension and resists the temptation to sound important or sophisticated. It simplifies and never complicates.

Legendary investor Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway suggests that having a specific person in mind can help to personalize your writing. When Buffett writes the annual report for Berkshire Hathaway, for example, he pretends that he’s talking to his sisters.

“I have no trouble picturing them,” says Buffett. “Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is simply to give them the information I would wish them to supply me if our positions were reversed. To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform.”

The natural sounding copy that Buffett recommends is, however, among the hardest to write. It takes time and practice to sound natural.

Finding your own voice

Natural sounding writing is sometimes referred to as plain English, or plain language. Used in a business document, plain language enables your audience to read, understand and act on something the first time they read it. That saves time and money.

So how, exactly, do you write in plain language? Here are a few ideas for sounding more like a person and less like a corporation:

  • – Think before you start writing. Make a note of the points you want to make in a logical order.
  • – Use short words. Long words will not impress your audience or help your writing style.
  • – Use everyday words. Avoid jargon and legalistic words, and explain any technical terms you have to use.
  • – Keep your sentences short. Aim for an average of 15 to 20 words. Try to stick to one main idea in a sentence.
  • – Use active verbs. Say ‘we will do it’ rather than ‘it will be done by us’.
  • – Imagine you are talking to your reader. Write sincerely, personally, in a style that is suitable and with the right tone of voice.
  • – Ditch the acronyms. Acronyms and other abbreviations might work with an internal audience. But unless the term is immediately identifiable, like CEO, they will slow down or confuse your readers. Especially those who are unfamiliar with your company.

Effective corporate writing is never boring. It makes a point and gets off it. It recognizes that readers have a limited attention span. Few readers will plow through page after page of poorly written, rambling prose. Indeed, you could easily reduce the length of many business reports by half and reader comprehension would soar two- or threefold.

Lastly, one sure way to find your own writing voice is to listen to it. So tape yourself reading what you have written. Or simply read it aloud. You’ll quickly discover if you sound like a real person, a stuffed shirt or a corporation.

Richard Ketchen helps companies get the right message out to stakeholders. An accountant by training but a writer at heart, Richard has worked with leading companies across North America to develop strategies and craft messages for annual reports, websites and other stakeholder communication. His articles and expertise have been featured in BusinessWeek Online,, and many other popular publications. You can contact Richard through his website