Five commandments of business writing

March 1, 2000
Richard Pinsky

Pharmaceutical Representative

Tips to help your written communications.

For the sales representative in the field, few things are as important as efficient, timely and accurate communication. Every day, the sales rep communicates with a range of people from customers to supervisors to marketing people back at the office.

On the receiving side, this new information may be about strategies, sales tactics and programs, to name only a few. On the sending side, it may be to request new incentive items from fulfillment or collateral materials from marketing. In either direction, the communications are unlikely to be done face-to-face. Most often (and most efficiently) they will be done in writing. It's hard to imagine a sales rep's day without either writing or reading some correspondence. Yet, despite its importance, good writing, which is sometimes categorized a "soft skill," is often neglected.

Though the disciplines of good writing require more attention than merely reading this piece, adherence to "The Five Commandments of Good Business Writing" should at least raise consciousness and provide some genuine relief.

The five laws

Imagine this: a sales rep has a meeting with a new doctor. Before going, the rep awaits a new strategy from the office, which he or she is expecting to implement at the meeting. Once the strategy memo is received, the sales rep isn't clear on many of the tactics. With no time to re-read and decipher it (let alone call the supervisor for clarification), he or she is left to rely on instinct to guess about its intentions, or, in the absence of good guesswork, to rely on experience and devise a substitute.

Not only has his or her stress level risen, but the plan, originally intended to help, cannot even be executed. The sales rep suddenly feels like a member of the crew of Apollo 13 - perilously isolated.

Sometimes the problem arises because the writer isn't clear about the message either. But many times the writer knows the content well but lacks confidence as a communicator. The result: a message that sounds tentative. Had the writer chosen to ignore worries about the process and thought only about conveying the message with conviction, the writing would have shown confidence and, voilà!, - the message would have been clearer. Hence, Commandment One says: "Write with confidence."

Of course, some messages pass through several people before reaching their final destination. Each of these readers may find what they consider unnecessary language or extraneous information in the message and feel compelled to try to fix it. As we know from the kids' game "telephone," the more people information travels through, the greater the chance of it becoming muddled and further misunderstood. In cases like these, the original writer would have served his or her audience better by keeping the writing simple. The more simply information is communicated, the fewer "handles" there are for others to grab onto and twist, and the less likely it is to be tampered with. That is why Commandment Two reads: "Keep documents simple." And, along the same lines, Commandment Three states: "Strive for brevity."

Sometime, in a wild and crazy moment, take another sales rep to lunch. In confidence, he or she will complain about the volume of unimportant material received regularly, camouflaging important information and making it harder to identify and get to. Imagine picking up a favorite newspaper and reading about the world's latest hot spot, only to find it written in the type of language and format better suited for a high-ranking member of the state department than an average newspaper reader. You might feel overwhelmed by material you neither needed nor desired, all written on a level that was inappropriate. By not keeping the audience in mind, writers impose such burdens on reps every day. That's why Commandment Four instructs writers to "Know one's audience." If a reader is spared unnecessary information and detail, he or she will have more time (and inclination) to find and attend to the important communications they actually need.

Finally, even when information is conveyed with confidence, simplicity, brevity and appropriateness, it may raise questions for the reader that the writing doesn't address. Now the reader must lose time calling for clarifications or, more likely, proceeding based on a best guess. Thus, Commandment Five: "Anticipate readers' questions and answer them in the text."

Ignore at your peril

Those who ignore the Five Commandments contribute to the misunderstandings and dissatisfactions that frustrate reps and managers alike. Managers may be forced to call meetings, adding further frustration by pulling reps from the field, the place where they have the most value. And remember, while coping with all this frustration, reps must still meet call rate goals and sales quotas on a timely basis.

Through their own poor writing, reps also victimize themselves. When sales reps fail to inform the office clearly, accurately and quickly of the needs they've identified that will help them in the field, not only are suitable responses slow in coming, but the needs may not even be appropriately incorporated into the next strategy. Needless to say, this is a source of frustration for all parties and, worse, in squandering the potential for quality, frontline information, an obvious potential detriment to the bottom line.

As it must now be apparent, poor written communications can make parties on each side feel as if they are preaching in the desert. When parties come to believe that their best efforts with each other are in vain, there is no way to avoid its effect on morale, a further detriment to productivity.

So, while some may call good writing a "soft skill," time and again it is found to be nothing less than the wheel that moves the machine. To neglect it is to be left unhappy, always wondering why the road must be so bumpy and slow. But practice it, and watch how ideas transform into actions and actions into results. PR

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