Saw an interesting HBR article today:

3 Tips for Writing Reader-Friendly Memos

In business today, readers are time-pressed, content-driven, and decision-focused. To write effectively, remember that they want simple and direct communications. Here are three tips for giving readers what they want and need:

1.Avoid complex phrasing. Writing elegantly is not important; delivering smart content is. Let the message stand out more than your language.
2. Be concise. Many memo writers get hung up on "flow." But flowing sentences tend to be long and dense. You don't need choppy sentences, just hardworking ones that deliver content concisely.
3. Skip the jargon. Jargon can be a useful way to communicate among experts, but you should never use jargon if it's meaningless, if you don't understand it, or when your audience isn't familiar with it.

True enough, but a little short on the "how". So here are some tips for putting this advice to use:

Avoid Complex Phrasing

It’s no news flash that short sentences are easier to understand than long ones. If you've got a long sentence, try to split it into two parts. Here are some examples:

  • Longer, more complex sentence: Life insurance policies are long-term, multi-year contracts and the continuation of benefits is critical for policyholders.
  • Shorter, simpler sentence: Life insurance policies are long-term contracts that should not be interrupted.
  • Split into two sentences: Life insurance policies are long-term, multi-year contracts. Continuation of benefits is critical for policyholders.

If you really need that long sentence, focus on your choice and placement of verbs to improve comprehension, like this:

If you spot a four-part, 38-word statement, split it into smaller parts, rearrange words and required bits of grammar, and then read it over to make sure you’ve retained the logic and fluency of the original longer sentence.

Be concise
Many of us learned to pad our writing in school where arbitrary minimum length requirements encouraged us to use more words than necessary. But outside the halls of academe, readers prefer the fewest words possible. So as writers, we should balance brevity with our reader’s need for detail. Most of us can improve our concision by simply pruning our writing by at least 15 percent without losing important content. Take a revision pass specifically to remove unneeded detail and to tighten your language.

Another way to be more concise: use verbs more effectively. Here are three easy strategies to try:

  1. Replace weak verbs with strong verbs. These verbs convey actions and tell the reader how the actions are performed. In the sentence, “He ran quickly down the hallway.” we can replace the verb phrase “ran quickly” with the strong verb “dashed” and tighten up the sentence: “He dashed down the hallway.” (A little alliteration now and then doesn’t hurt either.)
  2. Replace multi-word verbs with single-word verbs. Consider this sentence: “I called him to set up a meeting for Friday.” Now this one: “I called him to schedule a meeting for Friday.” The second sentence is tighter, more formal, and technically more precise as well.
  3. Reduce the use of “state of being” verbs. Sometimes we rely on forms of the verb “to be” when more precise options are available.

Here's an example:

Original: “We can now reassure customers that if there was an event that would cause extraordinary losses, we are confident that their assets will be protected.”

Replacement of “state of being verb”: “We can now reassure customers that if an event occurred that caused extraordinary losses, we are confident that their assets will be protected.”

Better verb choice: “We can now assure customers that their assets will be protected if extraordinary losses occur.”

Skip the jargon
Whether or not to use jargon depends on your audience. People with an expert knowledge of your industry or business can probably handle it. But other audiences will require straight talk. Before you start writing any piece, write down who the audience is. If possible, think about a specific person in that group. Would they understand the jargon you might include?

If you just can’t avoid jargon, consider appendices for extended explanations of complex terms, or for ideas that require significant support. If the term is easily explained, you can address it inline, like this:

Positive signs were seen in net absorption (the amount of space newly occupied less the amount newly available), with 210,000 square feet taken off the entire Westside market, compared with 782,948 square feet put back on in fourth quarter.

When explanations are long, you may be tempted to footnote the reference. Most readers find footnoting distracting — and it can be a formatting nightmare. Putting additional support in an appendix gives readers the option of reading it or not, and if they do, it will be properly formatted.


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