Throughout a normal day, you write to or talk with many people about many different situations. You can usually rely on your intuition to guide you in how to approach each situation, but a knowledge of different tactics can give you added confidence as you select the best approach.
When deciding on the approach to take in your creating messages, you have two general options—direct or indirect. In other words, you can either get right to the point at the beginning of your message, or you can delay the main point until later in the message. Review the following guidelines to help decide which option to follow.
Use the direct approach for good-news or routine messages. For instance, if your sales team has met its goals for the current year, give them the good news in the opening sentence: “Good news—we have just met our sales goals for the year, and we still have over two months still left to go!” Or if you need to call a routine meeting with your sales staff, give them the main point of the message, followed by appropriate details:
“We will be holding a one-hour staff meeting next Wednesday at 9 a.m. in the west conference room. The purpose of the meeting is to review progress on all current development projects and to establish goals for the next quarter. Therefore, please come prepared to. . . .”
Compare the foregoing direct approach with this one, which uses an indirect approach. I think you’ll see that the direct approach is much better.
“Each quarter we find it beneficial to review progress on all current development projects and to establish goals for the subsequent quarter. The time for our second-quarter review has arrived; therefore, please plan to attend a meeting next Wednesday at 9 a.m. in the west conference room.”
Placing the main idea at, or near, the beginning gives meaning and purpose to everything that follows. Delaying the main idea leaves the message receiver wondering where the message is going.
Unless you have another pressing reason for using an indirect approach, use the direct approach—when there’s good news to share, when you have relatively routine information to transmit, or when you have important information that you don’t want your readers to miss. Direct should be your go-to approach in the majority of situations.
Use an indirect approach for situations when you need to first prepare your audience for the main point of your message. For instance, if you are writing to an outside consulting group to terminate their service, first explain the reasons for the termination, and then announce the termination.
"We have appreciated your efforts during the last six months to help us improve the quality of our customer service. During this time we have closely monitored our online customer reviews. We have found that, in spite of the new procedures, our ratings have not improved. As a result of this continuing problem, we have decided to pursue an alternate approach and to use the services of a different consulting group, effective July 1. We regret having to make this change, but our customer-service problem is a top priority that needs a solution."
In another situation, if you need to persuade a subordinate to accept a management assignment that would require her to move to Denver, you might approach it this way:
“We’ve been experiencing sagging sales in our Denver region. The downward trend began two years ago, and each quarter since then has continued this negative pattern. We are now down 18 percent from where we were two years ago. We need someone from the home office to move to Denver for the next couple of years and manage operations there so we can get things moving in a positive direction. We would like you to be that person.”
Placing the main idea first would result in the following:
“We want you to move to Denver and manage that region for the next couple of years. We’ve been experiencing sagging sales in our Denver region. The downward trend began two years ago, and each quarter since then has continued this negative pattern. We are now down 18 percent from where we were two years ago. We need someone from the home office to move to Denver for the next couple of years and manage operations there so we can get things moving in a positive direction.”
Placing the key point of the message in the first sentence would obviously be a major shock to the receiver. A few sentences are needed to prepare the reader for the main point in the message.
In summary, whether you have to give bad news in a written message, or in a face-to-face setting, use the indirect approach—facts first, bad news afterward. This approach is most appropriate for giving significant bad news (the direct approach may be acceptable for minor bad news) and for persuasive situations when the receiver needs to be convinced.
One final note—these guidelines are most appropriate for most audiences in the western hemisphere. Asian audiences, in contrast, are generally more indirect in their communication practices. Therefore, be sure to analyze your audience (see the PACS planning model in a previous blog) before deciding on a final strategy.
Communication is the means by which managers manage. As a result, communication is the most vital management skill. Put the guidelines of this blog to practice in your own communication, and you’ll find yourself writing and speaking with greater confidence and power.
Whether working on an internal report, blog post, or manuscript of an oral presentation, you may find that you need to include information written by another author. This blog explains how to integrate that information smoothly into your writing.
The building blocks for smooth integration include (1) understanding the difference between quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing and (2) following the three-step process of introducing, inserting, and interpreting.
Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Summarizing
Writers and speakers use three general techniques when integrating sources into their communication: quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing.
Quoting involves using exact words or phrases from another person’s unique material. As writers integrate quotations into their own writing, they should enclose the quotations in quotation marks and cite the source of the material. Here is an example quote:
“Effective communication skills are critical in business. Across all organizations people exchange millions of texts, emails, telephone calls, letter, proposals, and reports each day.”
Paraphrasing conveys the content of the other original author’s unique material, but the writer uses his or her own words. As writers integrate paraphrases into their own writing, they don’t need to enclose the material inside in quotation marks, but they should cite the source of the material. Here is an example paraphrase of the previous quotation:
The ability to communicate is extremely important in the business world. In all companies, employees engage in communication in various forms, including on phones, on computers, and in print.
Summarizing is similar to paraphrasing except that summary generally condenses the original author’s material into its main points. As writers integrate summaries into their own writing, they don’t need to enclose the material inside quotation marks, but they should cite the source of the material, as follows:
Business professionals need to know how to communicate because they engage in many types of communication every day on the job.
In some cases, a writer might need to utilize more than one of these three options for integrating outside material. For example, a writer might choose to summarize a four-page report into a single paragraph, but include a key quotation to emphasize a certain finding from the report.
The following chart summarizes the main points from the previous paragraphs:
Introducing, Inserting, and Interpreting
Building on the knowledge of quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing, you need to know how to effectively integrate quotes, paraphrases, and summaries into your business message. Here are three steps that can help.
Introducing: Lead your audience into your quote, summary, or paraphrase by providing a context for the outside material. Here is one example of an introduction:
Contrary to popular opinion, one author suggests that…
Inserting: Once you introduce the outside material, insert the appropriate quotation, paraphrase, or summary (be sure to insert quotation marks when using an exact quote.) Building on the previous example, the following example inserts a summary and the citation in APA (American Psychological Association) format:
Contrary to popular opinion, one author suggests that business professionals need to know how to communicate because they engage in many types of communication every day on the job (Baker, 2013, p. 2).
Interpreting: Once you introduce and insert the outside material and its citation, interpret the outside material for your audience. In other words, help your audience understand why you included the material in your communication. Building on the previous examples, this example interprets a summary:
Contrary to popular opinion, one author suggests that business professionals need to know how to communicate because they engage in many types of communication every day on the job (Baker, 2013, p. 2). With such frequent opportunities to communicate, employees must know how to communicate professionally.
The next time you need to integrate outside material in your business communication, I invite you to include quotes, paraphrases, or summaries and then to integrate the material, using some form of the introduce, insert, interpret process. Feel free to be flexible, such as including quotations in your paraphrases or interpreting before you insert. Effective integration of outside material can add credibility and power to your work, making you a more effective communicator.
Baker, W.H. (2013). Writing and speaking for business. Provo, UT: BYU Academic Publishing.
You need to communicate with another person, but you’re a bit fuzzy about how you’re going to approach the situation and what you’re going to say. If only there were a clear pathway to help you prepare!
The following four-step PACS plan (Purpose, Audience, Context, Strategy) might be just the thing you need.
Step 1. Purpose
First, clearly identify your purpose. Usually, your purpose will be one or more of the following—to inform, to persuade, or to enhance a relationship. Within each of these generic purposes, state precisely what you want the outcome to be.
Step 2. Audience Analysis
With your purpose in mind, analyze your audience, remembering that your message might have both primary and secondary audiences. Consider the audiences’ demographic (e.g., profession, age, education, gender), psychographic (e.g., interests, beliefs, attitudes, preferences), and knowledge (e.g., general and technical) factors. Think about their wants and needs. Consider that there may be both driving and restraining forces battling for and against you in their minds. For instance, they might want to learn more about your product, but their busy schedule and their current financial constraints might be exerting a powerful negative force that is working against you.
Step 3. Context Analysis
In addition to analyzing the audience, analyze the context in which your communication will occur. First understand the unique attributes of the industry in which the audience works—whether banking, electronics, healthcare, or other. Learn also about major competitors in the industry. Second, consider relevant factors in the audience’s organization—its purpose, products, procedures, and problems. Finally, consider the unique situational factors—your previous interactions with the audience, the level of trust that exists between you and the audience, time pressures, technical challenges, and so forth.
Step 4. Strategy
Finally, based on the results of the first three PAC steps, develop a communication strategy. Creatively plan how you can navigate through the context and audience challenges to achieve your overall purpose. First, develop a channel strategy—considering the relative pros and cons of available channels, determine whether to make a phone call, write an email, send a text, or talk over lunch. Second, determine your psychological strategy—your overall approach (direct or indirect), your appeal (logical and/or emotional), and your tactic (positive and/or negative).
For example, assume that your purpose is to get Sydney, a sales manager you met at a recent convention, to allow you to explain and demonstrate your sales-enhancement software—ultimately to convince her to buy your product. From your audience and context analysis, you know that her organization is lagging in the industry and needs to increase sales. However, you also realize that she doesn’t know much about your product or about you as a person.
Therefore, you decide that your main strategy will be to capitalize on the pressure Sydney is feeling to increase sales. Using a relatively direct approach, you will demonstrate your product and provide client testimonials and research data that validate the effectiveness of your product. Using both positive and negative tactics, you will emphasize the benefits of adopting your product, as well as the hazards of delayed action. As needed, you will also present a side-by-side comparison of your product and that of your main competitor. But first, you’ll strengthen your relationship by making a phone call to invite Sydney to lunch where you can learn more about her needs. During lunch, you will propose the idea of an onsite product demonstration.
You’re now ready to pick up your phone and make the call, knowing clearly your purpose, and understanding as much as possible your audience and the context of the interaction. PACS planning has helped you feel confident and prepared.
The next time you need to communicate, I invite you to plan with PACS. Remember the old adage—if you fail to plan, you plan to fail!
Today’s world is much more visually oriented than it was in previous generations. Granted, we still consume a lot of text, but more and more messages include a mixture of visuals and text, such as ads, blogs, procedures, business cards, websites, or slides. What guidelines should you follow to ensure good layout and design in messages like these? To answer this question, let’s assume that we want to create an ad that contains the following graphic and text:
Five time-tested principles will help you in this process—contrast, alignment, repetition, balance, and spacing. You can remember these principles with the acronym CARBS, but I’ll apply them in the following sequence: balance, spacing, repetition, contrast, and alignment.
Text and visuals on a page should be visually balanced, whether symmetrically or asymmetrically. Symmetrical balance produces a page that looks evenly balanced, with the left and right sides being mirror images of each other. With asymmetrical balance, the left and right sides are not visually the same. Nevertheless, in some cases there may still be balance, such as two small items on the right to counter-balance one large item on the left. To the human eye, symmetrical layout looks more formal, but less interesting; asymmetrical layout looks less formal, but more visually interesting.
Because we hope to achieve a visually interesting and less-formal ad for our tire store, we might arrange the elements in an unbalanced, or asymmetrical, layout, as follows.
To address the spacing principle, first break your graphics and text into chunks. Then, decrease the space between items within chunks (such as spacing within a paragraph), and increase space between chunks (such as between a photograph and a neighboring paragraph). The white space around each chunk serves as a frame or border, dividing one chunk from another. In some cases, you might want to create an actual border around a chunk.
For our tire-store ad, we have seven chunks, so we’ll add extra space around each of these chunks.
To achieve good design, establish a visual theme. A theme is established mainly by repeating one or more elements or attributes. For example, for our tire-store ad, we will use the color red as a repeating element of the ad. In addition, we will use the Calibri font for most of the text in the ad. If the ad were larger, we could also use a large image of a tire as the front door of the ad and then repeat smaller images of the tire as bullets for a list of text items.
Contrast is the key to attracting attention. Contrast can be achieved in countless ways, such as using a different size or color. To use contrast effectively, decide what textual or graphic elements you want to draw attention to. Then make them different from everything around them. For instance, use a different font, or make the font larger, bolder, or more colorful; or use reverse text (white text on black background). You could also include an eye-catching graphic image that stands out from its neighboring text. In our ad, we will use different fonts for the company name and for the company slogan, “Serving you for over 50 years.” We will also use reverse type for one line of text near the bottom of the ad. Further, we’ll use a smiling-tire visual to provide contrast to the text.
Good alignment requires that every item on a page or slide be lined up with something. Nothing should be just floating in space without a visual anchor. For instance, most text should generally be left aligned—that is, aligned on the left margin, with the right end of the text lines not aligned (called ragged right). For a more formal look, you can use both left and right alignment (fully justified text), but remember that left-aligned paragraphs, with ragged right endings, are generally easier to read than fully justified paragraphs.
Graphic elements should also be aligned with other text or graphic elements on the page or screen. For example, align the left edge of a picture with the left edge of text that precedes or follows the picture, or align the middle of a picture with the middle of a column of text that follows it. An alternate form of alignment is curvilinear. For instance, if you are writing a blog about playing the guitar, you could place a picture of a guitar on the left margin and then align the left edge of neighboring text to follow the curved body of the guitar. Left and centered alignments are used in the following tire ad. Notice how good alignment improves the visual impression of the ad.
As you apply the various CARBS design principles, keep in mind the overall principle of simplicity. Remember, you are designing, not decorating. Know when enough is enough. Further, make sure all the design treatments harmonize well with each other and help achieve the purpose of the message.
Finally, remember that the CARBS principles are just that—principles, not rules. Therefore, if you want to violate a principle to achieve a strategic purpose, go ahead. For example, you might choose to violate the alignment principle to achieve greater contrast. However, be sure you have a good reason for doing so—be sure the violation works and doesn’t look like a mistake.
Try applying these CARBS principles in your own documents. You’ll find that they will work for you, just as they have done for thousands of others.
Scenario: A colleague emails and asks, “Would you have time to go through this document and give me some feedback? It’s a really critical document that I’m sending to our new client, and I want to make sure it is perfect.” You have a moment then, so you read through the document, make a comment about a sentence that isn’t totally clear, add a missing comma, and then realize that you don’t have much else to say. Because of the document’s importance, you hope you haven’t missed something really important. You wish you could be more sure of how to give a quality review of written materials.
If you’ve ever found yourself in a similar situation, continue reading. This blog will give you a powerful four-step process called DOCS (Design, Organization, Content, and Sentences).
D is for Design. Before you read a document, first check its visual appeal. Does it look easy to read, with appropriate typography, generous white space, and headings to make it skimmable? Or does it look dense, with long paragraphs and long passages of text with limited white space and no headings? Checking the design is like checking the curb appeal of a home you’re thinking of buying. If it doesn’t look good from the road, you’ll just keep on driving. The same thing applies to written documents—if they don’t look easy to read, the audience might also “keep on driving.” (See our HATS post for more detail about document design.)
O is for Organization. To check the organization, examine the opening paragraph or two. Is the purpose made clear? Does the beginning of the document contain an agenda that previews the structure or content of the message? After checking the beginning for a clear purpose and agenda, skim the architecture of the entire document. Do the sequence and hierarchy make the content easy for you to process mentally? Does the message follow a clear, well designed blueprint or outline? (See our OABC post for more detail about organizing your messages.)
C is for Content. After checking the design and organization, take time to read the full document. Put yourself in the audience’s context, and ask yourself whether the document will achieve its intended purpose. Is the message clear, complete, correct, considerate, and convincing? If not, identify what is missing, such as clearer explanations, more examples, or clearer analysis. Are the individual paragraphs concise and well crafted, with appropriate topic sentences and a coherent flow of information? (See our CLOUD post for more detail about revising paragraphs.)
S is for Sentences. Finally, get down to the nitty gritty of editing and proofreading individual sentences. Make sure each sentence has a clear structure, proper punctuation, and correct grammar. Also make any wording changes match the vocabulary of the audience. (See our SPELL post for more detail about revising sentences.)
These main DOCS factors are captured in the following checklist:
Next time any of your colleagues ask you to critique their writing, remember DOCS. This four-step approach to document review will help ensure that your feedback is methodical, comprehensive, and effective. Further, try it on your own writing. You’ll find that DOCS will boost your confidence in your ability to write, review, and revise.
One of the most difficult obstacles in all writing is determining how to structure a document when no clear structure exists. For example, if you were going to blog about three new features of a new Apple product, the logical way to structure the post would be to discuss Feature 1, Feature 2, and then Feature 3. In this case, the structure is fairly straightforward. However, what if you want to write a corporate blog about why you enjoy working for your company? You can easily see that the structure of that blog is less obvious than the Apple blog. Enter writer’s block!
When you find yourself facing a not-so-obvious message structure, what should you do? Here’s one incredible outlining technique—bottom-up outlining. This outlining process follows three simple steps: (1) brainstorming, (2) categorizing, and (3) sequencing. If the word outlining causes you to want to stop reading this article, I encourage you to keep reading: bottom-up outlining may not be the same outlining you learned about in middle school.
Step 1. Brainstorming
When most people think about outlining, they think top down—first select the major categories they want to include in their messages, and then work downward to fill in the details. Bottom-up outlining turns that process on its head. Start with details and then work upward to the broad categories.
To create the details, brainstorm. If you’re brainstorming on a computer, open Notepad or Word and begin creating a random list of whatever comes into your mind. Using the example of the benefits of working for your company, for instance, you might come up with the following:
Step 2. Categorizing
Once you have captured your random list, you are ready to move on to the second step—categorizing. To categorize, analyze your list and notice any similarities that exist between individual items on your list. Then move the related items into groups, with an appropriate title for each group. These titles will become the major categories for your final document. Continuing with the corporate blog example, here is how I grouped my random list:
Step 3. Sequencing
The final step in bottom-up outlining is to arrange the categories in the most appropriate way to meet your message objectives. Depending on your purpose, the audience, the context of your message, and the content itself, you might order those categories in different ways:
Why is bottom-up outlining so effective? First, creating a free list works with information as it currently exists in your brain—it doesn’t force you to first create categories. Second, creating a free list is also great for spawning new ideas that you might not have considered otherwise. Third, bottom-up outlining generates order out of chaos—taking unstructured information and methodically finding an appropriate structure for it, resulting in an organized, understandable final message for readers.
Forget all the negative experiences you had with top-down outlining back in middle school. Bottom-up outlining is brain friendly, easy, and very effective. Try the three easy steps of brainstorming, categorizing, and sequencing on your next blog or email. You’ll see how well it works.
If you feel that your English classes included so many sentence-writing rules that you couldn’t possibly remember them all, this blog is for you. The following text describes a five-part framework for demystifying the writing and revising of sentences. The framework is built on the acronym SPELL.
S is for Structure
When you think of sentence structure, think of three basic elements: subject, verb, and complement.
Consider the following sentence: “Maria wrote an email to Chad.”
To make your sentences structurally sound, as well as clear and effective, here are a few guidelines for subjects, verbs, and complements. To help remember these guidelines, keep in mind the letters S (for subjects), V (for verbs), and C (for complements).
First, use Strong, Specific subjects. Generally try to avoid weak subject structures like “There are” and “It is.”
No: There are 26 unanswered emails in my mailbox.
It is important for you to attend Friday’s meeting.
Yes: My mailbox contains 26 unanswered emails.
You should attend the important meeting on Friday.
Of course, the pronoun it is appropriate when it refers to a specific thing, such as, “I am sending you last week’s report. It contains the sales activities of our entire office.”
Second, place verbs in the Vicinity of subjects. Sentences with separated subjects and verbs can be hard to follow.
No: This report on the gradual decline of sales in the Northeast is a warning statement of what could happen in other regions.
Yes: This report warns us that the decline of sales in the Northeast could also occur in other regions if we are not careful.
Third, keep the complement Clear and free of Clutter.
No: We provide each of our not-for-profit clients with frequent updates and communication of relevant accounting developments and changes in standards throughout the year.
Yes: For each of our not-for-profit clients, we provide frequent updates on all changes in relevant accounting standards.
P is for Punctuation
The English language contains over a dozen punctuation marks, including commas, semicolons, colons, dashes, hyphens, parentheses, apostrophes, quotation marks, ellipses periods, and others. After checking the structure of a sentence, check the punctuation. Frequent punctuation problems involve commas and hyphens.
The two main functions of a comma are to divide and to replace. For example, a comma divides two independent clauses, as follows:
No: I will create the sales brochure and Rachel will design the website.
Yes: I will create the sales brochure, and Rachel will design the website.
For business writing, a comma should also divide the last two items in a series:
No: The discount will be in effect for January, February and March.
Yes: The discount will be in effect for January, February, and March.
Further, commas should be used to divide, or set off, interrupting elements of a sentence:
No: He was however not chosen for this year’s award.
Yes: He was, however, not chosen for this year’s award.
Yes: She was, in my opinion, the best candidate for the job.
A comma replaces the word and in the situations involving two parallel adjectives:
No: The lengthy [and] detailed report prompted a series of investigations.
Yes: The lengthy, detailed report prompted a series of investigations.
Hyphens should be used in most cases involving compound adjectives (two or more adjacent adjectives acting jointly as one modifier).
No: We are experiencing a one week delay in our shipments.
Yes: We are experiencing a one-week delay in our shipments.
No: Last week he applied for a small business loan. [This is correct if the loan was small, but not if the loan was for a small business.]
Yes: Last week he applied for a small-business loan.
Finally, one punctuation mark ought to be used more than it is—the dash. Dashes can often be used in place of commas, colons, and parentheses, as in the following cases:
Commas: He implied, although he didn’t actually say it, that Jack would be transferred.
Dashes: He implied—although he didn’t actually say it—that Jack would be transferred.
Colon: We finally received the needed part: the long-awaited JRX34 switch.
Dash: We finally received the needed part—the long-awaited JRX34 switch.
Parentheses: This morning I tried to call Sara (the third time in two days) to tell her about Amy.
Dashes: This morning I tried to call Sara—the third time in two days—to tell her about Amy.
E is for Errors in Grammar
Grammatical errors in your writing can severely undermine your credibility; they present an image of ignorance or laziness—that you don’t know or don’t care about certain rules of writing. Watch especially for errors in case (subjective, objective, and possessive), agreement (number, person, and gender), tense (past, present, and future), mood (indicative, imperative, and subjunctive), numbers (what to write as words and what to write as figures), and capitalization.
The rules governing grammar errors are too numerous to deal with in this blog, but you can find complete coverage of these rules on this website under the menu link Grammar and Format Guide. This guide focuses on the most frequently used and abused grammar problems in business. Spend two or three evenings reviewing this section to brush up on rules that you once knew but may have forgotten.
L is for Language
With sentence structure, punctuation, and grammar errors taken care of, you are ready to check the words themselves. First, words should be clear—they should be easily understandable to the audience. For example, technical words are fine to use if the audience is familiar with them.
Second, they should be appropriately specific—neither too general nor too precise. For instance, in one context you might use the word employee, in another context you might use the word accountant, and in yet another context you might use the name of an actual employee--Kent Jackson.
Third, the words you use should be correct in spelling, usage, and meaning. You should be aware of words that often cause problems, such as spelling receive with the e before the i and using principal and principle, affect and effect, and its and it’s correctly.
Fourth, the words you use should be considerate. They should be appropriately formal and have the appropriate tone for the situation.
L is for Length
Sentences should be concise. Concise writing is not short and choppy with just the minimal content included. Rather, concise writing contains complete content, but reflects carefully crafted sentences, with no unnecessary words. In other words, every word should be necessary and make a useful contribution to the sentence.
Long, wordy sentences can be shortened in three simple ways. First, omit useless words. For example, instead of saying, “He made the exact same error last week,” say, “He made the same error last week.” Because exact and same mean the same thing, one of the words is useless. Second, replace passive-voice writing with active-voice writing (say “Ann wrote the report,” rather than “The report was written by Ann”). Third, condense wordy passages of text by asking yourself, “Could I express the same content with fewer words?”
To learn about SPELL in more detail, review Appendix A of our book Writing and Speaking for Business on this website. Business and government writers will find Appendix A to be a useful in resolving most basic sentence and grammar questions. This appendix is also useful in preparing to take the GMAT or LSAT exam. For example, one student wrote, “I had taken several GMAT practice tests and had scored around average on the verbal section. However, before I took the real GMAT, I reviewed the grammar section in Writing and Speaking for Business and scored significantly above average. The tips in the book are incredibly useful, and the examples make the rules easy to understand.”
Commit these five SPELL terms to memory, and use them to check your own sentences and the sentences of others who ask for your feedback. As you gain experience using SPELL, both your writing and your writing confidence will increase.
Almost any good book on writing will include a section on composing paragraphs, telling the importance of five factors: topic sentences, coherence, unity, appropriate length, and proper development. Most students can understand these five aspects of good paragraphs, but remembering the list is more challenging—until now.
Introducing . . . CLOUD.
The letters in CLOUD stand for Coherence, Length, Organization, Unity, and Development. Using the CLOUD framework, you can easily remember the five critical attributes of good paragraphs. Let’s review each of these below.
C is for Coherence
Make sure sentences flow logically from one sentence to the next. Coherence is achieved through systematic progression from one related idea to the next.
In addition to logical coherence, be sure your sentences have appropriate cohesion. Whereas coherence refers to the logical and rational interconnection of ideas, cohesion focuses on specific words that clarify the relationships among the ideas. Cohesion words can occur both within and between ideas. The following samples show different types of cohesion words.
L is for Length
Especially regarding paragraphs in the body of a document, avoid writing paragraphs that are so long that they look difficult to read. Many people suggest line counting as a way to determine maximum paragraph length, such as five or six lines for short messages or eight or nine lines for long reports. Perhaps a more reliable method is to just trust your eyes—if a paragraph looks long and uninviting to read, it is too long! When you encounter a paragraph that is too long, find the most logical breaking point (where the topic changes) and divide the paragraph in two, or perhaps even three.
And remember—sometimes a one-sentence paragraph is best!
O is for Organization
Generally use a direct approach in paragraphs, with a topic sentence leading the way. The topic sentence serves as a mini-agenda, or forecasting statement, for the paragraph. Feel free to also add a summarizing sentence at the end of the paragraph as appropriate. To check your document for direct-paragraph organization, skim through the document and read only the first sentence of each paragraph. As you do this, see if you obtain enough of the critical information to understand generally what the document is about. If you don’t understand, go back and write more descriptive topic sentences for each paragraph. Because many people read in detail only the first few lines of a document and then just skim the rest of the message, good topic sentences are critical.
U is for Unity
Once you have a topic sentence in place, ensure that all subsequent sentences in the paragraph have unity; i.e., each sentence should refer to the content introduced in the topic sentence. For example, if the topic sentence is about vacation days, the paragraph content should be about vacation days. However, if the topic sentence includes vacation days and sick days, the subsequent sentences should discuss both vacation days and sick days.
D is for Development
Be sure to give adequate information to support, or develop, the topic sentence. You can develop the main point of a paragraph in many ways, as shown in the following examples.
Now that you have a basic understanding of CLOUD, test your ability to use CLOUD as you read the two following paragraphs. Identify the specific CLOUD strengths and weaknesses in each.
You probably noticed that the first paragraph fails three of the five paragraph tests. To its credit, it is not too long and it does have unity, but it has problems with organization, coherence, and development. For example, it does not begin with a good topic sentence (the idea that Kerry is being fired). It also bounces from one idea to the next and reflects a lack of coherence and cohesion. Further, it fails to develop the case for Kerry being fired.
The second paragraph reflects good strength in all five paragraph standards. It begins with the main point, achieves unity by sticking with the topic of discussion, moves logically through the reasoning behind the decision, gives sufficient detail to understand the reasoning behind the decision to terminate, and avoids excessive length.
In addition to using CLOUD to help with composition, you can use it to guide your review of completed paragraphs. For instance, a colleague once said to me, “I can sense poor writing when I see it, but I don’t know how to give feedback for fixing the problems.” Using CLOUD as a feedback framework could be a tremendous help to this colleague.
CLOUD is a great tool both for writing and for giving feedback on the writing of others. For example, if you are creating a blog, you can use CLOUD during the composition process. If you’re reviewing an important email written by a colleague or subordinate, you can use CLOUD as a framework for giving feedback.
Memorize the CLOUD framework—Coherence, Length, Organization, Unity, Development—and try it on a few paragraphs. As you gain confidence in its use, I think you’ll like it.
The opening paragraph makes a clear point—undifferentiated text is difficult to read. It slows the reading and can even turn potential readers into nonreaders! Today’s readers have a low tolerance for undifferentiated text.
Fortunately, we have moved beyond the Level-1ancient type of writing, and most people now create text at Level 2—which includes punctuation marks, capital letters at the beginning of sentences, and spaces between words. But even long passages of Level 2 writing can appear gray and uninviting. It is now time to move to Level 3. As featured on the Purdue OWL site and in my article in Business Communication Quarterly, the following HATS framework (Headings, Art, Typography, and Spacing) will help you reach this higher level.
Headings are to a written message like city signs are to a highway. They announce upcoming text and keep the audience apprised of their location in the message. They also enable the audience to skim a message and drop in for more detailed reading where they have the most interest.
How many headings should you include? That depends on such factors as message length, the number of sections in the message, and the message structure. Generally, the longer the message, the more headings you should have, but do include at least one for each major section.
Headings should also reveal the structure and hierarchy of the message. First-level headings show the major sections, and second-level headings show the subdivisions of those major sections, as shown below.
Investing for Retirement
In the HATS framework, art refers to any visual treatment that makes information easier to find and process. Humans are primarily visual creatures, not primarily textual creatures. Even a three-year-old can “read” visual messages.
As you compose a message, constantly ask yourself if there is a way to convey information visually. Sometimes a standard paragraph is the worst way to convey a thought. At a very basic level you can use a numbered or bulleted list.
Here are a few additional ways to use art and graphics to enhance your writing:
In the following three examples, notice the difference in communicating the information in a standard paragraph, a table, and a bar graph.
In 2014 there were 960,000 people with B.S. degrees, and their projected work-life earnings were $2,288,000. Approximately 420,000 held M.S. degrees, with projected work-life earning of $2,757,000. Roughly 455,000 had earned a professional degree, with a projected work-life earning of $5,435,000. And with 255,000 holding doctorate degrees, their projected work-life earnings amounted to $3,511,000, over 50 percent above those with just a B.S. degree.
Quantitative information in paragraph format is difficult for the human brain to process. With a table format, mental processing is easier, but still difficult. With the bar chart, however, the variances among the bars are immediately visible. In a sense, text and tables enable the audience to read the data, but charts enable the audience to see the data! Often the best option is a combination of text and visuals.
Reading text is demanding work, and typographic enhancement can help. The most important aspects of typography are reflected on the tool bar of your software, including the font, size, style, and alignment.
Font recommendations are different for paper documents and electronic documents. For paper documents, serif fonts (such as Times New Roman) are often preferred for body text because the serifs (the little finishing marks at the end of their strokes) make each letter more unique and easy to recognize (see illustration below). Sans serif fonts (such as Arial) are sans (without) little marks at the ends of their strokes. Sans serif fonts are often used for headings because they usually have a thicker and bolder stroke.
For electronic documents, the font recommendations are different. Sans serif is usually the recommended font for body text. Because visual resolution (clarity) is lower for screens than for paper, serifs can get in the way of visual clarity. Thus, Calibri, Arial, Helvetica, and Tahoma fonts are used often for electronic documents.
Professional designers recommend the use of only two primary fonts (typefaces) for most documents, one serif and one sans serif. For example, a paper document could use a serif font for body text and a sans serif font for headings, and an electronic document could use a sans serif font for body text and a serif font for headings.
The height of printed characters is measured in points, with 72 points equaling one inch. Normally, for paper and computer screen, use 10–12 point type for general audiences. For an elderly audience, increase the type size. For text on mobile devices, you might have to make the font larger to ensure readability.
Type can be enhanced in several ways to make it more noticeable. Bold and italic treatments are two of the most common. You can also put white type on a black background, called reverse type.
In most cases, avoid underlining text because the line cuts through the descenders of lower-case letters like j, q, g, and y (e.g., typography), and makes them more difficult to read. You can also use occasional color for emphasis, or use ALL CAPITAL LETTERS for headings. Do not use all capitals for body text, however, because text in all capitals is hard to read. Use moderation with all typographic enhancement, because too much visual enhancement is distracting.
Type can be aligned on the left, center, or right. It can also be aligned on both left and right sides, called full justification. For most paper and electronic business documents, use left alignment. Left-aligned type is easier to read than fully justified type.
In addition to alignment concerns, readability can be improved by reducing the length of text lines. To achieve a shorter line length for text-heavy messages, you can increase the width of the side margins, slightly increase the text size, or use a two-column format.
Pages with many lines of text without a visual break look gray and uninviting. White space gives visual relief, prevents reader fatigue, and enhances reader friendliness. Space also divides and frames elements on a page or screen. For instance, white space placed around a block of text or a graphic visually separates it from neighboring elements.
Check two aspects of spacing in your documents: external and internal. External spacing refers to the margins around the edges of the page. For most routine documents, a one-inch margin is standard, but don’t be afraid to create margins of more than an inch for text-heavy documents.
Internal spacing is the space within sentences and paragraphs. A simple way to avoid gray pages is to keep paragraphs short and leave one line of space between paragraphs. You may also try increasing the line spacing, or the space between lines.
Benefits of HATS
Using headings, art and graphics, typography, and spacing (HATS) will turn your gray-text messages into visually inviting documents that will attract, rather than repel, your audience. Consider this blog that you’re reading. See how it uses headings, art/graphics, typographic enhancements, and spacing. Imagine what it would be like to read this piece without all these enhancements.
Take a bit of extra time to visually enhance your messages with HATS. Your audience will appreciate it if you do.
Most of us have likely experienced that moment of sender’s remorse when we click “send” and then realize that we have forgotten an attachment or misspelled something in the message! Such remorse may be delayed, yet be equally poignant, when we send a message and then receive an awkward reply that reads, “You forgot the attachment,” or “I think you meant to send this to Julie Benson instead of Julie Baxter.”
From the recipient’s perspective, such situations involve their own discomforts when the sender is a manager or when the email was sent to multiple people. In these cases, a recipient must decide . . .
Step 1. Proofread
Before sending a message, I quickly proofread it, looking for both lower-order and higher-order concerns. Regarding lower-order sentence-level concerns, many of my grammatical mistakes occur after I’ve written something and then have revised—fixing a verb here or a noun there without carefully reading the correction in context. Therefore, in my proofreading step, I quickly skim the message from beginning to end, finding the errors that can be caught only in context (subject-verb agreement, ambiguous pronouns, etc.). Skimming the entire message also helps prepare me to address higher-order concerns, such as the organization or strategy.
In addition to a quick skim, reading the message word for word out loud is very effective. This approach helps ensure that the writing sounds conversational and makes sense. Sometimes errors that would go undetected during a silent visual review are exposed when the words are actually spoken aloud.
Proofreading also comes in handy for routine emails I send out by copying and pasting boilerplate material from a previous email (e.g., for recurring meetings). For those types of messages, the proofreading step helps me catch “who,” “when,” or “where” errors that I need to update for the new message recipient.
Step 2. Attachment
After I proofread, I check to see if I have included any attachments referred to in the message. Checking for attachments after writing the message serves as a nice verification step for me, but I’ve also heard of others who take a more proactive stance—they attach the attachments before beginning the email or when they mention the attachments as they write the email.
Step 3. Subject
Reviewing the subject line help me catch two types of problems. The first review checks for coherence between the subject line and the content. Because email programs present the subject-line field before the message field (scrolling top to bottom on a screen), I usually fill out the subject line before writing my message. Then, if my message topic or purpose shifts while I’m actually composing the message, the subject line no longer fits and a change of the subject line is needed.
A second subject-line review checks for appropriate reader appeal. If my subject line is vague or conveys the idea that the message is low in importance, the recipient may either delay reading or not read the email at all. After proofreading my message, I have a clear idea of what I want the recipient to do after reading the email, and I can update my subject accordingly. In this way, I ensure that the subject is clear and accurate and communicates appropriate urgency, increasing the likelihood that the reader will read and respond the way I hope.
Step 4. To
The final step in the PAST checklist is to double check the To, CC, and BCC fields in my emails. Too frequently we hear about individuals who are fired because they accidentally copied a customer on an email that was meant to be sent only to a coworker. It’s easy for me to understand how such a mistake can be made. For example, I might type “ju” into the “to” field, expecting “Julie Benson” to auto-populate. However, “Julie Baxter” might pop up first, and I might accidentally select the wrong person if I’m not careful. I also know how easy it is to hit the “reply all” button instead of the “reply” button. By taking just a moment to check the To, CC, and BCC fields before sending, I reduce the likelihood of sending these types of potentially job-threatening emails.
Using the PAST acronym will take a little more time than some writers might prefer to spend on emails. However, because so many of my email mistakes occur when I am in a rush, taking a moment to run through the PAST process helps me to slow down a little and prevents many errors from happening.
I’ve also noticed that the PAST checklist helps me when I post to social media. For example, when I’m typing on my phone or tablet, it is way too easy to mistype something, resulting in an error that is now presented to the world. Before posting, I quickly read through the message for mistakes; ensure that all pictures, links, videos, and hashtags have been inserted; update any necessary title lines; and verify that I’m sending or posting to the group or individual that I think I am.
While other technology-based strategies can also be employed to cut down on sender’s remorse (e.g., setting a time delay on all messages sent in Outlook or enabling Gmail’s “undo” feature), a quick PAST review will catch errors that technology will miss. Therefore, consider using the PAST checklist as you send your future emails!
And if you use any other methods to cut down on sender’s remorse, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
We're Bill Baker and Matt Baker, and we believe that communication is the lifeblood of management. We hope these posts will help you more effectively communicate and manage in your organization.