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.
If I were to come to your front door and invite you to go for a ride, what would you say? Probably something like, “Where are we going?” If I were then to say, “I’m not going to tell you,” you would likely respond, “Uh, I’m pretty busy right now. Sorry.”
The idea that I would invite you to go for a ride and not tell you our destination seems completely unreasonable. Yet that is what many of us do when we sit down to compose a message to someone else. We simply start writing and don’t tell our readers where we’re going. An example follows:
“Hi Tom. Yesterday I met with Jenny about the deadlines we’re facing on our product-improvement launch scheduled for March 10. I expressed concern that her developers are falling behind on their product-improvement deadlines and that missing this launch date would be a huge problem for our company. Marketing has been preparing a major event for the launch, and to miss the deadline would be disastrous. Our clients have been asking for these improvements for many months, and we simply have to respond to their requests. Jenny said her developers have been sidetracked from their work several times to work on bug fixes for the last release and that the fixes had to take priority. I tried to emphasize the critical importance of the new improvements. Jenny said she understood our situation and would try to do the best she could to meet our needs. I suggested that we have a meeting with her and her developers each Monday to review progress. That way we can know what’s going on with the developers, and we can continue to stress the need to meet deadlines, even if it means working overtime or hiring some temporary help. She agreed to that and the first meeting is scheduled for next Monday at 9 a.m. in Creekside Conference Room. I hope you can attend.”
The preceding message seems to have the appropriate content, but the organization needs work. The unfortunate reader of the message has to blindly follow all the twists and turns in the road until finally arriving at the destination. In a sense, the writer said, “Let’s go for a ride, but I’m not going to tell you where I’m taking you.”
If you think this might be a problem in your writing, consider using an OABC pattern. Whereas the first example has an opening, a body, and a closing, OABC writing has an opening, an agenda, a body, and a closing. See what a difference an agenda can make:
“Hi Tom. Yesterday I met with Jenny about the deadlines we’re facing on our product-improvement launch scheduled for next month. The following paragraphs include my concerns, Jenny’s response, and our plan to address the problem.
Regarding my concerns, I told Jenny that her developers don’t seem to be current with their product-improvement deadlines and that missing this launch date would be a huge problem for our company. Because our clients have been asking for these improvements for months, and marketing has been preparing a major event for the launch, missing the deadline would be disastrous.
Jenny said her developers have been sidetracked several times to work on bug fixes for the last release and that the fixes had to take priority. However, Jenny said she understood our situation and would try to do the best she could to meet our needs.
To resolve the problem, I suggested that we have a meeting with Jenny and her developers each Monday to review progress. That way we can keep current on the developers’ progress, and we can continue to stress the need to meet deadlines—even if it means working overtime or hiring some temporary help. Jenny agreed to this meeting idea, and our first meeting is scheduled for next Monday at 9 a.m. in Creekside Conference Room. I hope you can attend.”
Why Use OABC?
Including an agenda after opening a message can work wonders, both for the writer and for the readers. For the writer, an agenda serves as an outline that guides the structure and development of the subsequent content. The agenda also serves as a contract with the reader, and the writer’s content and structure are thereby made clear, as demonstrated in the second message example.
For readers, an agenda provides a roadmap for the textual trip they are taking with the writer. In the second message, the agenda tells the readers they’re going to encounter three segments on the trip—the writer’s concerns, Jenny’s response, and a solution to the problem. In a sense, an agenda creates mental storage buckets for placing the subsequent material. An agenda also makes messages more skimmable, so readers who don’t care about some parts of the message can skip directly to the parts they are most concerned about—in this case, the solution.
Agendas can be written in one or more of the following four forms. (Did you notice that I just used an agenda to introduce the list?)
Next time you have to create an oral or written message at work, try organizing it into an OABC pattern. I think you and your audience will quickly see the benefits.
We're Bill Baker and Matt Baker, and we hope these posts will help you more effectively teach business communication. If you like what you read, please consider reviewing our business communication textbook.