Joseph Pulitzer the great journalist said:
Put it before them briefly so they might read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.
I think there is a tendency to rattle off lots of emails these days, many of which fail to make their mark. Might a bit of planning, good subject titles, a logical structure and careful use of language get us all better results?
I learned my writing skills at Procter & Gamble – famous for its one page memos at the time. We were taught how to plan and write persuasively and concisely. This is what we learned.
- The importance of planning
Before writing we were encouraged to think about:
- Who we were writing to (not just the initial person, but maybe their boss or others that might be consulted etc)?
- What did we want the reader to do as a result of reading the memo?
- What key factors might they consider in making their decision?
- Gathering all the information we might need to support our case
- Prioritising our points and arranging them in a logical order
The title and opening paragraph are very important to get right. Spend as much time on this as the rest of the document combined. The reader needs to know clearly:
- Why they should read it? (There might be 50 other emails in their inbox)
- What are you asking for (eg a decision?)
- What is being recommended?
- What are the key details?
The second paragraph should contain any necessary background. Keep this short. The reader only needs sufficient information to understand the problem or your recommendation
Next, provide a basis for your recommendation. This is where you explain why you are recommending what you’re recommending
Now you can provide any details, such as:
- Assumptions, costs, timings etc
- Alternatives and why these were not selected
- A short review of risks and how these will be mitigated
Finally, a paragraph on next steps assuming the proposal is accepted.
- Tips on Style
In terms of style, this is what P&G recommended.
When selecting words, choose familiar, commonly-understood terms rather than technical jargon. Choose short rather than long words. Be precise rather than vague (ie ‘17 out of 20′ was preferred to ‘many’).
Keep sentences short (ie less than 20 words). Ideally convey only one thought in each sentence.
Use paragraphs and headings to break the memo into readable units.
This is often the most important step in the entire process. Ask yourself, is it:
If not, redraft!
Any thoughts on how this blog might have been improved?
For more on what firms could learn about business strategy from Procter & Gamble read https://tonyreiss.com/2013/02/06/what-law-firms-could-learn-about-strategy-from-procter-gamble/
For more on P&G’s selling process, see https://tonyreiss.com/2012/01/16/procter-gambles-7-selling-steps-a-traditional-approach-to-selling/
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