With a full travel schedule and competing demands on my time, I don’t get much time for professional reflection. As 2018 closes out, I always find it helpful to take a step back and revisit the research I produced for my day job over the previous twelve months.
My day job as an industry analyst gives me great exposure to all kinds of business writing. Some of it is good. A lot of it isn’t. A common trait of bad business writing is what I call the illusion of action, or giving the appearance that you’re advising or instructing your reader to do something, but the action is either nonexistent or vague. From the content I’ve reviewed, weasel words are a big contributor to weak business writing.
A large part of my day job is reviewing what my colleagues’ write. Every reviewer has certain things he or she is looking for, and the top of my checklist is finding and removing useless content. My goal is to make a document 5-10% shorter, which is generally easy to do because of one mistake I see writers make repeatedly:
They apologize for writing the document.
Clearly, the authors aren’t coming out with a direct apology. These apologies are indirect and take the form of extensive history or context. Long narratives about how the world got to its current state, even in the context of databases or artificial intelligence, come off as defensive and tedious in business writing.
One method to help produce concise writing is SCQA (Situation, Complication, Question, Answer), although there are several others in similar veins. McKinsey likes Situation-Complication-Resolution (SCR). Regardless, the intent in the same:
Situation: Describe what’s happening in a simple way. “Growth has stagnated over the last three quarters and we must open up new regions to return to growth.” (Okay, not the most compelling story, but you get the idea.)
Complication: Outline what makes the situation challenging. This part needs to be clear, and separate from the situation. “We are having trouble hiring sales staff in the new regions, and existing staff are fully utilized.” This is also where you can support the complication with additional data points. Be as brief as possible.
Question: State the question that will get you to the proposed answer. “Should we continue exploring sales staff increases or rely more heavily on digital marketing?” The advantage of the SCR method is you can skip this and get right to the recommended actions.
Answer (or Resolution): Deliver your key point or points. Optionally, you can support your answers with additional data, but be brief. “We must take both options by restructuring sales to target new, higher growth regions and building a targeted digital marketing strategy.”
To improve your writing, write targeted documents and avoid the history lesson. If you simply must include the history, put it in an end note.