It seems like there’s a bit of a miscommunication: The 3 things you weren't taught about writing for work.
4-minutes to better business writing
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Most people suck at writing.
But it’s not their fault.
If you were asked to remember how you were taught to write, you’d likely summon memories of a frantic 60 minute sprint, hammering out a 5 paragraph essays in middle school.
Or maybe you’d conjure memories of 3000 word MLA formatted research papers in college. (Remember: If you didn’t hit the word count, you failed!?)
How weird, right?
Writing in school had one major difference from how we write in our everyday lives. In school, you had a captive audience.
Our teachers had to read every word we wrote. Even if it made their eyes bleed, they couldn’t just say “booorrrinng” and move on.
Not only that, the criteria our work was judged on had no connection to the real world.
Think about it…
Has your boss ever come up to you after sending out an email and said, “You really should eliminate passive voice in your next memo!” or “You had a dangling modifier in that last email, please be more careful next time!”
Not a chance.
The simple truth is our generosity, style, and empathy are the only things that really matter in our writing.
All three build our ability to persuade.
That’s all that writing is.
It’s me trying to persuade you to take an idea, and act on it.
It seems like there’s a bit of a miscommunication, let’s hop on a call….
When people say that, what they’re actually saying is:
“It’s easier to understand you over the phone, than it is in writing.”
And it’s a common problem. I mean, we all landed jobs that included
MUST HAVE EXCELLENT WRITTEN AND ORAL COMMUNICATION in the job description.
And yet, we’re constantly having miscommunications.
You may be thinking,
“Yea Zac, but they just don’t get what I’m saying. I’m writing it out clear as day, and they’re just not getting it. Either they’re idiots, or they’re just not reading what I’m saying…”
Ding ding ding!
Your colleagues aren’t idiots, and neither are your customers. As a writer—and I promise you, if you write anything, you’re a writer—it’s your responsibility to make sure your message is loud and clear.
Not only should your recipient read what you write, but they should understand it too.
I’m going to give you the three most important elements to include in any professional communication. Whether it’s a cold sales emails, internal memo, or even a message to your boss.
These three elements drive your ability to persuade.
Generosity → Conveying benefits.
Style → Hold attention.
Empathy → Don’t waste time.
Let’s get right to it.
Generosity: Don’t bury the lead
We often mistake professional communication, with official sounding communication.
This email sounds professional, and if your boss was looking over your shoulder while writing it, she would probably nod in approval. But the reality is, this email blows.
And we all know it.
If that showed up in our inbox, it would go straight to the trash.
Why is that?
Because your boy Nathan, did something in journalism called “burying the lead”.
When a scandal in the White House is uncovered, a journalist doesn’t give you the backstory of what the president had for breakfast, an aside about the debt ceiling….and then tell you that he was having an affair with his staffer.
No, the journalist gives it to your first thing. BAM!
But here comes the tricky part…
What’s your lead?
Well with our example email above, Nathan wrote three whole paragraphs to say just one thing: “I can get you the cheapest dental supplies in the country”.
That was the lead that he buried.
And for a dentist, that’s a pretty huge revelation. All dentists want to spend less money on supplies. It’s a seriously potent lead!
But no one would find that lead, when it’s covered in a mound of self-indulgent professional sounding garbage.
By writing generously, you’re quickly, and clearly telling your reader what the benefit is…for them.
Because they’re always scanning written material thinking…
What’s in it for me?
(You’re doing this right now)
So tell your reader flat out. Be generous, don’t bury the lead.
Style: Sounding smart is hurting your message
A common mistake people make when trying to write professionally is using fancy words.
Here are some of the most bullshit words I’ve heard people use in San Francisco, and what they should be using instead.
Orthogonal → Somewhat related to
Substrate → Ingredients
Dry Powder → Cash
When we hear these words, although we may be familiar with them, we still convert them in our heads.
Like a non-native speaker of a language, there’s always a little bit of translation going on in the background.
The less mental energy it takes our reader to understand the message, the better.
The use of jargon is—more than anything—a sign of intellectual insecurity. Something that I personally grapple with every time I write.
I want to sound smart, but what I want even more is for you to read and understand what I write.
Remember, your audience can always swipe away to TikTok.
No one is a captive. So make sure your creating a pleasurable experience, and not giving your reader homework.
BONUS TIP: Write how you speak
Here’s an under-used method to instantly make your professional emails sound more personal, and conversational.
Grab your phone, and press that Talk-to-Text button (you know the one that your mom is always using to send text messages while she’s driving.)
Press it, and just start flowing.
Whether it’s a pitch, a sales email, or a memo to your employees. This is the best way to sound natural.
Don’t judge what you’re saying in the moment. It’s going to come out clunky. You’re going to stop and start, slip up your pronunciation, and use run-on sentences.
Don’t edit yet. Just get it all out of your system.
Then, when you’re done you’ll have a full page of text in front of you.
Like Michelangelo chipping away at a block of stone to uncover The David, that’s how you’re going to uncover your message through editing.
When editing, don’t change the phrasing you used. Don’t whip out the thesaurus, or jazz it up with phrases like “move the needle” or “low-hanging fruit”.
Just edit for clarity, the words you have on the page are enough to get your message across.
Empathy: We read a lot on the toilet.
People are busy, and people are lazy, and people love TikTok, and people have families, and people have to drive home in traffic after a two-hour long meeting with their boss where they were interrogated about why the enterprise account hasn’t closed yet when they said the deal would be signed back in December.
That’s to say, people are people. We have other things to do besides reading the messages you sent us.
In fact, most people don’t want to read your writing at all.
So the best way to make sure they do, is to write with that in mind.
This boils down to one very simple thing. Keep it short.
Most people aren’t brewing themselves a pot of fresh coffee, finding a comfy armchair, and opening your latest email.
No, in all honesty they’re probably on the toilet. Or they just rolled out of bed. Or they briefly stopped scrolling Twitter, to check their email on their lunch break.
So your best bet, on getting people to actually read what you wrote is to keep it as brief as possible.
Give them the goods, and sign off.
Write things that get read
You receive hundreds of emails every day. Some go straight to the trash, others are skimmed, and deleted.
But there’s a last group.
They're your precious golden ingots. You read them meticulously.
What sets these emails apart?
They’re combine all three elements of great business writing:
They’re generous → The content is instantly beneficial.
They’re stylistic → They hold attention by being unique.
They’re empathetic → They don’t waste a second of time.
When we think of “Professional” writing, this is what we need to be thinking of. This is how we make more sales, connect with industry leaders, and even lead our bosses (yup, I said it).
An effective business writer might neglect the subjunctive, or misuse their past participles, but still drive business outcomes.
This is the truest definition of professional writing.
So ditch the buzzwords, and the stuffy tone. Instead write like you talk, write empathetically, and write generously.
P.S. If you liked this post, and it would mean the world to me if you shared it with just one person.
You don’t have to broadcast it to all of twitter, just sending it to one friend would make a huge difference!
Jargon for the hell of it. Ingot: a block of steel, gold, silver, or other metal, typically oblong in shape.