These easy-to-avoid errors can ruin an email, resumé or other business document.
- Font is too big or too small. The best size is generally between 10 and 12. When in doubt, go with 11.
- Incompatible fonts. Callisto looked great when you formatted your report, but my computer converts it to Times Roman 10—which my middle-aged eyes can’t read.
- Multiple fonts and/or colors. Simplicity is key to a professional presentation. Emphasize your points (sparingly) with italics or boldface.
- WTF is CAMCA? Virtually every acronym needs to be spelled out the first time you use it. Put the abbreviation in parentheses after the name if you plan to mention it again, e.g. Commercial Arbitration and Mediation Center for the Americas (CAMCA). As for WTF, LOL and the rest—never.
While we’re on the subject of email newsletters, a few cardinal rules:
- Keep email addresses private. Use Bcc: instead of listing readers in the To: field, or risk the wrath of the indecently exposed.
- Don’t subscribe anyone without permission. It’s fine to purchase or use existing lists to invite people to subscribe, but unforgivably rude to opt them in.
- Check the damn links. They should work smoothly, without surprises (like huge pdfs that crash people’s computers).
- Don’t call it a newsletter if it’s an ad. I don’t mind promotions if they offer real value. But if the subject line says, “Ten ways to get a bargain on your next vacation,” I’d better not have to buy a book to find out what they are.
Among the dozens of email newsletters competing for my attention, three stand out. One has spoilers for my favorite TV show; the second lists last-minute airfare deals; the third contains journal-style observations on the author’s life with her differently abled child.
From this unofficial sampling, I’ve derived three reasons that people read newsletters:
- They provide information of immediate personal interest
- They have real value (saving money) or fantasy value (helping me visualize the ideal vacation, job, house etc.)
- They are beautifully written, with a compelling narrative
Does your newsletter fall into one of these categories? If not, why would people read it?
I recently saw this line in a human resources handbook: “A training session on employee harrassment is required to be attended by all staff.” Leaving aside the fact that the company is training its employees to harass each other, this is a nice example of misuse of the passive voice.
As the term suggests, “passive voice” means that something was done to something else. The road was crossed by the chicken. Short people are discriminated against. I am being screwed. Most of us grew to love this construction in high school, when we were too lazy or nervous to commit to precise statements. “It is argued that Mark Twain was the most revolutionary writer of his day” keeps things nice and vague—it’s not even clear if the writer agrees.
Unfortunately, laziness and fear of commitment don’t serve us well in the business world. I can think of only two instances where passive voice is appropriate: to emphasize an object (The baby was left on the doorstep) or to wiggle out of taking the blame (Errors were numerous in the last newsletter).
I googled “pet peeves” and got 1.2 million results. That’s a lot of peeves. Merriam-Webster traces the term back to “pevish” (Middle English, spiteful; first use circa 1530), while the Oxford English Dictionary links it to “perverse.” Either way, I think we can agree that it’s overused.
Other candidates for retirement:
- At the end of the day
- Change agent
- Leading (or, God forbid, bleeding) edge
- Open the kimono
- Paradigm shift
- Proven track record
- Push the envelope
- Ramp up
Which terms set your teeth on edge?
Desk side. Also deskside, desk-side. If you want to come to my office, just say so.
Impact. Overused in general, unacceptable when “verbed.”
Irregardless. Non-word combination of “irrespective” and “regardless.”
Literally, in the non-literal sense. “She literally exploded with excitement.”
Optics, unless you are an opthamologist.
X and myself, e.g. “My colleague and myself are delighted to be here.” “I” or “me” is nearly always correct instead.
Which words would you like to banish from business writing?
These aren’t necessarily errors, but they’re bound to annoy recipients just the same.
- Misuse of subject line. Don’t leave this blank, and don’t waste it on vague descriptors like “Marketing team update.” Instead, include compelling details in the subject heading. “Three volunteers needed for tomorrow’s CNN interview,” not “We’re going to be on CNN!”
- Slow lead-ins. These vary from the personal (“Hope the holidays are treating you well”) to the overly detailed (“Rachel and I were talking on the plane yesterday, and we realized that…”). Business emails should start with a clear statement of purpose.
- Missing pieces. Attach your attachments, and don’t forget to include email and telephone contact information.
- Unnecessary responses. Do you really need a whole new email to say “you’re welcome?” As for emoticons—just no.
There are a lot of great books on business writing. In case you’re too busy making a living to read them all, I will occasionally offer one-minute summaries of work by well-known authors.
Today, Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Expanding on Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, the authors offer six concepts that will raise your communications above the pack: 1. State it simply. 2. Use concrete examples. 3. Establish yourself as a trustworthy source. 4. Appeal to your audience’s needs. 5. Destroy preconceived notions. 6. Tell a story.
I’d encourage you to stick with the first four in everyday communications—you can splash out with the last two when you pitch something. If you have time for the book, it’s an entertaining read.
Ask someone to review your work before you send. This rule applies to every document–from a two-sentence email to a book-length manuscript–that will be seen by someone you hope to impress.
I was once asked to provide a caption for a photograph of a Parisian river scene. Unfortunately, I made a tiny error; a single letter was incorrect. The caption read: “After a busy day of sightseeing, there’s nothing more relaxing than a quiet wank by the Seine.”
It would have taken five seconds to have someone review that little gem. Instead, I got three years of ridicule.
This blog will help you create clear, concise, professional communications. Whether you are writing a new business pitch, an important email or a memo to your department, our tips can make it better.
Here’s tip No. 1: Avoid flowery prose. In the world of business communication, less is more. Just as you wouldn’t dot your i’s with little hearts or sign your name in rainbow colors, stay away from flourishes that “personalize” your language.
Before sending a document, read it through one last time and delete your favorite sentences–the ones that drip with creativity. Unless you are planning to date them, your readers don’t need to know what makes you special.