by Alex Senson, Senior Business Strategist, Altitude Accelerator
Having effective business writing skills will greatly improve your professional credibility, yet most of us are not excellent writers. Startups and entrepreneurs think they don’t have time to spend polishing every external facing document. However, having a polished document can make the difference between a potential investor or partner wanting to learn more about your company, or tossing your document aside after a few seconds never giving you a chance. This article focuses on writing for external audiences, whether it is in the form of briefing documents, company summaries, business plans, PowerPoint presentations or e-mails.
Please invest in yourself and your startup by taking the time to read through this article entirely and absorb some of the points. I chose to put some substance and depth into the tips rather than the typical minimally useful bite sized top 10 lists that have invaded the internet. There are no short cuts in business success!
In this article, you’ll discover the top 10 business writing tips for startups based on the most common mistakes I’ve encountered in professional business writing. By using this article as a guide, you will greatly improve your business writing skills and professional credibility.
1. Determine your purpose – your writing style should match
The first thing you want to consider before writing is what the purpose of the document is and who the intended audience or reader is. The language you use, the information you provide, what is emphasized and the general style should be appropriate. Think carefully about this before writing and while you’re proofreading your document.
For example, if the document is meant to brief an investor on your business opportunity, you should avoid ‘marketing language’ or trying to sell the features of your product. Investors care much less about your product features than they do about the business case which includes the overall value proposition, target market, market size, strength of the team, intellectual property, metrics, KPIs and financial information. It should be presented in a factual and compelling way.
However, if the intended audience is your end user or customer, you could highlight relevant information such as the values, benefits and features of your product or service. Using more of a marketing tone may be appropriate in this case.
If you’re trying to secure a strategic partnership, focus on conveying a value proposition for your potential partner which solves their problems and satisfies their interests. They will not necessarily care about all the same things as your end users or investors.
2. Write a value proposition statement at the beginning
You only have a very short amount of time to impress your reader before they get bored and move on to the next opportunity. Use the following formula to create a succinct and clear description of your business.
Write one to three sentences which answer the following questions as specifically as possible:
- What is your product or service?
- Who is your target customer?
- What values and benefits does your solution offer the target customer?
Try not to discuss product features; focus on values or outcomes. This should address why your solution is unique and gives a compelling reason your customer should buy it.
For example, here’s a value proposition statement for this article:
The article “Improve your business writing skills – 10 easy tips for startups” is a professional development resource for entrepreneurs which suggests easy tips to dramatically improve the effectiveness of external-facing written business documents. By considering the advice in this article, entrepreneurs will benefit from improved credibility leading to successful business interactions. In written documents, it’s easy to have miscommunications which lead to frustration on both sides. Avoid these issues proactively by developing and improving your business writing skills.
The next few sections below highlight tips to improve your business writing skills centered around how efficiently you make use of language to deliver your message.
3. Less is more – be concise
Use the fewest words possible to clearly convey your message and don’t repeat information unless you want to hammer in a very important point.
If you can replace a thick paragraph with a simple image, table or graph it’s usually a good thing to do. It’s important that your image is clear and not open to misinterpretation. It should be well-labelled and should not lead to confusion or additional unanswerable questions. Concisely explain your image in the caption below it, and give it a short, descriptive title.
4. Flow is critical, write in a logical order
It may sound obvious, but I see this mistake all the time. A writer might start talking about the features of their product before telling the reader what the product is. Or, they will excitedly begin discussing how much their customers love their product and how much money they are making before disclosing who their customers are. Improve your business writing skills simply by asking yourself if the information you are presenting is in a logical order.
5. Assume your reader has no prior knowledge
Assume the reader of your document doesn’t know anything about your company, product or industry, unless you are specifically targeting subject matter experts who have relevant background knowledge. Some key pieces of information may be obvious to you, but don’t leave them out because they may be critical in helping the reader understand what you’re saying.
- Be careful not to use many technical words, abbreviations and industry jargon.
- Always define an acronym the first time you use it.
- Don’t be afraid to state what you think might be obvious.
- Assume your readers are intelligent people, but they know absolutely nothing about what you’re doing.
I’ve often heard that one should write as if they are explaining what they do to a young child or to their grandmother. However, I’d prefer not to insult the intelligence of children and grandmothers – they could certainly be more intelligent than you or I. Improving your business writing skills is simply a matter of being mindful that you, as the business owner or inventor, probably know more about your business than anyone else.
6. Answer questions, don’t cause them
There’s nothing more frustrating than reading a document which is supposed to explain a business opportunity, and being left with more questions than you started with. A concise document can’t answer everything, but the basics need to be covered clearly. Confusion and additional questions may be caused by poor flow, scattered and disorganized information, stating facts in the wrong order, making incorrect assumptions or using too many words to convey your message.
When you read through your document, try and anticipate what questions a reader might have. What does your target audience want to know about? Is there anything confusing, incomplete or scattered about what you’ve written? Try to answer these questions before they are asked by integrating the answers seamlessly into your document.
For example, a statement which leaves a lot of unanswered questions might be “Our patented app crushes the competition. We have massive user adoption and that’s why we are looking to raise $1M at a $10M valuation”. If there’s no follow up to these sentences, we are left wondering what aspect of the app is patented, what exactly does it mean to crush the competition, what’s the user growth rate, how many users is considered ‘massive’, and what’s the $1M going to be used for?
7. Consistency, formatting, spelling, grammar and smaller details make a huge difference
The way your document looks is just as important as the content. The small details and appearance of a document can reflect directly on how others perceive and judge you and your ability to execute on your business plan. If you want to improve your business writing skills, pay attention to detail and spend extra time formatting your document. Below, I’ve outlined the most common issues I encounter.
- Spelling and grammar are obvious, but almost all documents I see have at least some spelling or grammar issues. Use a spell checker first, then proofread to ensure you fix most errors. Spell checkers will often miss instances where the wrong word is used, but it’s spelled correctly. Turn on grammar check which might catch more issues.
- Have consistent alignment and indentation of sentences, paragraphs and bullet points.
- Break up text with relevant headings. Make use of bullet points.
- Don’t capitalize words unless they are proper nouns or the first word after a period. At least half the documents I see have improperly capitalized words. Capitalization is not an appropriate way to indicate emphasis or importance of a word. Italics or bold can be used for this.
- Use a consistent font and font size. Too many different fonts and sizes looks unprofessional.
- Make sure your font size and type is easy to read and not too small. Sans Serif fonts are generally easier to read.
- Use punctuation Periods on the end of all bullet points, or none of them. Commas, semicolons, or dashes used properly and consistently.
- Write numbers and dollar values consistently. I’ve seen a combination of $1000, 400$, $1k, 5k, $350.00 all in the same document! Pick one format and stick with it.
- Any value should have units associated with it. If your market size is 100,000, I’ll just assume 100,000 bottle caps and value the business accordingly.
- Numbers less than 10 should be written in words, so we write five, not 5. Be consistent.
8. Always have someone else proofread
As a savvy entrepreneur, you should have someone else look over your work and provide edits and feedback. However, don’t simply rely on them blindly – actively consider all their feedback and make this part of your personal refinement process. Everyone can improve their writing skills, and this is a good way to make progress.
You might even consider paying a professional to edit your document for you. If the document is marketing collateral or a PowerPoint presentation, consider paying to have someone create a template, custom graphics and branding for you. The look of your documents goes a long way to establishing your credibility. If you’ve invented the next greatest high tech innovation, make sure the document or presentation doesn’t look like it’s from 1985!
Carefully read over your work one last time before it goes out publicly. Look for flow, logic, repetition etc. You might catch things that you didn’t before, especially if it’s gone through several rounds of editing. Take a few minutes to do this every time. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to invest this time. You want everything externally facing to look good and be the best it can be, because it represents us directly.
9. Get into the mindset of refinement
Refinement, not perfectionism, is a key trait that will help any entrepreneur succeed. Unlike perfectionism which can hamper efforts to get things done efficiently, having a drive for continuous refinement in every aspect of your business and personal skill set will lead to steady and cumulative improvements. The idea is to always try and do a little better on each thing you do by being more mindful of the details, regardless of what it is. Most entrepreneurs are hyper-focused on their product and care a great deal about it, while other important aspects about the business such as business writing skills are neglected.
Pay attention to your writing, actively looking for little things that are amiss and spend a few minutes correcting a few things each time you work on it or review it. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just get into this habit of paying more attention and actively thinking about what you’re doing. Put yourself in the shoes of your reader and ask yourself if the writing is clear to someone who has no prior knowledge of your business. You need to legitimately care about your writing, and stop thinking of it as a minor detail or afterthought. External parties will be able to see this effort for continuous improvement and will want to work with you. Take this mindset into every aspect of your business and you’ll have a significant competitive edge over most others.
10. Did I say 10 tips?
I’m going to follow my rule #4 – less is more, and end here. There’s more than enough info in this comprehensive article to help drastically improve your business writing skills. As an entrepreneur, you have the burden of handling all aspects of your startup, including the less exciting topics like business writing. Keep working on your personal and professional refinement and remember that no matter what you do, do it better than you did the last time.
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