Tips on Business Writing In Presentations

Business PlanToday is going to be a “special edition” of (un)Enlightened English. That’s right, I’ve hijacked my wife’s blog and am going to do a post on a topic that is near and dear to my heart: Business Writing. For those of you who are wondering why or how Kelly allowed this–well, there are two  reasons: 1) She is at school and 2) It’s my birthday, so she can’t possibly say no. So click the link and get ready to improve your business writing skills!

So Chuck, what is business writing?

Well, my wonderful reader, that is the 10,000 dollar question – or 1 million, depending on how much the proposal you are bidding on is worth. Business writing is a style of writing in which you communicate your points clearly by using what I like to call “easily understood language.” In this article, I am going to focus on tips and personal experiences I have had with my colleagues and clients over the last 4 years as a consultant. I will not, however, focus on technical methods, mediums, theoretical models, etc. If you are interested in that stuff, wikipedia has a great article on it: http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Business_Writing.

Ok Chuck, give me your words of wisdom.

You got it! As I said, this advice and these tips are from my experiences, so understand and accept the subjectivity of them. I am also going to limit my post to a very common scenario because I could literally go on forever. So read on, and hopefully you will discover some ways to improve your business skills.

Scenario: The Presentation to the Boss

How many of you have been in this situation? Your manager just stopped by your desk and asked you to prepare a presentation for “the boss”. You begin to ponder how to present the information in a way that will not only make you look impressive and knowledgeable but will also get the point across.

Common Mistake 1: Seeing how this is the first time you have had to impress “the boss,” you seek to dazzle with an impressive display of vocabulary. You bust out the GRE vocabularly list and make extensive use of Microsoft’s Thesaurus. In the end, you have sentences such as, “The perplexing and often labor-intensive manual processes devoutly capture the essence of our current despair”. Man, don’t you sound like a Harvard superstar.

So, what is wrong with looking this intelligent? A common misconception many people have is that they need to communicate at a Ph.D level in order to WOW their clients and bosses. Chances are, however, that your boss is a busy person and he or she does not have time to ponder the meaning of every word you write. The intent of your presentation can get lost in your mini-dissertation. Keep it simple and concise. For those of you who are liberal arts majors transitioning into business, restrain yourself. A common mistake I see in new consultants is that their writing reads like an English paper.

Chuck, is there an objective way to measure this? How do I know if I am “over the top”?

Well, you can check your readability score. Yes this seems silly, but when I write my emails, presentations or documentation I try to keep my readability score at about an 8. This roughly translates to an eighth grade reading level. For example, avoid words such as “multifaceted” and instead use “complex”.You can set your readability score by following the directions below (on Word 2007). I copied these instructions directly from Microsoft’s website (www.microsoft.com).

  1. Click the Microsoft Office Button, and then click Word Options.
  2. Click Proofing.
  3. Make sure Check grammar with spelling is selected.
  4. Under When correcting grammar in Word, select the Show readability statistics check box.

Of course using this add-on for Word is not substitute for getting a second opinion (when in doubt) or rereading your writing yourself.

Common Mistake 2: You want to tell a story. Instead of illustrating your points through visuals, you write a paragraph and end up with something like this:

The process by which users request applications is highly manual. In fact, the system administration group relies more on its people doing manual entry than it should. Because of this, it takes quite a long time for users to get their access. To increase efficiency, the Firm should invest in applications to automate account request processes.

See my point? The points that you are trying to convey get drowned out.

Use bullet points. Splitting up ideas and thoughts can work to your advantage in many ways. Not only are they easier on the eyes, and allow you to single out topics or ideas that you think are important. Let’s bullet point the above paragraph:

  • User access request process is highly manual
  • System administration group relies heavily on people performing manual actions, which causes users to wait a long time for access.
  • To increase efficiency, the Firm should invest in applications to automate the account request process

Easier to read huh? The problem with writing “stories” is that a single point could stretch across two or three sentences, thus obscuring your intended topic. Bullet points draw the line for you.

Common Mistake 3: You are in such a rush of excitement and forget to proofread your presentation.

This, my friends, is one of the worst offenses you could possibly commit. Not only do you look–to be frank–stupid, you embarrass your manager as well. We have all, myself included, committed this heinous crime. It is *CRITICAL* that your grammar and spelling are 100% correct. I will share a personal experience with you to illustrate just how embarrassing this can be. Earlier this week I was working on a presentation for a client. After proofreading my presentation, I noticed that I had put “paint points” instead of “pain points” in 18 point font right on top of 3 of my slides. Thank God I proofread it before it went to print, because it would have been extremely embarrassing.

Some bits of advice here:

  1. Do NOT rely on spellchecker, it does not catch everything and sometimes the grammar check is wrong.
  2. Take a break before you proofread – you will more likely be able to catch your errors.
  3. This is not an academic paper, you can ask your manager to take a quick look at your presentation and its structure. He’s not going to grade you on this (although he may get irritated if this becomes a common occurrence).

Common Mistake 4: Flowery language belongs in English class, not your business presentation. Eliminating excess words from your sentences can help you get your point across in a clearer fashion. It also reduces confusion that goes along with adding a multitude of unnecessary words to your sentence.

Example: “The playful gray kitten likes to jump quickly onto the table while I am eating, which irritates me immensely”.

Artistic, yes, to the point? No.

Try this: “The kitten jumps on the table while I am eating, which irritates me.

Much clearer, and most of all, what your boss wants to see: the point. While proofreading, try to pick out excess adverbs and adjectives that are not needed. These rarely contribute to your point and, to be quite honest, are simply fluff.

As I said before, I could go on forever, but these points which I have listed are GENERALLY the most common mistakes. Hopefully you have learned something from this post and you will become a better presentation writer because of it. My last bit of advice for those of you wishing to become excellent business writers: read books – and read this website ;-).

In typical (un)Enlightened English fashion, I wish you “Good Luck!”

Posted in Writing Wisdom.

3 Comments

  1. Please feel free to share your tips and advice for business writing. I hardly covered everything in this post.

  2. Chuck, thanks for the useful and informative entry.

    What is your opinion of the practice of using nouns as verbs in business writing?

    Example with the noun “impact:”
    “The new marketing strategy will impact our sales a great deal in the third quarter.”

    Personally, I find the practice rather annoying, but I’m one of those English majors.

    What about the use of phrases that have become cliche, such as “at the end of the day,” or “going forward?” Do these terms show a lack of imagination and original thinking, or are they formulaic yet rather comforting to the busy business reader?

    • Elliot,

      When I write, I try to stay as grammatically correct as possible. The word impact, however, CAN be used as a verb (I just checked out dictionary.com). But – you do bring up a very important point which is useful to review. Words such as impact, although they sound fancy and powerful, don’t really mean anything and are often dismissed as “consultant speak”. They are the action verbs who trail the pack in a marathon. When you make your points, be sure to communicate them effectively. The example you gave me, “The new marketing strategy will impact our sales a great deal in the third quarter.” can mean many different things. Will my sales DECEASE? INCREASE? STAY THE SAME? Etc. These are not questions your reader should need to think about. “The new marketing strategy will increase our sales a great deal in the third quarter.” Now that is much clearer.

      My thoughts on cliche phrases? In my personal opinion, they show you paid attention during your college business courses, that is about it. Sometimes they are useful, sometimes not. As long as they illustrate the point you are trying to make, they work well. Thesephrases are dangerous in that they can increase in amount of your “unnecessary words” by quite a bit. “At the end of the day, the marketing strategy will increase our sales.”. See what I mean? I don’t really need “At the end of the day.” and to be honest, in my opinion, it just adds confusion to the point you are trying to get across. Where you MAY see these cliched words and phrases a lot more is in news stories or during verbal exchanges where the means of conveyance is much different. So to answer your question, not every boss or co-worker went to b-school. These words, if used as fluff, will probably irritate them (I know it bothers Kelly!), so err on the side of caution when pulling them out of your back pocket.

      Hope this helps

      Chuck

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