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During 2016, I conducted an online survey on business writing, asking respondents what they write at work, what kinds of problems they have with writing, and where they think their colleagues could use the most help with their writing. The 528 responses yielded an array of complaints about colleagues’ writing, most of which boiled down to one core problem: people are sending out unrevised first drafts, leaving their readers to sort out what they’re really trying to say. Here’s a typical comment from the survey:
“If you want me to respond to your email, you HAVE to let me know exactly you want, and you have to do it fast. I don’t have time guess what I’m supposed to do.”
Sound familiar? Those “what the heck do you actually want from me?” emails are often first drafts, hastily written and sent to get the problem off the writer’s plate and onto yours. The writer hasn’t taken the time to think carefully about what he’s asking.
Whenever you write at work, you’re asking for something from your reader. It might be a direct request—“please do this,” “please send me that.” It might also be a simple request for the reader’s attention, in which case the ask is really “please read this this information and take it in.” The ask might be quick, or it might be extended over many pages like a business plan, where the entire document is an argument in support of the request “please invest money in our venture.” It might be an initial email intended to open a discussion, for instance about changing procedures or hiring a new staff member. The ask also might be an implicit ask, as when a company publishes a white paper on research they’ve conducted or a process they’ve developed. There’s an implicit ask embedded in most knowledge sharing and thought leadership.
Whether you’re asking your reader to take action now, to start thinking about taking action in the future or just to pay attention, your communication will be more effective if she understands exactly why you’re writing—if you can get the ask clear.
Getting the ask clear depends on getting clarity in your own mind about what you really want from the reader, which isn’t always as simple as it sounds. We’ve all read those meandering emails and wondered what the ask is. Maybe you’ve even re-read one of your own emails after you’ve sent it and cringed a little bit at how unclear it seems. Just for a moment, entertain the idea that you’ve written a first draft without being not entirely sure what you want, or at least not as clearly as you should. It happens all the time.
Let’s take a look at what happens when someone does that. Luc’s company is getting ready to sign a three-year contract to provide support for a new customer, SARCO. The evening after the team’s most recent call with the SARCO folks, Luc is feeling uneasy, so he sends this email to his team:
I have concerns about the latest draft of the contract with SARCO. We talked about this on the call, but I’m still not sure what the signoff process is. And the requirements for Year 3 are vague—if they want something different than what we’ve delivered in Years 1 and 2, it could potentially be costly or force us to renegotiate. Also will Jen have the bandwidth to service this account? We’re close to having a really good agreement, but I think we still have a few issues to address.
It’s not a bad email: it’s concise, and Luc flags his areas of concern clearly. However, his message sounds more like he’s turning over some thoughts in his head than making a clear ask of his readers. It’s just a first draft. Luc shouldn’t send it.
But what happens when he does? Luc’s team will probably agree he’s raising good points. Several will reply to say so. One or two might volunteer their understanding of the sign-off process. One might seize the opportunity to resurrect an old objection to the deal. Another will probably think of other issues she’s worried about and add those to her reply; some might respond to her reply and create a new sub-thread. Most team members are so swamped they’ll wait for someone else actually to do something about it. At some point, someone will probably suggest a meeting to discuss the issues Luc has raised. Everyone’s invested time, and the team isn’t any closer to resolution.
Now suppose Luc looks at this first draft, thinks about what he’s really asking and does some revising.
I think we’re close to a really good agreement with SARCO. But there are three points I think we should discuss early next week before we finalize the contract:
· What exactly is the signoff process (we tried but didn’t resolve it on the call)
· What are the requirements for Year 3?
· Will Jen have the bandwidth to service this account considering the other new deals coming through? What are the real associated costs of different servicing options?
If we don’t resolve these points now, it could be costly in the future. Let’s put them on the agenda for the Tuesday call and push to get resolution.
The content of the two emails is nearly the same, but in the second draft Luc’s taken a moment to clarify in his own mind exactly why he’s sending the message—he wants to meet to resolve the three open issues before the contract is signed. The team knows where he stands, he’s made a concrete suggestion and now everyone can get to a resolution in Tuesday’s meeting rather than in a long string of reply emails.
But who has time to revise emails before they send them? And is it really worth investing the effort to revise such a short message? Messages like this aren’t a big deal until you consider how much of everyone’s time probably went into responding to this email and then multiply that by the number of such emails that get sent every day. Now we’re talking serious time. And the kind of quick revision Luc did takes literally about a minute, especially if you make a habit of checking your messages to ensure your ask is clear before you hit send.
Sending a message that’s essentially a first draft might seem like a time-saving move, but it will likely end up costing you and your reader. Taking a minute or so to revise your draft and get your ask clear not only saves time all around, and it will also yield a better result. People will be more likely to respond, and you’ll get a reputation as someone who communicates crisply and efficiently.
April 16, 2019 at 02:09PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs