Do you dread writing proposals or reports? You’re not alone. It can be deceptively difficult.
Business writing tends to be brief, simple, and clear. Unlike personal writing, it’s uncluttered and includes only essential information that informs or creates change in the reader. If you don’t know how to write in the business style, you’ll produce awkward and ineffective documents.
The challenge is compounded if a proposal or report has career-altering potential. It can also be uncomfortable to address an unfamiliar audience, such as senior executives or customers. Luckily, business writing can be made easier and more polished by using Toastmasters know-how and three simple steps: write, revise, and polish.
Identify the purpose of your document and create an outline. The guidance in the Pathways learning experience also works well in organizing a business report. The Ice Breaker, the first project in every path, offer an outline worksheet. (The worksheet, along with other resources, can be accessed through the Base Camp home page by clicking the Tutorials and Resources dropdown menu.) The structure of the Ice Breaker outline is simple: (1) opening, (2) body with three to five main points, (3) conclusion. You don’t need a lot of details. For a proposal, those three main points could detail what the new process would result in: better quality, lower costs, and quicker delivery.
Pathways offers more detailed outlines in the Speech Outline Worksheet and the Write a Proposal Resource. The body now includes main points, sub-points, support/evidence, and transitions. However, the steps are the same as the Ice Breaker outline. Fill in the blanks, create a written roadmap, and develop a draft.
Work quickly and add substance to the outline. Start with the body, not the opening. Using the example above, for instance, explain why the proposed work process will result in better quality, lower costs, and quicker delivery. Next, write the conclusion and, last, the opening. The opening and conclusion will be much easier to write after the points in the body are fleshed out.
Wait. Put the draft away for as long as possible. It will be easier to edit when you’ve distanced yourself from it.
Make multiple quick-editing reviews of the draft. Focus on one element, such as spelling, for each review. Trying to edit and fact-check every detail in one read can be overwhelming and bog you down. In this case, the beginning of the draft gets most of the close editing; the end receives little.
Focus each editing review on a specific element. Toastmasters learn to rehearse a speech from beginning to end multiple times. We learn to focus on one element at a time, such as eye contact or vocal variety. It’s the same process for editing. At each round, check for the following:
- Eliminate wordiness. For example, change “at the present time” to “currently” or” now.”
- Use clear and concise words. For example, change “utilize” to “use.”
- Use active rather than passive sentence structures. For example: “The team wrote the report,” rather than “The report was written by the team.”
- Fulfill the purpose. Does the document fulfill the purpose you identified?
- Use lists, tables, and bullets for visual impact. They make both writing and reading easier.
- Put detail and supporting documentation in appendices. Readers who want the details can access them.
Record and listen to yourself reading. Ask a Toastmasters colleague to listen to the recording; they are trained evaluators. Through club experiences and the Evaluation and Feedback project in every Pathways path, Toastmasters hone their ability to deliver constructive feedback on one another’s presentations.
Incorporate the suggestions into the document. The Pathways Evaluation and Feedback project guides participants in presenting a speech, receiving feedback, and applying feedback into the next draft. Toastmasters can use these same skills to put the final polish on the second document.
Toastmasters training can relieve the stress of business writing. Pathways provides online resources; fellow members share feedback and help polish presentations. Club meetings provide the forum to refine skills. In essence, Toastmasters offers the protocols to establish and reinforce a mindset for clear, focused communication in speaking and writing.
Barbara Bashein, PhD, DTM is a member of Innovative Speakers Toastmasters in San Diego, California. She is both a retired business executive and a former university professor. Her books have been widely used in MBA classes and her business-related articles have appeared in an array of publications.