How to Write and Speak Concisely
The Number One Thing Any Entry Level Employee Needs to Learn
The following is an excerpt from Max Altschuler’s new book Career Hacking for Millennials: How I Built A Career My Way, And How You Can Too.
This is the most underrated skill and the number one thing any entry level employee needs to learn. It’s crazy that this still isn’t taught in grade school or even college English courses.
We were taught how many cells are in a leaf, what igneous and metamorphic rocks look like, and how to dissect frogs. We learned all about sine, cosine, and tangents (remember “SohCahToa?”). But we’re still not taught how to properly and optimally converse with other humans. That’s freakin’ ridiculous.
Learning this is especially important because the world has changed drastically from the days of writing letters with pen and paper and putting them in the mail. I remember when people outside of white collar workers began BBM’ing on their Blackberries and checking email on their phones. Since then, mobile has become a major player for eyeballs when opening, reading, and replying to emails.
That means, for you, there’s a good chance this is the native way of doing business. And 90% of the time you spend writing, you’re writing for email and messaging. You probably do at least half of that from a mobile phone, and the recipients are often reading your messages from their mobile devices. So, for starters, you need to learn how to make your messages short and to the point. That’s not as easy as it sounds.
Do you remember your high school English class assignments? Your teacher probably instructed you to write 5,000-word essays. Then he graded it, maybe asked you to fix things or write a new 5,000-word draft. That was it, end of the assignment. It’s a fine idea for a creative writing elective. And I think it has its place in the curriculum at an earlier point, like middle school. But then it’s time to learn to cut things down and think in a structured manner. That’s much more practical for the real world.
There’s a famous quote: “Sorry this letter is so long, I did not have time to make it shorter.” (It’s been attributed to French Philosopher Blaise Pascal, though at times also attributed to others.) The point is, making a powerful point in just a few words can be a much tougher task. And these days, brevity in work messaging gets you farther. That’s the skill you need: to be great at writing and editing something the recipient will actually want to read.
With this in mind, I’ve created the assignment they should be using in all high school English classes:
Teacher: “Write a 5,000 word essay on X.” Student hands in the assignment. Teacher grades it and hands it back.
Teacher: “Now take the graded essay and make it 500 words without losing any of the main message.”
Student hands in the assignment. Teacher grades it and hands it back.
Teacher: “Now take the graded essay and make it 50 words without losing any of the main message.”
This assignment allows schools to teach students how to write creatively, while also teaching them how to edit and think in a more structured manner. To really think through what’s important and how to pack a punch with fewer words. With this kind of assignment, we could be teaching our youth how to write, and then how to write practically, so we prepare kids for future jobs.
You can learn this now. Here are 10 tips to make emails more concise:
- Write an email. Before sending it, go back and edit it three times.
- Remove words that don’t mean anything. Words like “really,” “currently,” “actually,” and “very” are often filler words that just make sentences longer.
- Only hit the spacebar once after a period, not twice. Cleaner, shorter, much better for email or text.
- Enter is your friend. I was taught five sentences to a paragraph in grade school. That is not the case in email. Remember that on mobile, long paragraphs look like a screen full of endless letters and are immediately tiring.
- Bullet point stuff if it looks too wordy all clumped together.
- Dumb it down. People don’t want to process what words mean. You want them focused on what you’re saying, not how you’re saying it. For example, say “use,” not “utilize.” There’s a reason the top songs on the Billboard 100 are written on a third-grade reading level.
- Write like you speak. Then go back and edit to make it more formal if necessary for a specific recipient.
- Make calls to action (CTAs) clear. The action item usually de-serves its own sentence. An example of an email CTA could be, “Do you have 15 minutes for a call on Wednesday at 2 p.m. PT?”
- Never send a business email with emotion. If you’re feeling emotional about an issue, cool off first. Then write the message and leave it for an hour. Come back to it and see how you feel before you send. If you have to question it, it’s almost always a better idea to hit delete and come back to it later.
- The only acceptable email styling is simple. I use Sans Serif font, black color, normal size. This is not the place to show your pizazz.
A good way to practice all this is to start blogging. How will this help you write better emails? My friend Scott Britton, named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in enterprise technology, offers this advice: “Creating con-tent in a public setting forced me to get good at writing, as well as copy-writing, which is incredibly important for modern sales and marketing professionals.” I couldn’t agree more. Posting updates on LinkedIn is also helpful, because it limits characters. Start practicing this ASAP.
There’s also a structure to a good business email. Keep this order in mind:
- Start with salutations.
- Ego stroke. Nothing over the top, just something simple like, “Really enjoyed your recent article on XYZ in Inc.” Or, “Congratulations on your recent round of funding.”
- Introduce yourself.
- Now the centerpiece of your note, in which you present an idea or question. In doing so, show that you understand the recipient’s situation. Appeal to his or her “pain point” (which Macmillan Dictionary defines as “a problem or need a business or company aims to solve”). Or try a version of “Feel, Felt, Found,” a technique in which you empathize with how someone feels, tell them about someone else who felt that way, and then explain how the other person found what you’re offering can be a solution.
- Include an action item.
- Sign off.
We’ll get more into the pitch process later in this book.
When you’re responding to an email, I recommend you draft a note rather than clicking on one of the auto-generated options some pro-grams offer you. At this stage, it’s still pretty easy for recipients to see through that and realize you didn’t take the time to respond personally.
Enjoy this article? Grab a copy of Career Hacking for Millennials by Max Altschuler! Learn how to:
- Build your brand and expertise
- Choose the right company and boss
- Negotiate for promotions and raises
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