Plan Think first
Link & Learn
Without a plan, communication is mere stream of consciousness.
At some point, you’ve surely experienced the desperate boredom of listening to a rambling presentation or the frustration of reading a confusing email. Even if you’re leaving a short message or are rushed, save your audience’s time by planning your message before delivering it.
To plan a message, follow two steps.
- Define your Purpose
- Consider your Audience
Clearly define your purpose before you start writing. Why are you communicating? What do you want your message to achieve?
Professional messages typically have one or more of the following five purposes.
inform: Provide data, facts, feedback, and other information. These messages do not offer recommendations or try to persuade someone to do something. Examples:
- Policy explanations
- Audit results
- Compliance statements
- Employee handbooks
- Market research results
- Quarterly reports
recommend: Present evidence to recommend a course of action. Examples:
- Feasibility reports
- Program evaluations
- Business case presentations (including case-based interviews)
persuade: Convince someone to do something not previously considered. Examples:
- Sales pitches
- Project proposals
- Cover letters
- Job interviews
- Motivational speeches
deliver bad news: Announce an event or decision that negatively affects someone. Examples:
- Product recalls
- Layoff announcements
- Incident reports
- Employee performance improvement discussions
build goodwill: Express appreciation, demonstrate impeccable etiquette, and reinforce relationships of trust. Examples:
- Thank-you notes
- Employee recognition
- Letters of recommendation
Think of the most recent on-the-job message you sent. Which of the five purposes were you trying to achieve? Unless you’re clear about your purpose, the recipient will be confused, so your message may miss the mark.
Compose a Message Statement
In Writing Well for Business Success, Sandra Lamb encourages working professionals to “concisely state your complete message in a single sentence—message statement. The simpler and shorter, the better.” Condensing your thoughts into one short sentence will clarify your purpose. See the example below:
In this email, I want to explain to everyone what is meant by casual dress, especially shorts, collarless shirts, and business dress, as opposed to business casual. I will talk about the new company policy regarding the dress code to see what people think and try to get them to follow it.
This email will help employees understand the “why” and the “what” of our company’s new business-casual dress code so that they are committed to follow it.
Granted, the first version suffers from much more than an unclear purpose. The writing is bloated and disorganized— problems we’ll deal with in future chapters. The first version is also “I” focused, emphasizing the writer.
The second version is clearer and (mercifully) shorter. Notice the subject shifts from “I” to “employees,” reflecting an emphasis on the audience (see Section Two below).
Which of the five purposes does the second message suggest? That’s a trick question. The message outlines two purposes: inform (explain the new dress code) and persuade (motivate employees).
Professional communication often needs to achieve more than one purpose. A deliberate multipurpose message is okay; an inadvertent mixed message is sloppy and unprofessional.
Find a recent email you wrote in which your purpose was unclear. What was the result? Write a one-sentence purpose statement for the email. Then rewrite the email based on your purpose statement. See the difference?
When planning your communication, avoid the “it’s all about me” syndrome. Professional communication is never about you. It’s about your audience.
Think of a time when you asked a friend for a restaurant recommendation and they started listing nothing but local pizza joints . . . but you’d had pizza four times in the last week. Your friend’s unconscious assumption was that you'd like whatever they like.
"The great enemy of communication is the illusion of it."
- William H. Whyte, author of The Organization Man
Psychologists call this the false consensus effect. We assume other people see the world the way we see it and have preferences similar to ours. This gets us into trouble, especially when communicating.
A minimum of two people are involved in all communication: a sender (you) and a receiver (your audience). Researchers sometimes refer to these parties as the “encoder,” who crafts their thoughts and feelings into visual, written, or spoken language; and the “decoder,” who sees or hears the message and makes sense of it. The process is diagrammed below.
Two insights from the diagram will help your communication be more audience-centric. First, your job as an “encoder” is to understand your audience so thoroughly that you can tailor the content of your message to their wants, needs, and level of understanding. Avoid the natural tendency to share only the material that you care about and think is interesting.
Second, encoding your knowledge into a clear message requires attention to style and format. Don’t be lazy; planning your message means organizing your thoughts, telling a relevant story, repeating key points, and minimizing distractions. “Decode” does not mean “decipher.” For the audience, your message should be easy to understand and enjoyable to receive.
Many of these principles will be covered in future chapters of this book. For now, remember this:
Never make your audience do work that you should do for them.
So the next time a friend asks you for a restaurant recommendation, do a quick audience-centric diagnosis with questions like, “What type of food are you in the mood for? Are you looking for fancy or casual? What’s more important: flavor or ambience?” Then make your suggestions. Your friend will thank you.
Ask yourself the following questions before you write:
KNOW. What does my audience already know about my subject? How will I make my message interesting and relevant to them? Do they know my qualifications?
FEEL. Will my audience have positive, negative, or neutral feelings about my message? How should I address those feelings?
DO. What action should my audience take based on my message? How will I motivate them to take that action?
Let’s revisit the above scenario about a hypothetical company’s business-casual dress code. Before you compose an email to employees, answer the following questions:
What INFORMATION does the audience need?
Employees need to know what the business-casual dress code is and why it’s important.
Ideally, how will the audience FEEL about the dress code?
Employees will feel committed to the dress code because they believe it will increase their sense of competence and confidence, which will project a more professional company image.
What ACTIONS will the audience take as a result of the message?
Employees’ workplace wardrobe choices will be 100% consistent with the business-casual dress code.
For a more detailed set of audience-analysis questions that are tailored to oral presentations, see presentation guru Nancy Duarte’s Audience Needs Map.
Make it Relevant
Everyone has time and resource constraints, so your first goal should be to help your audience see why your message matters to them. In Business Writing, Natalie Canavor explains, “There is one universal to count on: self-interest. We react to things and make decisions based on 'what's in it for me.'”
Picture Your Audience
Try creating a mental picture of your audience before you write. When world-famous investor Warren Buffett composes Berkshire Hathaway's annual report, he writes with his sisters in mind. Doing so helps him to avoid jargon because he writes as if he were talking to them and tries to explain concepts in terms they can understand. He informs by using plain English. If, however, he were sharing the same information with one of his colleagues, his approach would reflect their shared knowledge.
Read Warren Buffett’s preface to the Plain English SEC Filings Handbook. Try to emulate his understanding of audience in your next email.
Test Your Message
What might be obvious to you because of your background, education, and training might not be obvious to your audience. Economists label this phenomenon The Curse of Knowledge it was illustrated in a 1990 experiment by Elizabeth Newton, a Stanford grad student.
The CURSE of Knowledge
Read about Elizabeth Newton’s fascinating experiment here.
Newton's research shows that we all carry information in our brain that automatically provides context and fills gaps in what we write or say. As a result, our communication makes perfect sense to us. Our audience doesn’t inhabit our brain (thank heavens). Inevitably, they experience the gaps as missing information and thus feel confused.
Ask yourself, “Does my audience understand the terms I’m using? Can they make the connections I’m making?” Here’s an easy test: Ask someone whose background and knowledge are similar to your audience’s to read or listen to your message. If they say, “I can’t follow what you’re saying,” chances are you’re a victim of the curse of knowledge.
Polished communicators strive to supply information at their audience’s level of knowledge and experience.
Consider Privacy and Security Issues
Make it a habit to always consider a possible — and perhaps unintentional — secondary audience. Even if you think your document is electronically secure, write your email as if your conversation is not private.
In June 2021, stories started surfacing about hackers who uncovered the supposedly private emails of Polish government officials. Among other sensitive topics, these emails contained disparaging jokes about the Polish national TV station, undermining the Polish government’s unity and professionalism.
Compose your emails with the widest possible readership in mind, and remember that written words can easily go viral.
Crafting professional messages requires work, but the process is worth it. Being aware of your PURPOSE and AUDIENCE as you plan your work will turn potentially mushy, untidy, and costly messages into sharp and effective ones.
To access the previous PDF version of the online textbook, click here. Note: The PDF version will not reflect any updates or changes.
Please let us know.
Bold citations are referenced in the chapter text.
Buffett, Warren. “Preface.” In A Plain English Handbook: How to Create Clear SEC Disclosure Documents. Office of Investor Education and Assistance. Washington, DC: US Securities and Exchange Commission, 1998. Accessed August 2021.
Bradley, Diana. “Lessons from Sony Hack: Be Careful What You Email.” PR Week, December 19, 2014. Accessed August 2021.
Berkshire Hathaway Inc. “Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report.” (PDF File) 2020 ANNUAL REPORT. Accessed August 2021.
Camerer, Colin, George Loewenstein, and Martin Weber. 1989. “The Curse of Knowledge in Economic Settings: An Experimental Analysis.” Journal of Political Economy 97 (5): 1232–54.
Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. “The Curse of Knowledge." Harvard Business Review, December 1, 2006.
Lerner, Jennifer S., Ye Li, Piercarlo Valdesolo, and Karim S. Kassam. 2015. “Emotion and Decision Making." Annual Review of Psychology66: 799–823. Accessed May 2022.
Ross, Lee, David Greene, and Pamela House. 1977. “The ‘False Consensus Effect’: An Egocentric Bias in Social Perception and Attribution Processes.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 13 (3): 279–301.
Schramm, W. “How Communication Works.” In W. Schramm (Ed.), The Process and Effects of Mass Communication. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press. 1954.
Sleek, Scott. “The Curse of Knowledge: Pinker Describes a Key Cause of Bad Writing.” Observer 28, no. 6 (2015). Accessed August 2021.
Wanat, Zosia. 2021. “Leaked email scandal engulfs Poland’s political elite.” Government officials confirm that they used private email accounts for public business, but blame Russia for the hack. . June 24, 2021. Accessed August 2021
Canavor, Natalie. Business Writing in the Digital Age. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2012.
Garner, Bryan A. HBR Guide to Better Business Writing. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2012.
Gladwell, Malcom. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.
Lamb, Sandra E. Writing Well for Business Success. New York: St. Martin’s, 2015.
Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.
Roman, Kenneth, and Joel Raphaelson. Writing That Works; How to Communicate Effectively In Business. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.
Ross, Lee and Richard Nisbett. The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology. London: Pinter & Martin Ltd, 2011.
Berkshire Hathaway. “Annual and Interim Reports.” Accessed August 2021.
Duarte, Nancy. “Audience Needs Map.” Accessed May 2022.