Plan Think Before You Write
Link & Learn
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Without a plan, writing can be frustrating.
You’ve experienced the desperate boredom of listening to a rambling presentation and the frustration of reading a confusing email that never makes a clear point. Even if you have a short message or are rushed, save your audience’s time by planning your message well before delivering it.
To plan a message, follow the steps in the acronym Pass:
- Define your Purpose
- Consider your Audience
- Develop a Strategy
- Build a Structure
Clearly define your purpose before you start writing. Decide what you want your audience to know, feel, and do after reading your message.
Ask Purpose-Defining Questions
Your employees have not been accurately documenting company expenses. As a result, your company is losing money. You want to address this issue. Before you compose an email to them, answer the following questions:
What information do I want to share?
I want the employees to understand the new protocol for submitting invoices.
What feeling do I want to convey?
I want to encourage employees to be more conscientious about how they spend the company’s money.
What action do I want to occur?
I want employees to submit invoices that include a detailed explanation of project expenses.
Compose a Message Statement
In Writing Well for Business Success, Sandra Lamb encourages business writers to define their purpose by composing a message statement. “Think through what you want to communicate until you can concisely state your complete message in a single sentence—a 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 memo 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.
I want to explain our company’s new “business casual” dress code and get employees to comply with it.
“Think through what you want to communicate until you can concisely state your complete message
in a single sentence.”
Sandra Lamb, author of Writing Well for Business Success
Write a message statement for an important email you need to write soon. Does it affect the outcome?
Who will be reading your message? Always write with your audience in mind. 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?
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. Harvard professor Steven Pinker refers to this phenomenon as “The Curse of Knowledge.” Does your audience understand the terms you are using? Can they make the connections you are making? Don’t oversimplify. Supply information at your audience’s level of knowledge and experience. Test your message by having someone read it who has a similar background to your audience.
Consider Privacy and Security Issues
Consider a possible secondary audience. Even if you think your document is electronically secure, write your email as if your conversation is not private. Hackers 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 unity and professionalism of the Polish government. Compose your emails with the widest possible readership in mind, and remember that written words can easily go viral.
Never underestimate the power of emotion in the decision-making process. More than 2,000 years ago, Aristotle introduced three rhetorical strategies that are still relevant today: ethos, logos, and pathos. Research increasingly demonstrates that our emotions are pre-cognitive. In other words, the way we feel often precedes and influences how we process facts.
Emotion, values.Emotional appeal doesn’t necessarily mean an argument devoid of facts and logic. Remember, the first step in planning is to think through what you want the audience to know, feel, and do.
Credibility, trust.Part of being credible is knowing the facts. We’ll explore the importance of research and evidence in Chapter 6.
Logic, reason, proof.Decision makers tend to be analytical thinkers who prize logical arguments supported by data. We’ll cover developing arguments in Chapter 10.
How, What, Why, Where, and When
Choose the communication channel that best supports your content and most appeals to your audience. Would a paper document, an electronic message, or an in-person conversation be best? Different communication methods involve different costs, speeds of delivery, and non-verbal such as voice inflection and body language.
For example, face-to-face dialogue enables richness of both verbal and non-verbal communication, but such conversations do not have the permanence of written documents. While emails can be efficient, they do not have the personal touch of a handwritten note or the urgency of a text message. A formal report might package information better than a long email.
All such factors play into your choice of channel. The impact of one communication channel over another can determine whether your message is received in the way you intended.
Note the preferred communication channels of your key business contacts. Does your boss ignore emails but respond to texts? Message people where they are paying attention.
Emphasize why the audience needs to read your message. You have seconds to capture your audience’s attention before another message or task distracts them. This is true in communication to senior executives, in marketing to new consumer audiences, and in situations with skeptical or unfamiliar audiences. Make your message relevant and let readers know why they should keep reading.
Even when you have bad news to share, find a starting point that helps your audience understand why your message matters to them. Think of questions your reader will have and answer them quickly and clearly.
When formulating a strategy, be aware of the context. What professional pressures weigh upon your audience—both from within and without their organization? What industry-wide problems affect them? What personal biases might influence them at the moment? What internal or external factors may shape the way your message is received? Context for a message is like the weather for an event; it affects everything and can’t be ignored.
Deliberately pace the delivery of your content. Readers appreciate directness, so introduce vital information right away instead of slowly winding up to it. Keep your tone upbeat and friendly to avoid being seen as abrupt. Deliver delicate, disappointing, or disturbing news with more context and less directness. We’ll cover strategies for delivering bad news in Chapter 10: Persuade.
Most of all, remember to be concise. If you take too much time to explain or deliver your message, the audience will likely move on to another more pressing matter or communication.
Check out the Best Time of Day to Send an Email. Although this blog pitches an email optimization tool, the author summarizes 14 studies on how to optimize email marketing.
The human brain is wired to look for order, patterns, and structure—chaotic and poorly structured messages quickly lose a reader’s respect and interest. Make that brain preference work for you by building clear frameworks into your writing.
The next chapter (Chapter 4: Organize) will explore this process in detail.
The steps require work, but the process is worth it. Being aware of purpose, audience, strategy, and structure as you plan your work will turn potentially mushy, untidy, and costly messages into sharp and effective ones.
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.
Ellering, Nathan. “What 14 Studies Say About The Best Time To Send Email.” CoSchedule Blog, CoSchedule.com, March 23, 2016. Accessed August 2021.
Wanat, Zosia. “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
Lerner, Jennifer S., Ye Li, Piercarlo Valdesolo, and Karim S. Kassam. “Emotion and Decision Making.” Annual Review of Psychology 66 (2015): 799–823. Accessed August 2021.
Sleek, Scott. “The Curse of Knowledge: Pinker Describes a Key Cause of Bad Writing.” Observer 28, no. 6 (2015). 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.
Berkshire Hathaway. “Annual and Interim Reports.” Accessed August 2021.