The Three-Step Writing Process

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The Three-Step Writing Process - page 1
The Three-Step Writing Process
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The Three-Step Writing Process - page 2
Learning Objectives After studying this chapter, you will be able to “People have just gone ahead and experimented. There are some very interesting models emerging.” —Ben Edwards Manager of Investor Communications, IBM www.ibm.com 1 Describe the three-step writing process 2 List four questions that can help you test the purpose of your message 3 Describe the importance of analyzing your audience and identify the six factors you should consider when developing an audience profile 4 Discuss gathering information for simple messages and identify three attributes of quality information 5 List factors to consider when choosing the most appropriate medium for your message 6 Explain why good organization is important to both you and your audience 7 Summarize the process for organizing business messages effectively After launching a breakthrough podcasting series called “IBM and the Future of . . .” as a way of letting IBM experts share knowledge on a wide range of topics with customers and investors, the company made podcasting tools available to all its employees, then sat back to see how they might take advantage of this exciting new medium. Not surprisingly for a company full of bright, creative people, IBM staffers began distributing a wide vari- ety of messages via podcast. One gained an instant following by podcasting about the daily challenges and rewards of being a mobile information worker. Another saved hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in telephone charges simply by replacing a mas- sive weekly teleconference with podcasts. No matter what the technology, innovators such as IBM are constantly looking for new ways to reach their audiences with effective messages. 1 Understanding the Three-Step Writing Process Choosing the medium is one of the most important steps in planning your business mes- sages, and as IBM demonstrates, the options seem to multiply all the time. Whether you’re creating simple e-mails and instant messages or complex reports and presentations that may require weeks of planning and writing, your goal is to create messages that have a clear purpose, meet the needs of your audience, and communicate efficiently. For every 52
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FIGURE 3.1 The Three-Step Writing Process This three-step process will help you create more effective messages in any medium. As you get more practice with the process, it will become easier and more automatic. Planning Analyze the Situation Define your purpose and develop an audience profile. Writing Adapt to Your Audience Be sensitive to audience needs with a “you” attitude, politeness, positive emphasis, and bias-free language. Build a strong relationship with your audience by establishing your credibility and projecting your company’s image. Control your style with a conversational tone, plain English, and appropriate voice. Completing Revise the Message Evaluate content and review readability, then edit and rewrite for conciseness and clarity. Gather Information Determine audience needs and obtain the information necessary to satisfy those needs. Produce the Message Use effective design elements and suitable layout for a clean, professional appearance. Select the Right Medium Choose the best medium for delivering your message. Proofread the Message Review for errors in layout, spelling, and mechanics. Compose the Message Choose strong words that will help you create effective sentences and coherent paragraphs. Organize the Information Define your main idea, limit your scope, select a direct or an indirect approach, and outline your content. Distribute the Message Deliver your message using the chosen medium; make sure all documents and all relevant files are distributed successfully. 1 2 3 message you send, you can reduce the time and energy it takes to achieve this goal by fol- lowing a clear and proven three-step process (see Figure 3.1): Planning business messages. To plan any message, first analyze the situation by defin- ing your purpose and developing a profile of your audience. With that in mind, you can gather information that will meet your audience’s needs. Next, select the right medium (oral, written, or electronic) to deliver your message. With those three factors in place, you’re ready to organize the information by defining your main idea, limiting your scope, selecting an approach, and outlining your content. Planning messages is the focus of this chapter. Writing business messages. Once you’ve planned your message, adapt to your audience with sensitivity, relationship skills, and style. Then you’re ready to compose your message by choosing strong words, creating effective sentences, and developing coherent paragraphs. Writing business messages is discussed in Chapter 4. Completing business messages. After writing your first draft, revise your message to make sure it is clear, concise, and correct. Next produce your message, giving it an attractive, professional appearance. Proofread the final product for typos, spelling errors, and other mechanical problems. Finally, distribute your message using the best combination of personal and technological tools. Completing business messages is dis- cussed in Chapter 5. The three-step writing process consists of planning, writing, and completing your messages. Throughout this book, you’ll see the three steps in this process applied to a wide vari- ety of business messages: basic tasks for short messages (Chapters 6 through 9), additional tasks for longer messages (Chapter 10 and 11), special tasks for oral presentations (Chapter 12), and distinct tasks for employment messages (Chapter 14). The more you use the three-step writing process, the easier and faster it will become. You’ll also get better at allotting your time for each step. As a general rule, try using roughly half your time for planning, a quarter of your time for writing, and the remaining quarter for completing the project. Even for small writing projects, resist the temptation to skip the planning step. For instance, spending even just a minute or two to think As a starting point, try to use half your time for planning, one quarter for writing, and one quarter for completing your messages. 53
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54 2: The Three-Step Writing Process through the purpose of an e-mail message can help you write much faster because you’ll know in advance what you want to say. And leave plenty of time to complete your docu- ments, too; you don’t want to compromise the quality of a good message by shortchang- ing the important steps of revising, producing, proofreading, and distributing. 2 Analyzing Your Situation A successful message starts with a clear purpose that connects the sender’s needs with the audience’s needs. Identifying your purpose and your audience is usually a straightforward task for simple, routine messages; however, this task can be more demanding in more complex situations. For instance, if you need to communicate about a shipping problem between your Beijing and Los Angeles factories, your purpose might be simply to alert upper management to the situation, or it might involve asking the two factory managers to explore and solve the problem. These two scenarios have different purposes and differ- ent audiences; therefore, they yield dramatically different messages. If you launch directly into writing without clarifying both your purpose and your audience, you’ll waste time and energy, and you’ll probably generate a less effective message. Defining Your Purpose Business messages have both a general and a specific purpose. After defining your purpose, verify that the message will be worth the time and effort required to create, send, and receive it. All business messages have a general purpose: to inform, to persuade, or to collaborate with your audience. This purpose helps define the overall approach you’ll need to take, from gathering information to organizing your message. Within the scope of that general purpose, each message also has a specific purpose, which identifies what you hope to accomplish with your message. State your specific purpose as precisely as possible, even identifying which audience members should respond, how they should respond, and when. Once you have defined your specific purpose, make sure it merits the time and effort required for you to prepare and send the message. Ask these four questions: Will anything change as a result of your message? Make sure you don’t contribute to information overload by sending messages that won’t change anything. Complaining about things that you have no influence over is a good example of a message that prob- ably shouldn’t be sent. Is your purpose realistic? If your purpose involves a radical shift in action or attitude, proceed carefully. Consider proposing a first step so that your message acts as the beginning of a learning process. Is the time right? People who are busy or distracted when they receive your message are less likely to pay attention to it. Is your purpose acceptable to your organization? Your company’s business objectives and policies, and even laws that apply to your particular industry, may dictate whether a given purpose is acceptable. Once you are satisfied that you have a clear and meaningful purpose and that now is a smart time to proceed, your next step is to understand the members of your audience and their needs. Developing an Audience Profile Before an audience takes the time to read or hear your message, they need to be interested in what you’re saying. They need to see what’s in it for them—which of their needs will be met or problems will be solved by listening to your advice or doing what you ask. The more
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3: Planning Business Messages 55 FIGURE 3.2 Using Audience Analysis to Plan a Message For simple, routine messages, you usually don’t need to analyze your audience in depth. However, for complex messages or messages for indifferent or hostile audiences, take the time to study their information needs and potential reactions to your message. Audience Analysis Notes Project: A report recommending that we close down the on-site exercise facility and subsidize private memberships at local health clubs. • Primary audience: Nicole Perazzo, vice president of operations, and her supervisory team. • Size and geographic distribution: Nine managers total; Nicole and five of her staff are here on site; three other supervisors are based in Hong Kong. • Composition: All have experience in operations management, but several are new to the company. • Level of understanding: All will no doubt understand the financial considerations, but the newer managers might not understand the importance of the on-site exercise facility to many of our employees. • Expectations and preferences. They’re expecting a firm recommendation, backed up with well-thought-out financial rationale and suggestions for communicating the bad news to employees. For a decision of this magnitude, a formal report is appropriate; e-mail distribution is expected. • Probable reaction. From one-on-one discussions, I know that several of the managers receiving this report are active users of the on-site facility and won’t welcome the suggestion that we should shut it down. However, some nonexercisers generally think it’s a luxury the company can’t afford. Audience reactions will range from highly positive to highly negative; the report should focus on overcoming the highly negative reactions since they’re the ones I need to convince. you know about your audience, their needs, and their expectations, the more effectively you’ll be able to communicate with them. For an example of the kind of information you need to compile in an audience analysis, see the planning sheet shown in Figure 3.2. To conduct an audience analysis: Ask yourself some key questions about your audience: Who are they? How many people do you need to reach? Identify your primary audience. For some messages, certain audience members might be more important than others. Don’t ignore the needs of less influential members, but make sure you address the concerns of the key decision makers. Determine audience size and geographic distribution. A message aimed at 10,000 people spread around the globe might require a different approach than one aimed at a dozen people down the hall. Determine audience composition. Look for both similarities and differences in cul- ture, language, age, education, organizational rank and status, attitudes, experience, motivations, and any other factors that might affect the success of your message. Gauge audience members’ level of understanding. If audience members share your general background, they’ll probably understand your material without difficulty. If not, your message will need an element of education, and deciding how much informa- tion to include can be a challenge. Try to include only enough information to accomplish the specific purpose of your message. If the members of your audience have various levels of understanding, gear your coverage to your primary audience (the key decision makers). Understand audience expectations and preferences. Will members of your audience expect complete details or just a summary of the main points? Do they want an e-mail How much do they already know about the subject? What is their probable reaction to your message? If audience members have different levels of understanding of the topic, aim your message at the most influential decision makers.
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56 2: The Three-Step Writing Process A gradual approach and plenty of evidence are required to win over a skeptical audience. or will they expect a formal memo? In general, the higher up the organization your message goes, the fewer details people want to see, simply because they have less time to read them. Forecast probable audience reaction. As you’ll read later in the chapter, audience reac- tion affects message organization. If you expect a favorable response, you can state conclusions and recommendations up front and offer minimal supporting evidence. If you expect skepticism, you’ll probably want to introduce conclusions gradually, with more proof along the way. Gathering Information With a clear picture of your audience, your next step is to assemble the information that you will include in your message. For simple messages, you may already have all the infor- mation at hand, but more complex messages can require considerable research and analy- sis before you’re ready to begin writing. Chapter 10 explores formal techniques for finding, evaluating, and processing information, but you can often use a variety of informal tech- niques to gather insights and focus your research efforts: Consider other viewpoints. Putting yourself in someone else’s position helps you con- sider what that person might be thinking, feeling, or planning. Read reports and other company documents. Your company’s files may be a rich source of the information you need for a particular memo or e-mail message. Seek out annual reports, financial statements, news releases, memos, marketing reports, and customer surveys for helpful information. Find out whether your company has a knowledge management system, a centralized database that collects the experiences and insights of employees throughout the organization. Talk with supervisors, colleagues, or customers. Fellow workers and customers may have information you need, or they may know what your audience will be interested in. Ask your audience for input. If you’re unsure of what audience members need from your message, ask them. Admitting you don’t know but want to meet their needs will impress an audience more than guessing and getting it wrong. Uncovering Audience Needs If you’re given a vague request, ask questions to clarify it before you plan a response. Include any additional information that might be helpful, even though the requester didn’t specifically ask for it. In many situations, your audience’s information needs are readily apparent, such as when a consumer sends an e-mail asking a specific question. In other cases, your audience might be unable to articulate exactly what is needed. If someone makes a vague or broad request, ask questions to narrow the focus. If your boss says, “Find out everything you can about Interscope Records,” ask which aspect of the company and its business is most important. Asking a question or two often forces the person to think through the request and define more precisely what is required. Also, try to think of information needs that your audience may not even be aware of. Suppose your company has just hired a new employee from out of town, and you’ve been assigned to coordinate this person’s relocation. At a minimum, you would write a wel- coming letter describing your company’s procedures for relocating employees. With a lit- tle extra thought, however, you might include some information about the city: perhaps a guide to residential areas, a map or two, brochures about cultural activities, or informa- tion on schools and transportation. In some cases, you may be able to tell your audience something they consider important but wouldn’t have thought to ask. Although adding information of this sort lengthens your message, it can also create goodwill. Providing Required Information Test the completeness of your document by making sure it answers all the important questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Once you’ve defined your audience’s information needs, your next step is to satisfy those needs completely. Use the journalistic approach to make sure your information answers who, what, when, where, why, and how. In addition to delivering the right quantity of
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3: Planning Business Messages 57 required information, you are responsible for verifying the quality of that information. Ask yourself these three questions: Is the information accurate? Inaccuracies can cause a host of problems, from embar- rassment and lost productivity to serious safety and legal issues. Be sure to review any mathematical or financial calculations. Check all dates and schedules, and examine your own assumptions and conclusions to be certain they are valid. Is the information ethical? By working hard to ensure the accuracy of the information you gather, you’ll also avoid many ethical problems in your messages. However, mes- sages can also be unethical if important information is omitted or obscured. Is the information pertinent? Remember that some points will be more important to your audience than others. Moreover, by focusing on the information that concerns your audience the most, you increase your chances of sending an effective message. Selecting the Right Medium Selecting the best medium for your message can make the difference between effective and ineffective communication. 3 A medium is the form through which you choose to communicate your message. You may choose to talk with someone face-to-face, write a letter, send an e-mail message, or record a podcast—with today’s ever-expanding technol- ogy, you often have a variety of media options from which to choose. In fact, media categories have become increasingly blurred in recent years with so many options that include multimedia formats. For the sake of discussion, you can think of media as traditionally being either oral or written, and electronic media extend the reach of both. Each type of medium has advantages and disadvantages. Oral Media Primary oral media include face-to-face conversations, interviews, speeches, in-person presentations, and meetings. Being able to see, hear, and react to each other can benefit communicators, giving oral media several advantages: They provide immediate feedback. They allow a certain ease of interaction. They involve rich nonverbal cues (both physical gestures and vocal inflections). They help you express the emotion behind your message. Oral communication is best when you need to encourage interaction, express emotions, or monitor emotional responses. Traditional oral media are useful for getting people to ask questions, make com- ments, and work together to reach a consensus or decision. However, if you don’t want or need all that interaction, then oral media can have several disadvantages: They restrict participation to those physically present. Unless recorded, they provide no permanent, verifiable record of the communication. They can reduce the communicator’s control over the message, if people interrupt or ask unanticipated questions. They often rule out the chance to revise or edit your spoken words. Oral media limit participation to those who are present, reduce your control over the message, and make it difficult to revise or edit your message. Written Media Written messages take many forms, from traditional memos to glossy reports that rival magazines in production quality. Memos are used for the routine, day-to-day exchange of information within an organization. E-mail continues to replace traditional paper memos in many circumstances, although writers who want more formality or permanence can still opt for paper memos. Letters are written messages sent to recipients outside the orga- nization, so in addition to conveying a particular message, they perform an important
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58 2: The Three-Step Writing Process public relations function in fostering good working relationships. Reports may be distrib- uted to insiders or outsiders, depending on their purpose and subject. They come in many formats, including preprinted forms, letters, memos, and manuscripts, in lengths from a few pages to several hundred. Written media have a number of advantages over oral media: Written media increase your control, help you reach dispersed audiences, and minimize distortion. They allow you to plan and control your message. They offer a permanent, verifiable record. They help you reach an audience that is geographically dispersed. They minimize the distortion that can accompany oral messages. They can be used to avoid immediate interactions, including emotional confrontations when communicating controversial messages. Disadvantages of written media include the following: The disadvantages of written media include difficulty of feedback, lack of nonverbal cues, and the time and skill sometimes required to prepare written messages. Many are not conducive to speedy feedback. They lack the rich nonverbal cues provided by oral media. They often take more time and more resources to create and distribute. Elaborate printed documents can require special skills in preparation and production. Electronic Media Electronic media span a diverse and expanding range of technologies, from e-mail and IM to blogs and podcasts. The growth of electronic communication options is both a blessing and a curse. You have more tools than ever to choose from, but you need to choose the right tools for each message. Although no hard rules dictate which tool to use in each case, here are a few pointers that will help you determine when to select electronic over more traditional forms: 4 Telephone calls are still the lifeblood of many organizations, for both internal and external communication. But even the humble telephone has joined the Internet age, thanks to the emerging capability to place phone calls over the Internet. Known by the technical term VoIP (which stands for Voice over IP, the Internet Protocol), Internet- based phone service promises to offer cheaper long-distance service for businesses worldwide, and companies such as Skype even offer free basic phone service between computers. 5 Through the use of webcams, video phone service is now an inexpensive option for one-to-one phone calls, teleconferences, and online meetings. Voice mail can replace short memos and phone calls when an immediate response isn’t crucial. However, voice mail is a poor choice for lengthy, complex messages, since the information is more difficult for receivers to process. Teleconferencing, videoconferencing, and online meetings are best for informational meetings and are less effective for highly interactive meetings such as negotiation. DVDs (and to a declining extent, videotapes) are effective for sending audiovisual messages to a large number of people. With the growing availability of high-speed Internet service, many video messages once delivered on tape or disk are now delivered online. Electronic documents include both word processor files and Adobe’s widely popular Portable Document Format (PDF). Computer users can view PDFs on screen with free reader software, and PDFs are more secure and less vulnerable to viruses than word processor files. Faxes have been replaced by e-mail and PDF files in many cases, but they still play an important role in many companies. Internet-based fax services, such as eFax (www.efax.com), lower the cost by eliminating the need for a dedicated fax line and fax machine.
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3: Planning Business Messages 59 E-mail offers speed, low cost, portability, and convenience. It’s best for brief, noncom- plex information that is time sensitive. With such a quick turnaround time, e-mail tends to be more conversational than traditional media, but not as conversational as instant messaging. Instant messaging (IM) allows real-time, one-on-one and small-group text conversa- tions via personal computer. At technology giant IBM, for instance, employees send more than 5 million instant messages a month. 6 IM is more versatile than a phone call and quicker than e-mail, and newer IM systems offer file attachments, streaming audio and video, and other enhancements. Text messaging, a phone-based medium that has long been popular with consumers in Asia and Europe, is finally catching on in the United States. 7 Although it lacks many of the capabilities of IM, text messag- ing does give businesses an easy way to transmit simple messages between mobile workers. Websites and blogs have become vital communication platforms for many businesses. A well-designed website can tailor the same information for numerous readers by steering each audience group to specific sections on a website. Blogs have become common in business in recent years as communicators search for fast, informal ways to reach customers and other audiences. Video blogs (vlogs) and mobile blogs (moblogs) extend the blogging concept in intriguing new ways. 8 Blog content is often distributed through RSS (Really Simple Syndication), which automatically sends new content to subscribers. Podcasts are one of the newest and most exciting media choices for business commu- nicators. Both audio and video podcasts give you a means to reach customers and col- leagues with a human touch that isn’t always easy to replicate in text-only media. You’ll read more about e-mail, IM, blogs, and podcasting in Chapter 6. As you can see, electronic messages offer considerable advantages: They deliver messages with great speed. They reach audiences physically separated from you. They reach a dispersed audience personally. They offer the persuasive power of multimedia formats. They can increase accessibility and openness in an organization. In general, use electronic media to deliver messages quickly, to reach widely dispersed audiences, and to take advantage of rich multimedia formats. For all their good points, electronic media are not problem-free. Consider some of these disadvantages: They can inadvertently create tension and conflict. Electronic messages can give the illusion of anonymity, so people sometimes say things online that they would never say in person or in a traditional document. Blogs have been a particularly controversial medium in this respect, with several companies firing employees for their blog post- ings. Many companies are still wrestling with the phenomenon of employee blogs, as they try to find the appropriate balance between protecting confidential information and corporate reputations and respecting the free-speech rights of their employees. 9 They are easy to overuse. The ability to send or forward messages to multiple recipi- ents has become a major cause of information overload. They expose companies to data security threats and malicious software. Connecting computers to the Internet exposes companies to a host of potential security problems, including computer viruses, information theft, and spyware (malicious software that sneaks onto personal computers to capture credit card numbers and other confidential information). They often lack privacy. More than a few businesspeople have discovered to their embarrassment that IMs, e-mails, and voice mails can wind up in places they never envisioned. In addition, employers can legally monitor electronic messages, and these messages can be subpoenaed for court cases. Electronic media can suffer from a lack of privacy and can reduce productivity when people send too many low-value messages.
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60 2: The Three-Step Writing Process They can seriously drain employee productivity. Employees can be easily distracted by the constant streams of e-mail, IM, voice mail, conference calls, and faxes or the temptation to surf nonbusiness-related websites during working hours. Factors to Consider When Choosing Media When choosing a medium for your message, select the medium that balances your needs and your audience’s needs (see Figure 3.3). Just as critical, however, is considering how your message is affected by important factors such as the following: The more complicated the message, the richer the medium required. Media richness. Richness is a medium’s ability to (1) convey a message through more than one informational cue (visual, verbal, vocal), (2) facilitate feedback, and (3) estab- lish personal focus. The richest medium is face-to-face communication; it’s personal, it provides immediate feedback (verbal and nonverbal), and it conveys the emotion behind a message. 10 Multimedia presentations and multimedia webpages are also quite rich. At the other extreme are the leanest media—those that communicate in the sim- plest ways, provide no opportunity for audience feedback, and aren’t personalized, such as memos, posters, and podcasts. Generally speaking, use the richest media to send more complex messages and to help communicate emotion. Use leaner media to send simple, routine messages. Message formality. Your media choice governs the style and tone of your message. For instance, IM and e-mail can be considered inappropriate for formal messages. Media limitations. Every medium has limitations. For example, although face-to-face communication is a rich medium, it’s one of the most restrictive because you and your FIGURE 3.3 Choosing the Most Appropriate Medium With so many media choices at your disposal today, make sure you choose the most efficient and most effective medium for every message. Use Written Media When • You don't need or want immediate feedback • You don't want or need immediate interaction with the audience • Your message is complex • You need a permanent, verifiable record • Your audience is large and geographically dispersed • You need to ensure that the message cannot be altered after you send it • Your message has limited emotional content • The situation calls for more formality Use Oral Media When • You want immediate feedback from the audience • Your message is straightforward and easy to accept • You don't need a permanent record • You can gather your audience conveniently and economically • You want to encourage interaction to solve a problem or reach a group decision • You want to read the audience’s body language or hear the tone of their response • Your message has an emotional content Use Electronic Media When • You need to deliver a message quickly • You’re physically separated from your audience • You want to give the audience an opportunity to edit the message (such as editing a word processing document) • Your message can benefit from multiple media, such as audio and video • You want to take advantage of electronic media
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