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Winning words – Make your letters and reports work for you

When communicating with your customers and colleagues, what you write can be even more important than what you say. Rob Ashton explains how to write letters and reports with the ‘wow’ factor.

Communication is critical at work. For a sales professional, communication is much of your work. As for the rest, well you could argue that there’s no point doing it if you don’t tell anyone about it.

In the average office-based environment, as much as 70% of all communication is written. And even for field-based employees, there are reports to write, letters to customers and a daily influx of emails to deal with. So, clearly, you need to be an effective writer to be an effective communicator.

The trouble is that whatever you write, you’re going to be competing for your reader’s attention with the mountain of other documents and emails that they have in their in-box. So you usually need to write something better than the rest to get your message across. Yet what do most people rely on for this? Basic essay-writing skills learned long ago at school or university – if they were lucky. And that’s akin to using GCSE chemistry to formulate the latest antidepressant.

All is not lost, however. The first thing to acknowledge is that you don’t need to have literary talent. Great business writing is a skill that you can learn, because it draws less upon creativity and more upon using specific techniques. Many pharmaceutical companies such as Amgen, Baxter and GlaxoSmithKline have recognised this and have commissioned specialist writing skills programmes for their staff. In business writing, the clarity of the message matters most. This means that plain English wins hands down every time over fancy, flowery prose. (Note, however, that this does not mean ‘dumbing down’.)

In business writing, the clarity of the message matters most. This means that plain English wins hands down over fancy, flowery prose

Focus on the reader

Through writing, your primary purpose is to promote action in the reader. You may want to set up a meeting with an elusive customer, persuade your manager to implement a new sales strategy or report on the month’s successes. Your words become your ‘voice’. How they read affects the likelihood of your reader taking the action you desire. Think of your writing as a vehicle to achieving your goals and creating success in all areas of your work.

But first, spare a thought for the people reading your documents. Most executives are drowning in a sea of words. Our research has shown that managers in large organisations often receive as many as eight reports a day. That’s the equivalent of wading through War and Peace five times a year. So, each time you write a report you’re competing with all the other reports your manager has to read.

With so much reading material on their hands, the last thing you want to do is bore your reader or add unnecessarily to their pile of words. It takes extra brain power (and time) to read a poorly-constructed, word-heavy document with no clear focus or point. If your work seems sloppy or lacklustre, your managers or customers may distrust your content. And if the words are confusing, you may lose their interest halfway through. You want your readers to sit up and take notice. And above all, exhibit a positive response to what you have written.

Managers in large organisations often receive as many as eight reports a day. That’s the equivalent of wading through War and Peace five times a year

Time well spent

Writing effectively creates a win-win situation. It saves time for both you and your reader. If what you write is crystal clear, you won’t spend extra minutes re-explaining or clarifying what’s already on paper. Think about the sums. If you spend 15 minutes with four customers, explaining the contents of a letter you sent, it adds up to an hour. An hour that could be spent prospecting for new customers or strengthening existing relationships.

Save time and boost your productivity by making sure that all your documents have a clearly defined point of view. A well structured letter or report rarely happens by accident. To write well, you have to plan, think through and organise your ideas. You need to step into your readers’ shoes and think how best to communicate to them. Then you need to tailor your writing so that you solve their problems or fulfil their requirements. An internal report, for instance, has to offer solutions to a departmental problem; make important recommendations or clearly highlight the successes that have added to your company’s bottom line.

It can also help to remember that selling doesn’t stop the moment you put down the phone or step out of a meeting. Every word you put on paper is an opportunity to sell yourself, your ideas or your products. As Rudyard Kipling said, ‘words are the most powerful drug known to mankind.’ Make sure you prescribe yours effectively.

SCRAP your letters and emails

A good letter or email has a clear structure and achieves a specific purpose. Take the time to simplify your objective. Making time to do this is well worth it. Your readers will know immediately why you’re writing and what you want them to do.

the write stuff

Grab a free copy of The Write Stuff to help you with the writing process. This 60-page guide contains the very essence of good writing. And Emphasis have agreed to send a copy free of charge to the first 100 Pharmaceutical Field readers to contact them. Email tessa.gooding@
writing-skills.com
to get your copy.

Your letters should act as your ‘silent sales force’. They work hard for you to move you closer to a sale, even while you’re out at lunch or working on another account or product. Make sure to focus on your customer’s needs before you hit that computer keyboard.

It can help to use the SCRAP formula when writing letters:

Situation Start your letter by explaining the situation (or ‘where they are’). By doing this your reader will realise you understand and empathise with them.

Complication Introduce the idea that there’s a problem (‘why they can’t stay there’) they need to solve.

Resolution State your resolution to the problem. Your reader will probably be relieved that you’re offering a ready-made way of fixing things.

Action Suggest what action the reader can or should take. In some cases, this will be what further action you are going to take. Make sure that this follows on logically from the resolution.

Politeness Finally, end with a polite sign-off.

You don’t have to use this formula for all your letters. Some customer correspondence may be so straightforward that you don’t need this structure. The aim is to be clear and concise, and practising this technique can help your letters to hit the mark.

Report writing made simple

When it comes to reports, you’re not alone if you leave them until the last minute. Faced with compiling a lengthy document, many people focus solely on how difficult it’s going to be to write. By the time they actually come to write it; the reader and the purpose of the report are the last things on their minds.

Focus your thoughts by answering the following questions:
• What is the document about?
• Who will read it?
• How much do they already know about the subject?
• What do they absolutely need to know?
• How important is the subject to them?
• How interested are they in the subject?

Next, consider all the information that needs to go in the report. Spidergrams (writing down the main theme in the middle of the page and then branching out from there) are a useful planning tool. You can also write down in a list everything that needs to go into your report. Then go through and group ideas together that have things in common. Decide which ideas are essential to your report, which are important but not essential and which are unimportant. This will help you avoid the temptation to just cram every thought or piece of data in. It is more important to have a clearly defined point of view than to give the reader ‘value for money’ with a jampacked document. Once you know what your main message is you can then decide what order your ideas should go in.

Clarifying your message

If you’re having trouble focusing on the main point of your report, ask yourself the questions: what? where? when? how? why? and who? to clarify your thoughts.

Be your own writing doctor

Make your writing easy to read by following these principles:
• Be direct.
• Use the active voice.
• Keep it short and simple.
• Stick to one sentence, one idea.
• Write with verbs rather than nouns.
• Use the words ‘you’ and ‘we’.

Finally, making time for proofreading is a must. Despite their best efforts, spellcheckers can’t always fix clunky phrases, typos and grammar mistakes. Try to create some distance – in time and space – between writing the document and proofing it. Print it out and come back to it when you’re fresh. And try to proofread away from your desk: this will help you to read it as a reader, not as the writer. Use a ruler to guide you and a pencil to point to each word individually. That will stop your brain reading what it expects to see rather than what’s actually there. Using these principles, see what differences you spot in the two paragraphs below:

Rob Ashton

Rob Ashton is Chief Executive of Emphasis, the specialist business-writing trainers.
www.writing-skills.com

Paragraph 1: Implementing a new communications structure is recommended. Therefore the creation of a dedicated customer helpline is advisable. With regards to the products, the decision has been made to set the charges at a base level of £3000 per 100 units.

Paragraph 2: We recommend implementing a new communications structure and to create a dedicated customer helpline. We have decided to charge £3000 per 100 units of product.

The first example is wordy, indirect and has more than one idea in a sentence. It uses the passive tense, rather than the active voice and takes the reader out of the document by omitting the words ‘we’ and ‘you’. The noun ‘creation’ has also been used instead of the verb ‘create’. Practise re-writing your own letters and reports. Remember, good writing is not written, it’s re-written.

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