"Our admins are lifelines that feed us our most vital information and keep our responsibilities and resources coordinated," says Marc Wright, founder and principal of Martinez & Wright Homeownership Partners in Los Angeles. "If they give us messages that are unclear or inaccurate, we're going to end up as someone else's lunch."
With email being the preferred mode of business communication and increased responsibility being put on administrative assistants, good writing skills are a must for effective, productive and valuable employees.
"In these competitive times, everyone must be able to share information quickly and with complete accuracy," Wright says. Since the company's employees heavily use email and instant messaging, communicating effectively in writing is essential.
"If [our admins] are not spot-on with communications to outside parties, they'll expose us to legal action or compromise our negotiating position," he says. "You could say we live and die by two things: the support of our admins and the speed and accuracy of the written communication of every member of our team."
To make sure you've got the "write" stuff, follow these tips from Steve Peha, a writing coach based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina:
- Use the Right Font: Most default fonts, like Times and Arial, are hard to read on screen. "You can cut down on missed typos by changing to Verdana," suggests Peha. "It was specifically designed to be read on a computer monitor." If your company requires a certain font, compose your text in Verdana and then change fonts just before printing.
- Make It Personal: "Business writing seems a lot more casual now thanks to email," says Allison Heartinger, a former executive assistant in Dallas. "Even my official emails always seemed chattier than formal letters of yore. I was always walking that fine line between being too casual -- or too stern."
To make sure you're not erring on either side of the equation, Peha suggests imagining what it would be like to read your documents and think about whether you (or the person you're writing for) would actually say those words. "Many people mistakenly believe that business communication should be impersonal," Peha says. "But that's a prescription for not being read."
- Read It and Reap: It seems obvious, but most people don't proofread their emails, and that can make you look lazy. Missing words and typos are an easy excuse for people to not take you seriously.
"Read your work out loud," Peha counsels. "You'll not only catch typos and grammar errors, but you'll be able to tell if the tone is on target.
BONUS TIP: The spell-checker is not your friend. For example, it will skip right over homonyms. Rely on it at your own peril.
- Avoid Hackneyed Business Speak: "Stock phrases like ‘to whom it may concern' and ‘it has come to our attention' are turnoffs, because psychologically we want to read materials that relate to us," Peha notes. "Phrases like this usually send an impersonal message." If you use these terms, drop them. You'll often find you can write the whole sentence without the phrase.
BONUS TIP: We often write long when we're writing formally, yet shorter sentences are easier to comprehend. If your sentence has more than three parts or 20 words, you can probably cut it down.
- Make It Easy to Read: Will Getter has to write a lot of briefs for the project managers at IDEO in Palo Alto, California. "Usually their time is very limited, so the more concise, complete, clear and comprehensive my emails are, the more informed they'll be," he says.
That's a good strategy. "Most people don't read business documents the same way they read books -- they're going to skim," says Peha. "So headings, bullets, numbers and other ways of indicating the content of the piece make it more likely your information will be read."
So as you communicate at work, follow these tips. They won't only help you craft more effective documents -- they'll also enhance your chances of professional success.
For more information and tips to help you advance your administrative career, see all our advice for admin professionals.