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It's not about me. It's about you.

When it comes to writing effectively for business, this is the most important concept. If we want to get the results we would like from our e-mails, reports, letters and other documents, then we have to make our readers the focus.

Here's why this is so important. Every document has a specific purpose. An e-mail, for example, might request assistance, ask for information, provide an update. A report may be intended to communicate recommendations, convey research results, explain new procedures. If we want our documents to achieve this purpose, then we need to persuade our readers to understand or to do what we want them to do.

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So before putting fingers to keyboard, ask yourself two questions.

What's my goal for this communication?

Think about what you want to accomplish. What do you want recipients to do after they read this document? For instance, maybe you want to inform a group about the details of a new policy so they understand and follow it. As you write, keep those goals in mind.

Who's my reader?

Visualizing who you're writing to will give you a clearer idea of what information to include and what language and tone to use. If you're writing a letter to a customer, for example, you would use a different tone and provide different information than you would if you were writing a note to a peer in your organization. Therefore before you begin writing, picture in your mind the recipient of the document. When it's a group of people, visualize a person who best represents this audience. Therefore, if you're writing a letter to suppliers to inform them of revised procedures, picture a person who represents your typical supplier.

Now write to this person as though you were having a conversation. Capture your reader's attention by briefly explaining the purpose of your document at the beginning. Describe what you want her to understand or to act on and why this will benefit her; for example what she will acquire, learn or be able to do. "This new service will increase your company's on-time delivery performance by at least 20 per cent."

Use you wherever possible rather than I/we/us to continue engaging your reader. Think about what this person needs or wants to know in order for you to achieve your goal; include this information as you write. It helps to try to answer "why, how, what, when, where, who" questions your reader might ask: What should I do? Why should I do this? How will this benefit me? How do I do it? When should I do it? Where should I do it? Who is involved with this?

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If you're communicating bad news or your reader may have concerns about the subject, be sure to address these. Always be considerate of your reader's feelings and use language that conveys respect. Strive to sound neutral rather than confrontational by using words such as issue, matter, solution and improvement and avoiding negative words such as no, mistake, error, don't, can't and problem.

And while we're on the subject of respect, more than any other form of business writing, it's e-mail that most often leads to misunderstandings and hurt or angry feelings. While e-mails should be concise, they should never be so brief that they convey criticism or rudeness. Despite being less formal than other forms of business writing, e-mails require the same care and attention and should always be courteous. Focus on using positive words and if you're unsure how the tone might sound to the recipient, read it out loud before sending it.

A couple of other e-mail cautions:

1) Avoid humour. What may be funny to you may not be funny to someone else.

2) If an issue is sensitive, don't write about it in an e-mail. Instead, meet in person or discuss the issue on the phone where visual and verbal cues help to promote understanding.

If you keep practising writing to the right people, this will quickly become a habit and you'll soon find that your business documents get the results you want.

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Corinne LaBossiere, ABC, APR, is a communications specialist, writer and editor at CGL Communications who helps individuals and organizations communicate effectively.

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