Introduction: 20-20 Services is thrilled to offer you our first blog written by a strategic partner, Ryan Standil, President of Write To Excite. Ryan helps public accounting firms increase their writing efficiencies, which leads to greater clarity and profitability. Several of our clients have retained Ryan to conduct coaching and workshops at their firms. He can be reached at email@example.com.
There is a certain irony to improving your writing skills.
In becoming an effective writer, the key is to focus more on the act of reading than on the act of writing. Instead of asking yourself, “How would I like to compose this message?”, ask yourself, “What would it be like to review this message, if I were the client?”
To draft communications that our clients will approve of, we should adopt three writing techniques. The theme of these techniques is putting yourself in the shoes of your reader.
1: Make Your Emails and Documents “Skimmable”
Busy people have little patience for lengthy emails and documents. If your communications resemble a wall of text, recipients will stop reading them.
When writing to clients and co-workers, try to make your communications “skimmable.”
In contrast to when you were in school, you should start with your conclusion. State your main point at the very beginning, and, if your message is long, provide a summary of the entire text up front.
After your up-front summary, employ a user-friendly style to lay out the details. Use white space, headings, and anything else that would assist with readability, such as color, lists, and charts.
The beauty of this approach is that it allows you to cater to a spectrum of readers at the same time, from experts to laypeople. A busy CFO can read your up-front summary and skim your headings, whereas a summer intern can carefully read each section for more detail.
2. Be Explicit
Do you frequently receive unclear emails and documentation? As you’ve surely noticed, unclear writing wastes readers’ time and frustrates clients.
In a major newspaper, I wrote that “bad writing costs U.S. businesses $396 billion a year.” This statistic comes from Josh Bernoff, who aggregated the salaries paid to employees while they waste time interpreting ambiguous writing.
Amazingly, most of this ambiguity would easily be avoided if writers were more explicit. For example, when writing about “Bill and Bob,” you should continue to use their names rather than opting for “he” (unless the context poses no chance of a misinterpretation).
Our obsession with using references—words that refer to other words—is so pervasive that it left doubt as to the legitimacy of an American president. After the ninth president died in office, America looked to Article II of the Constitution for guidance on his replacement. It reads:
In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President.
Relying on this provision, Vice President John Tyler claimed that he was the new president. However, his political enemies disagreed. They argued that the phrase “the Same” referred to more than just the words “the said Office” and that it referred to the entire string of words “the Powers and Duties of the said Office.” Put differently, Tyler’s enemies claimed that Tyler assumed the president’s tasks but not the presidency itself.
(Subsequently, the Twenty-Fifth Amendment was ratified to resolve this ambiguity.)
This stunning failure to write clearly could have easily been avoided. Instead of using “the Same,” the constitutional drafters could have explicitly stated, “the Presidency.”
Similarly, in my writing course, I show an example of a manager who informed a recent graduate that “Revenue in working paper did not tie to trial balance,” and to “Please fix it.” New to the industry, the young accountant assembled other recent grads to debate which document required fixing.
Spell it out.
I could offer countless more examples, but I will leave you with this one: Think twice before starting a sentence with a reference, such as
- “Therefore,” or
- “As a result.”
3. Match Your Recipient
In the context of business writing for accountants, it is difficult to guess how your clients and co-workers will judge formality and style. You may ask yourself:
- “Should I write Hi, Hello, or Dear?”
- “Should I use contractions and exclamation marks?”
- “Should I write 12:00 pm or 12:00 p.m.?” “What about January 1, 1st, or 1st?”
- “Should I send emails during evenings and weekends?”
Fortunately, a convenient guide is to mimic the style of your recipient. When communicating with a new client, you can observe their style and match their usage decisions. By doing so, you will never be accused of making the wrong choices.