Tips for writing in the business world

Writing in the business world can be difficult. We have to write Web pages, proposals, emails, policies and procedures and, perhaps, adverts. It can be hard to get going, and create something that’s clear and to the point. Here are some tips to help you get over these difficulties.

It’s not your fault

Let’s start by saying it’s not your fault if you find business writing difficult, because most of us are not taught how to do it at school. At school, we learn how to write stories and how to argue a case. That usually involves building to a big conclusion at the end.

In business, mostly we have to write to:

  • persuade
  • instruct, or
  • inform.

Those are different forms of writing.

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Why business writing is so difficult

“Everyone is taught to write at school, so surely everyone can write in business?”

Although the quotation above would seem to make sense, the reality is that many people find it hard to write in a business context. They struggle to write clearly, and it can take them ages to produce a piece of content.

It’s not their fault. What we’re taught at school is how to write narratives, that is stories or articles. We’re also taught to argue a case – to use rhetoric to build to a conclusion. We’re taught writing to persuade and writing to entertain.

In the world of business, we often need different forms of writing. We’re often writing to inform or writing to instruct.

In these situations, people want to know what they should and shouldn’t be doing, and get on with their jobs. They want the important information at the beginning, rather than the end. They want to scan and hunt for the information relevant to them, rather than always having to read everything from beginning to end.

Many people haven’t been taught how to write to inform or to instruct, and that’s why many people find business writing so difficult.

The sad case of GDS and the tax manuals

The UK’s Government Digital Service has been doing great work in putting users’ needs before the needs of government, so it was a shock to see the revised tax manuals the GDS and HMRC published recently.

In the GDS blog post, First HMRC manual on GOV.UK – give us your feedback, Till Worth explained:

“HMRC has built a new publishing system which makes it easier for its tax experts to update and maintain the content of the manuals. Tax agents, accountants and specialists need to be able to see the tax manuals exactly how HMRC publishes them internally, so the GDS team knew we couldn’t touch the content. We did create a new design for the manuals to make them more user-friendly and bring them in line with GDS design principles.”

From what I can see, there’s been two changes:

  1. New look and feel
  2. Changes to the navigation and search

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New case study – Creating an operations manual for a medical service provider

You’ll find a new case study on the Cherryleaf website, regarding a project we carried out for Affidea.

Affidea Group BV is a company that offers premium diagnostic imaging, cancer detection and cancer treatment services. It focuses on delivering prompt, thorough diagnoses and high quality treatments by working only with state-of-the-art technology and experienced medical professionals.

AffideaAffidea operates a network of Diagnostic and Cancer Treatment Centres in 14 countries across Europe. The company employs over 3,000 professionals, of which more than 750 are medical doctors.

Affidea required us to produce a so called “Blue Book” of company operations. Some of the material for the Blue Book already existed and had been documented; other material had not been documented. The existing material had been written by non-native English speakers and/or non technical authors, because of this there was a lack of consistency to the existing documentation. The information required for the new material was largely not documented anywhere and subject matter experts (SMEs) were based throughout Europe.

The project involved re-designing/writing existing content, interviewing SMEs in order to get the information required for new content, putting together new content and finally assembling all the information into the Blue Book.

For the full case study, see:

Your policy and procedures manual as software

Jared Spool tweeted this morning:

HyperCard was a hypertext program that came with Apple Macintosh in the 1980s. It allowed you to create “stacks” of online cards, which organsiations used to create some of the first online guides. It also contained a scripting language called HyperTalk that a non-programmer could easily learn. This meant HyperCard could do more than just display content: it could be used to create books, games (such as Myst), develop oil-spill models, and even dial the telephone.

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Why you probably shouldn’t use Word to create your policy documents

Flickr image "Holmes McDougall Employee Handbook" by Edinburgh City of PrintImagine you are an IT manager for an organisation that has been implementing new IT systems. You have now reached the point where you need to create and document the new IT policies and procedures. The organisation already has some general policies for IT in its staff handbook, but you need to provide more detailed information on how to use the organisation’s IT efficiently and securely.

For example, the staff handbook tells staff that customer information must be treated confidentially and only approved communication channels must used. The IT policy and procedures document will provide more detail  – that web email services (such as Yahoo Mail) must not be used to send customer information, because they often store a copy of the email even if you have deleted your sent message.

The best approach would be to have some sections in both the staff handbook and the IT policy document. In other words, the same content in different documents. Otherwise, staff would need to have two manuals open each time they wanted to check they were doing things correctly.

If you use Word, you’re likely to do this by coping the text from one Word document and pasting it into the other Word document. The problem with this approach is that when you make a change to the text, you need to remember to paste any amended sections into the other document. This make it very difficult to create customised variations of documents, such as cut down versions for managers or new staff, branch-specific versions etc. It becomes unmanageable.

One of the benefits of using some of the alternatives to Word is you can embed a piece of information into multiple documents. In a similar way to how you can use the same image in lots of different web pages, you can use the same chunk of text in lots of different documents. The advantage of this approach is that in the future you’ll only need to change the source, embedded chunk of text when it’s time to make a revision. That piece of text gets updated automatically (or semi-automatically) in all the documents that use it.

Getting information from Subject Matter Experts

Flickr photo an interview by illustirInterviews with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are some of the most useful sources for Technical Authors when they are gathering information about a product or procedure. This often involves asking a developer or departmental manager a series of questions focused on the types of questions end users are likely to ask.

Interviewing is one of those dark arts that Technical Authors pick up over time – techniques for getting SMEs to find the time to speak to you and review your drafts, ways to avoid conversations meandering away from what the user will want to know, tools for capturing the interview, and so on.

So what tools should you use?

Coming armed with biscuits (cookies in the USA) is probably the most effective tool! After that, the most useful tool to have is a voice recording device. If you have a smartphone, in effect, you have a digital voice recorder. There are many voice recording apps for both iOS and Android, but the one we like is Recordium.

Recordium

In addition to recording audio, Recordium also enables you annotate the voice recording. You can highlight and tag certain parts of audio recordings (for example: to indicate a new topic or to mark sections that relate to definitions of terms etc), and add attachments to those sections as well. You can use it, in effect, as an audio-orientated note clipping application, similar to Evernote.

Recordium also enables you to vary the playback speed. We’ve found this useful when SMEs are using specialist terminology – you can slow down the recording to check what it was they actually said. Listening at a faster speed is also a useful way of reviewing a recording quickly.

Technical Authors still need to transcribe sections of the interview, so it becomes text. Unfortunately, Text-to-Speech applications still have some way to go. Dragon Dictation is available for Apple devices, and ListNote offers similar functionality for Android. However, even if you are just a two fingered typist, you’re probably better off transcribing the audio yourself.

Are there any other apps you’d recommend? Let us know.

Policies and procedures writing courses – beginner and advanced

You’ll find we’ve updated the Policies and procedures writing courses – beginner and advanced page on our website. This course will train your staff in how to create clear and effective policies and procedures information.

This course was originally developed to train NHS staff in how to write and organise non-clinical policy, process and procedures documents in a clear and simple way, and it can be customised so it suits your requirements.

We’re can also offer this course in an alternative  “live and online” format over the Web. The course is delivered live, not recorded, with delegates completing exercises and able to ask questions during the course.

See Policies and procedures writing courses – beginner and advanced