experience with on-the-job writing is anything like mine, you know how easy it
is to write a clear, concise message.
All you have to do is request not
to be interrupted for half an hour or so, close your office door, clear your
mind of all distractions, sit in quiet reflection until your thoughts begin to
crystallize, and capture the words as they flow effortlessly from your mind
with perfect clarity and impeccable style. Right?
Well, maybe not.
The truth more often is this: As
you try to get your thoughts down, you are distracted by dozens of competing
concerns and preoccupations, including the co-worker in the hallway who is
describing in intimate detail his marvelous mid-winter vacation in the Cayman
Islands. A hour later, after two people have walked into your office and five
people have called you on the phone – each needing an immediate response – you
have completed your message, which is supposed to be an articulate, organized,
cogent statement of your purpose in writing.
So what’s new?
The next time you find yourself
trying to write a message in less-than-ideal conditions like these, try
organizing your thoughts using this simple, three-step formula: purpose,
support, proposed action. It is more than a time-saver for you. It also
ensures that you are stating your purpose clearly and getting to the point
quickly for your reader.
Here’s how it works.
Organize your message into three
paragraphs beginning with these phrases:
writing because (or to) . . .”
facts are . . .”
propose that you . . .”
Let’s take some jumbled thoughts
and give it a try: You have just received a message from a vendor telling you
that the delivery of software programs promised for February 15 will be at
least one month late. What really annoys you is that you chose this
particular vendor because he promised an early date. To show him he can’t put
you off like this, you’ll threaten to invoke your contract’s $1,000-a-day
message, written according
to the three-point formula:
“I am writing because I need our
new software program installed and operational by February 15, as you promised
it would be.
“The facts are that I accepted your
bid over your competitors because you guaranteed the earliest delivery date.
Now, I must hold you to your promise.
“I propose that either you complete
installation by February 15 or I invoke the clause of our contract that
provides for $1.000 penalty for each day past the deadline you take to
complete the project.”
After you have written your first
draft using these three cues, you may want to go back and change your lead
sentences to make them suit your style. But the approach still works because
it’s nearly impossible to complete the phrases without directly stating your
purpose, the circumstances, and the action you are calling for.
If you find this method useful, you
may want to create a macro on your word processor so that these cues (along
with the current date, heading information, and your name) appear on command,
thus relieving you of having to face that dreaded blank screen.
The 3-step formula also works for
very brief communications. Let’s say you are leaving a recorded phone message
or sending a quick note by e-mail. Take, for example, this urgent message,
which follows the formula without using the actual cues: “I’m concerned about
our Omaha office. Our sales these have plummeted 50 percent over the past two
months. Please find out what’s going on and report to me next Monday.”
There it is: one, two, three.
there’s something distasteful about this mechanical, almost mindless approach
to communication. Organizing your thoughts with the same standard
phrases is a little like painting by the numbers. But when you need to
crank out a clear, concise message in a hurry, why start from scratch?