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As an English major in college, I was repeatedly asked the same question: “What do you plan to do with that degree?” If I had known more about proposal writing at the time, that would have been my answer. Proposal writing offers me exciting and engaging projects, and I owe much of my early successes in my career to my education. However, there were several real-world proposal challenges that my degree made more difficult for me to solve. My English department operated in a bubble, which created a communication barrier between us and those who hadn’t been educated there. It encouraged techniques that let us articulate our ideas well but at the cost of speed, brevity and likeability. We’d often use complicated terms or definitions to explain simple ideas, and we did that to set ourselves apart as writers.
When working on my first proposal, I used many of the techniques that worked well in college such as writing out an acronym on first use or using myriad without “a” and “of,” instead of many. Yet, most of the technical subject-matter experts I interacted with didn’t understand the more complicated rules. Their focus was on the technical aspects of their job, and they’d respond in whatever way let them quickly return to it. To survive in my new profession, I had to quickly learn which writing rules ensured clear communication and which didn’t.
We are facing a similar challenge during this pandemic. With many of us working remotely, we need to determine which business writing rules and styles effectively impact — or impede — remote communication.
Style Rules in Online Communication
As we continue to work apart from our teams while handling the various challenges that have been presented this year, our communication needs to be brief, clear and personable. We do not have the time to read lengthy emails or to clarify ambiguities, nor do we have the ability to walk down the hall to ask a colleague for further explanation. In a time where we are drained from managing our personal and professional lives almost simultaneously, writing succinctly and clearly is more important than ever before. We are currently in a world where in-person socializing can be dangerous, so we need to capitalize on opportunities to connect virtually. Yet we must be careful, as this electronic communication can also obscure the person you’re communicating with.
Using Shortcuts and Acronyms
I was texting a 22-year-old friend of mine the other day and, English major that I am, I correctly punctuated each sentence. That led him to think I was angry. To him, correct punctuation in text messaging is a tool to establish tone. That’s partially owed to how we first texted back when you had to press a key on your phone multiple times to get the correct letter. In that format, we had to find shortcuts. That’s when social abbreviations such as TTYL (talk to you later) or OMW (on my way) entered mainstream communication. While we’ve kept many of these shortcuts from entering business writing, some of the tools we use at work such as instant messenger or text through a work phone necessitate these shortcuts. In these formats, the rules for social and business communication conflict.
While we should benefit from the acronyms and symbols we use in text and chat, many shortcuts can create confusion. If you drop periods or subjects, there’s the chance your reader will need to clarify. Avoid that pitfall by only using abbreviations that have entered the mainstream, and only use them in their correct medium. You don’t need to spell out LOL, and in a text, it will quickly communicate your message. Using LOL in an email, however, may distract from your message.
Like my friend, many of the SMEs I work with are a product of their generation’s technology and communication style. These SMEs still refuse to use contractions in business writing because contractions are seen as informal, mostly because they imitate speech and, in business writing, some may think personality means unprofessional. A reader will understand your use of isn’t over is not. So, when the opportunity comes, cut down on characters, write as you speak and confront that outdated view.
Writing to Your Audience
Luckily, we can use one of writing’s oldest rules to guide us now: Write to the reader. If you are writing to a company or a professional that values formality, write formally. That formality includes prepositions in the middle of sentences, spelling out full words, and addressing professionals by their full name and title. But in all other instances, let’s write how we speak — easily.
Michael Casey is a voracious reader and writer. During his time in the industry, he’s written several hundred proposals and read everything available on the subject. He was introduced to proposals during his time in procurement and currently works as an RFP Analyst for Sun Life.