8 Tips for Writing Business English
Many of us learn English primarily for work purposes, and yet business English doesn’t often feature in school curricula.
You’ll probably have studied English poetry, novels, and perhaps even a play or two (Shakespeare is likely to feature). You’ll have learned how to write an English-language essay, noting any ways in which English essay styles are different from those you might have been taught in your first language. While these things develop your understanding of and appreciation for the language, they’re unlikely to be much help in your future career.
What will be useful is knowing how to write emails, presentations and reports in English for a business context. Most of us have to figure out these things as we go along when we get our first job – sometimes helped along by a manager who’s kind enough to explain that an ideal email sign off is neither “hugs and kisses” nor “respectfully yours” but falls somewhere in between the two. In this article, we share top tips for writing business English, so that you can learn some common mistakes before they have to be mentioned in your appraisal.
1. Remember the purpose and audience
Writing for business isn’t like the kind of writing you might have done at school or university. When you write an academic essay – at least until you’re at the point where someone might like to publish it – you’re writing it primarily for yourself, to explore your understanding of the topic, and ultimately to receive a grade for it.
Writing for business, by contrast, is always for someone else to read; otherwise you wouldn’t be wasting your time on it. It might be an email for your manager, a presentation for your colleagues, a brief for an external agency or a report for either yourself or your successor in a couple of years’ time, to remind them/you of how a particular activity progressed and what its results were. What you write should therefore be dictated by that audience, first and foremost.
Things that might be affected by the audience include your choice of vocabulary, the amount of context required, and how circumspect you are in your judgments. Using abbreviations for internal writing will make it quicker and easier for colleagues to read, but it could be incomprehensible for anyone new to the business. Your manager doesn’t need a rundown of what the company does, but the agency might. And you probably don’t want to declare a project a complete disaster if you’re presenting to the entire company about it, but if it’s going in a report solely for your team, you’ll want to make it clear why you’ll never be going down that route again.
2. Avoid jargon
There’s a big difference between professional slang and jargon. Professional slang, plus the world of technical vocabulary and abbreviations, is used to enable faster communication. If your job involves handling personal data in any capacity, you’ll probably have heard of the GDPR and its associated terminology: opt-in, opt-out, legitimate interest and so on. If that’s not the case, the previous sentence may well have been incomprehensible. The GDPR, in case it’s of interest, is the General Data Protection Regulation, an EU-wide regulation to ensure better data protection. Using General Data Protection Regulation instead of GDPR, when writing for an audience who will know all about it already, is likely to impede communication rather than speeding it up, especially given the abbreviation is more widely used.
Jargon, by contrast, doesn’t speed up communication but instead makes your writing more complicated and thus, harder to understand. It also enables you to slip into generalities rather than saying what you actually mean. “We need to get our ducks in a row before we can get organisational buy-in on this activity – can you action that?” is a much less useful sentence than “we need to have a complete business plan before we can get agreement from across the organisation – can you take charge of that?”, as the latter provides much clearer instructions as well as avoiding jargon. Even if using jargon isn’t stopping you from being understood, it’s probably setting your readers’ teeth on edge – so avoid it where you can.
3. Be concise
In academia, you’ll have got used to writing to a word count. If you turn in a 1,000-word essay where a 5,000-word one was expected, you’ll be called to your teacher’s office, not praised. It can be hard to get out of the habit of wordiness when you move into the realm of business English. But it’s a habit that you need to get out of, because business English demands that you be concise wherever possible. After all, the time that it takes someone to read what you’ve written is time when they’re being paid by your employer; if you’ve written twice as much as is necessary, that costs your employer twice as much.
Being concise means using whatever techniques are necessary to make your writing shorter and quicker to read. Bullet points can be quicker to get through than full paragraphs; a graph that tells the story in a single glance can be quicker than any written text. Short, easy-to-read sentences can help, too. But it’s not just about writing style; it’s also about content. Thinking about your audience, consider the amount of detail that you need to go into. For instance, if your manager has asked you for a report on the past month’s performance, do you need to look at the day-by-day ups and downs, or can you can you just provide a summary?
4. Include statistics
It’s possible to hide a great deal by not including statistics. It’s a well-established practice in journalese – the particular form of English used by journalists – whereby “many MPs have called the Prime Minister’s judgement into question” can mean “three”, and “the film garnered a plethora of awards” translates to perhaps “four”. It’s natural to use these descriptive terms in writing, whether it’s that you’ve seen a significant increase in sales, or there was a minor fall in income.
The problem is that this isn’t much help for the person reading whatever you’ve written. The change that you consider “minor” they might consider “significant” and vice versa – and that’s without getting into the definition of words and phrases like “a few”, “a multitude” or “a handful”. It’s much more useful for them, and often easier for you, simply to include the numbers themselves.
It’s even better if you can set them into context; so not just the sales you’ve made this month, but what that means against your targets year-to-date and year-on-year, and what kind of an increase this represents compared to last month, and what’s typical. Consider how you can best present this information so that the reader can take it in at a glance. If you take jargon and evasive language out of your writing, and instead fill it with statistics and other information that your reader will find valuable, it’ll be considerably improved.
5. Make it reader-friendly
These aren’t the only things you can do to make your business writing reader-friendly. We’ve already discussed the possibility of using bullet points to keep your writing concise. But in business writing, you should use all the tools at your disposal to make your writing easy to read. For instance, if you have to write a lot of long reports, you should break them up with headings and (where necessary) sub-headings. If the report is going to be discussed and revised extensively, numbering the paragraphs can be keeping track of references easier. Similarly, provide executive summaries at the start of reports so that readers trying to find the right report in your office shared drive can quickly figure out whether it’s what they’re looking for. You can even apply the same time-saving technique to emails, including mentioning the relevant deadline in the opening line so that your busy colleagues can prioritise.
Across all your writing, the use of fonts, colour-coding and highlighting can be used to draw your reader’s eye to the important points. You can go too far, of course; you don’t want to give the impression that your cat walked across the format settings. If everything is highlighted, that doesn’t enable readability. But using design to draw attention where it’s needed can help a great deal when done well.
6. Avoid typical mistakes
You might think that spelling and grammar doesn’t matter as much in a business context as an academic context, but there are plenty of people who will disagree, and one of them might be your manager! So keep an eye on spelling and grammar, and in particular avoid common mistakes. That might include making sure that you don’t confuse the possessive “its” with the contraction “it’s” – used in “there’s the dog with its bowl” versus “it’s the dog’s birthday”, or otherwise misplaced apostrophes. The use of abbreviations in business English can lead to apostrophes being sprinkled incorrectly all over the place, such as in “DVD’s” or “2000’s”. In neither case should an apostrophe be used, and if your workplace uses particular abbreviations of its own, it’s likely that they don’t require apostrophes either.
Another common error in business English is the misuse of “myself”, in a sentence such as “the presentation was given by Brian and myself”. To be grammatically correct, this should be “the presentation was given by Brian and me” – no need for the grandiose “myself” – and to be concise, it could be changed from the passive to the active voice, becoming “Brian and I gave the presentation.” For more common mistakes that should be avoided, read our article here.
7. Find the right balance between formality and friendliness
The balance between formality and friendliness in a business context varies hugely on a macro level between countries and cultures, and on a micro level from one business to the next. Within the UK, there are some rules you can usually rely on. For instance, it’s seldom appropriate to include kisses in a work email (e.g. “xoxoxox”), and, at the opposite end of the formality scale, if you refer to your colleagues by title and surname instead of their first names you’ll risk sounding like you’ve travelled in time from the 19th century.
But other rules are more changeable depending on the specific business in question. Some will encourage the use of emojis in order to seem friendly within the office; in others, that will be seen as completely unprofessional. Similarly, whether emails to colleagues should start with a bit of friendly chat about the weather and how you’re looking forward to the weekend, or if this is considered to be a complete waste of time, will vary from business to business or even between teams. What’s important is to be aware of these considerations when you’re writing, and if in doubt, mimic whatever your manager does.
8. Proofread as much as you can
Here’s a conversation you don’t want to have to have with your manager:
Your manager: “Amazing results! An 18% increase! I can’t believe I missed that. We only managed 1.9% last month. Could you expand your report a little bit to look into why that happened?”
You: “Sorry… I missed out the decimal point.”
Inaccuracies in business writing can have significant consequences. If the end result of your email, presentation or report is that the company changes direction, or doubles down on an existing strategy, you’d better hope they’re not doing so on the basis of a typo. Attention to detail is a key trait required in most job applications, and for good reason. So make sure to proofread anything that you write in a business context.
This can mean double-checking all of the figures you’ve included, especially any that stand out as unusual. Reading through your writing both from beginning to end and from back to front can help pick up issues that you’d miss. If you use a standard word processor like Microsoft Word, switch on all the spelling and grammar checking options for your final run-through, just in case there’s something that you’ve missed. And if all that fails? Use your teamwork skills, and ask a friendly colleague if they wouldn’t mind looking over it for you.
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