Recently I led a business writing workshop for young mid-level accountants. One of my scenarios called for a memo asking a subordinate to perform an unattractive task: spend part of the weekend reading material about a client prospect that the writer would pitch in person on Monday.
"Just say, 'Jerry read the attached file and report to me Monday at 9 a.m. sharp,'" one person suggested. But consider the result, I pointed out: a resentful employee who'll do a halfway job.
Much better to write a memo that would generate support and enthusiasm, I began. A young woman interrupted: "Wait a minute! I'm a busy person! I just tell people what I want directly! Are you telling me I have to....sugarcoat my messages?"
"Well, yes," I answered on the spot. "I wouldn't put it that way, but yes."
Later I thought about the experience and realized that the accountant was missing a really important point. The bare-bones memo overlooks the power of why. Here's one way to write the memo:
Jerry, I need your help! Please read the attached file and report on it to me early Monday morning. Ellen Brown is coming to see me at 2 and based on the conversation, will decide whether to give us her business. This is a great opportunity for GizmoCo. If we compare notes before the meeting, I'll feel much better prepared. Thanks!
What's to gain by the "sugarcoating" your business messages? Consider that when Jerry is given a reason for the weekend work, even though he's not crazy about spending his time this way, he will very likely:
- feel good about being asked to contribute to something important
- feel appreciated and valued by the boss
- feel like he's part of a team
- feel positive about his supervisor
- feel energized to do a good job
And probably, this motivation will hold into the future. The relationship is advanced rather than damaged.
When you can get such superior results without investing more than a few extra minutes to write a good memo, the price is hard to beat.
In many more situations, why is a silver bullet that you should employ often. When you email a meeting invitation, take the trouble to convey why it's important and what the outcome will be. If you're pitching for a job or an assignment or contract, communicate why you're the best person to choose. When you're selling a product or service, ask yourself why the person should buy it. A report or proposal should center on why readers should accept your recommendation.
Here's the bottom line: See everything you write as a request. Don't write an email, letter, proposal or any business message unless you've thought through why your readers should give you what you want.
Answering the "why" questions usually gives you the best clues to content that will influence your audience. When writing proposals, for example, answering why yours is the best company demands evidence--proof that it's the best for the role. Facts, charts, case histories, images, testimonials, track record, may be relevant as appropriate. Empty claims do not help the cause.
And here's bottom line #2: Consider in everything you write how your message's content, tone and wording will make that person feel. Every written communication is an opportunity to build a relationship--or undermine it. This is especially true with those everyday emails. Collectively they add up to an image of who you are, your capabilities, and your attitude toward your audience. One poorly thought-out email or blog post can damage you perhaps irretrievably.
There are some interesting generational issues at play here too. Boomers--who are still around and often make the big decisions--are especially attuned to signals of respect and consideration, in person, and in written messages. Telling people "why" helps put you on their wavelength.
At the other end of the spectrum are the Millenials, the youngest workers. They too respond far better when told why something needs to be done, and how the assignment fits into the big picture. Approached this way they'll do a better job and feel more respect for their supervisors.
And who can blame them?
Do you have an interesting "why" story? a message you received that motivated you, or one that you wrote yourself and succeeded? Share!