The last year has given rise to a newfound reliance on Zoom and lots of virtual meetings, but excellent written communication is always needed.

If you’re not sure how your written business communication skills measure up, you can refresh your style with a few solid tips.

Whether you’re writing a quick follow-up note to a colleague, a department memo, or a message to a board of directors, your written communication needs to be polished. Like any other business skill, how well you master the art of professional communication is a reflection on you, so it’s worthwhile to take the time to do it right.

Before you write anything intended for work, think first and write second. It even helps to have an actual checklist in your head or on your desk. If you get into the habit of doing this, you’ll cut down on having to resend an email because you forgot an attachment or a link, sending communication that doesn’t answer the most important point or question, or even sending something with an unprofessional tone.

What should your checklist include? Keep these prompts in mind.

Who is this message intended for?

If it’s an informal note, you can have a more informal tone. But it’s still best to begin with a short salutation (“Hi,” is fine) and end with a thanks. If it’s a more formal communication or is in response to a larger project or initiative, make sure your tone matches that level.

What is the most important point I am trying to convey?

Readers have incredibly short attention spans and in the midst of a pandemic, these spans have become even shorter. Highlight the most important point right up front. You can even tease it a little with the subject line if you’re writing an email. Think about what you would say in person (sometimes this is referred to as the Guess What? step) and try to be that brief in your writing.

How will people find more information?

Are you referencing any kind of study, other communication, organization, or piece of essential information? If so, attach necessary files (Word docs, PDFs, slides, etc.), add hyperlinks, or note where readers can go if they need more information.

Do I have any implicit bias in this situation or with this topic?

If you’re writing about something that is controversial, that you have a differing opinion on, or where you need to really make a case for something, you’ll want to pay extra attention to the tone of your message. There’s nothing wrong with strong feelings, but written communication provides little context around what you are saying so it helps to be extra cautious.

Can anyone read this?

Anything you send creates a record, so take extra care to ensure a message that is direct, but not inflammatory. And don’t ever, no matter how tempting, say something about someone else in an email that you wouldn’t want that person to read. Aside from being exceedingly unprofessional, emails can be sent far and wide and you can’t be quite sure who will see them.

Do I have any mistakes?

Remember, spell check won’t catch improperly used words that are spelled correctly. Even if you’re in a rush, take one final look to make sure everything is accurate and that the right people are on the distribution (and their names are spelled correctly).

Send with Confidence

If you’re able to follow these steps, your written communication skills are bound to improve and will reflect positively on your professionalism. Eventually, this checklist will become a habit and will likely save you some big headaches over the years.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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