Business Writing – Does Your Layout Make Matters Clear or Make People Angry?

A surge of email has recently hit my inbox so today I did the periodic purge. That is, rather than just delete all those nice-to-read emails, I decided to officially unsubscribe.Holy smokes! What a garden variety of ways to communicate the simple message “Here’s how you unsubscribe” and provide that simple option. Very few emailers communicated that message in a straightforward way and laid out the choices to click clearly. Most messages were laid out in such a confusing way that I had to read through the options several times and/or actually search for the unsubscribe choice.Intentional? Maybe. Poor communication. Definitely. When business writers commit such blunders in everyday communication, customers and colleagues grow frustrated at the wasted time.If you think you may be the cause of such consternation when you write, consider the following items that need quick fixes:Correct Poorly Designed Forms-Online and On PaperI recently completed and returned a registration form on a software package. A week later it came back to me inside an envelope with a hand-scrawled note across the top, “What product did you buy?” Sure enough, on the line of the form that said “Product Purchased,” I had written the name of the store where the product had been purchased. Why the confusion? The line above it asked what date and city so I assumed the “Product Purchased” phrase referred to wherepurchased–which store, catalog, or web site. It never occurred to me that the manufacturer would enclose a registration card with no reference or code whatsoever to identify the specific product on their bounce-back card.What’s their expense in returning such forms to confused customers? Guess.Often the same people who have difficulty designing clear paper forms are putting them online, creating the same frustration for users. Flashing a message that says, “Invalid entry. Registration cannot be processed until complete” does not help the situation. As in so many other cases, the usefulness of the medium is dependent on the clarity of the message.Understand HierarchyJust as executives typically have larger offices than entry-level employees, major ideas should have more prominence than minor ideas in the document. Size and placement of ideas suggest their importance-and the relationship of those ideas to each other.From the following example, you can quickly see the indented paragraphs must refer to healthcare costs because those sections are indented under the primary heading and the heading fonts are smaller. The hierarchy of idea is clear.Healthcare Costs for the Division GrowsCosts for the ABC Team Increased by 15 Percent:… Costs for the DEF Team Increased by 22 Percent:… Costs for the XYZ Team Increased by 48 Percent:… Know Whether to List With Bullets or NumbersListing items with numbers suggests either that the total is important or that the chronology is significant. For example, you would use numbers to list steps in a process. But numbering bits of information without either of these reasons confuses people.Identify Dashes That Divide-But Don’tThe dashes underneath each major heading divide the major topics into sections. So how is Orlando divided? If half of the discussion is about Medicare, what’s the rest of the discussion about? Illogical. As your English teacher used to say, if you cut an apple in two, how many halves are there? (Note here: Bulleted lists make poor slides. And those like this suggest that these represent the speaker’s notes-not something necessarily helpful to the audience.)In short, business writing-and most especially technical writing-is not just about getting the words right. Clarity involves the logic of the look as well.