Fall 2018 update: Recognizing the impact of Rita Owens’s book, Communication for Consultants, across the corporate, government, and nonprofit sectors, the Association for Business Communication (ABC) and the Association of Professional Communication Consultants jointly honored Owens with the 2018 Award for Excellence in Communication Consulting. She received the award at the 83rd annual ABC meeting, held in Miami in late October.

Published on March 01, 2017

Rita Owens, author of Communication for Consultants, finds that both students and clients “struggle the most adjusting from academic to business communication. Being clear, direct, and audience focused is often new to them.” She says the purpose of her new book is to “promote excellent business communication” with a variety of examples and methodologies that illustrate good techniques. Here's an excerpt.

What It Sounds Like

There is a particular tone to a business letter or presentation. After all, we are conducting business, not writing or presenting creative material. Often, we presume that if we’re writing or presenting on an important matter that we must take on an air of sophistication and intellectualism. We think our sentences and vocabulary must sound academic because of the nature of the topic. Actually, the reality is quite the opposite. Business communication is the byproduct of conducting business; it is not itself the business. So we must focus on presenting clearly, even if that means we are more blunt than we’re typically comfortable being.

Consider these characteristics of good consulting communication:

Messages are sharp, crisp, and to the point

Not This: After much analysis, we are requesting that you consider changing your business practices to allow for more advanced customer relations management technology.

But This: We recommend you purchase a customer relations management system.

Messages are precise

Not This: There are a lot of problems with the current e-mail server that must be addressed.

But This: We have found seven e-mail server issues that need attention.

Sentences are in the active voice

Not This: Final reports will be distributed to the clients by the consulting team.

But This: The consulting team will distribute final reports to the clients.

Language is professional

Not This: We’re kind of worried about a lot of the accounting practices we’ve found.

But This: We have some concerns about many of the accounting practices we have encountered.

What It Looks Like

Beyond using an appropriate style and tone, choosing the right communication medium and format is important. We determine what medium and format we use based on our purpose, the audience’s disposition, and the circumstances surrounding the communication. We’ll review this when we develop our audience analysis later in this chapter. But to give you a general sense of what business communication looks like, let’s review the following:

  • Established business protocols can determine the “look.” Formal business letters, memoranda, e-mails, texts, slide presentations, face-to-face meetings, and virtual meetings each prescribe a particular approach.

  • Sentences tend to be short and direct. Paragraphs are short, too, and they are typically left justified, single spaced, with double spacing in between.

  • Charts, graphs, and other visuals complement text.

  • Headings are used to guide the audience toward particular topics.

  • Bullet points are used to make the material easily read and digestible.

The Communication Creation Process

In all our communication we must be acutely aware of our audience; our goal is to make comprehension easy for the reader or listener. People can’t afford to waste time unnecessarily on reading and meeting, so writing and presenting must be succinct, clear, and to the point. In other words, we must be time and effort conscious.

Electronic delivery of materials, via e-mail especially, has eroded many of our established business communication standards. Of course, we all embrace the ability to communicate rapidly with one another, but this immediate interaction does create challenges. For example, before e-mail, we would craft a report or proposal on paper and it would be delivered with the daily mail. Our client might set aside time to read that mail and give the report or proposal and all its elements his or her full attention. Today, many of our executive clients average 100 or more e-mails per day; the management of the inbox in itself has become a chore. So, when we attach large reports to those e-mails, they can easily be overlooked or ignored. Because of the technology shift, it has become increasingly more important to choose the appropriate medium and format when communicating. We can no longer take for granted that our client has the luxury of time to read lengthy documents.

Howard Weinberg, retired principal at Deloitte Consulting, recently gave me some great advice on this matter. When discussing his concerns about consultant communications, he cited the problems that result when we focus on our own interests rather than on those of the audience. When I asked Mr. Weinberg what his greatest pet peeve was about business communicators, here’s what he said:

Not thinking through the value to the audience—why is this a really good use of their time? Functional value (what can they do with the information), social value (others see them as important because they are involved/informed), emotional (learn something new that’s valuable/interesting). Like the real estate rule about “location, location, location” it is about “value, value, value” of each element of the communication for the audience. Just because you are proud of it, think it’s cool, or it is a fact about our project is no reason to communicate it.

The best way to ensure that our communication is audience-focused is to begin with an analysis of audience needs and how to provide that “value, value, value.”