This guide to writing better business documentation is based on our experience of project managing and writing lots of different types of business documentation for clients. It is designed for anyone writing the following recurring types of documentation:
- Internal company policies and procedures
- External technical guides for clients and customers
- White papers
- Research findings
- Annual and other types of reports
- Longer blog posts
- Tenders, bids and proposals for work
Does My Business Writing Need to Be Better?
Poorly structured and written business documentation can cause everything from internal confusion and duplication; the derailing of projects and marketing campaigns; putting customers off from reading further on your website; sending potential leads down the wrong path in your sales funnel; or resulting in the publication of something that has the potential to embarrass your organisation for years to come.
Externally, it makes your organisation look amateur, it confuses customers and turns people off your product. Internally, confusion and resentment continue to bubble over.
Put a Crown on Consistency and Make Her Queen!
If you write business documents, you’ll know that many discussions arise over style, tone and what to call things. Everyone writes a little differently. And, unless your contributors are experienced at writing in line with written guidelines, multiple contributors means multiple styles. This is not a disaster (personality is welcome!). But, documents aimed at achieving consistency can help rule out many of the common problems that are both tedious and time-consuming to correct before distributing or publishing your content.
We recommend composing an initial, short Style Guide, if you don’t have one. You can incorporate a Tone of Voice guide and Naming Conventions, or make them separate documents, it matters little. But, they should be announced to your team; updated regularly as decisions arise; promoted internally when updates are added; and deferred to when debates arise.
Your business documentation should be so internally consistent that it disappears into the background. Your reader should not have to think about it.Me
Other benefits are that you’ll have to hire an editor or publisher less and they, in turn, will retain much more of their hair!
The next four items all contribute massively toward consistency.
Write a Style Guide to End the Skirmishes
If you don’t already have a Style Guide (an internal document that sets out the organisation’s branding guidelines, naming conventions, templates and other rules for written and other types of content), then write one. At least start one.
It’s a living document that will be added to endlessly. Trust me, if you’re organisation has more than five people (and as you grow), you’ll bless the day you no longer have to create tortuous Slack chats or email chains to decide on what to call one little thing. Simply refer back to it when differences arise. (And, if you’re submitting a paper or report to an external organisation, check if they have a style guide or submission guidelines before you being. It could drastically alter your approach to the work. Don’t assume it’s a mere matter of applying prissy formatting at the end.)
Decide Once and For All on Naming Conventions
Naming conventions act as signposts to the reader. Their purpose it to make sure everyone refers to things the same way.
In manufacturing, this might include everything from the name of the product, to its tiniest components. In enterprise software, this should include what to call the main windows, panels or sections of the user interface, or how to refer to dialog boxes and all their tiny parts (panels, windows, icons, buttons?). If you’re writing procedures or step by step guides, you may want to extend this document to include things such as how repetitive sentences begin (‘From the main menu, click…’, rather than 3-4 different variations of that).
Why? It’s easier for everyone if a ‘chair’ is always a ‘chair’. Don’t confuse anyone by calling it, variously, a ‘sitting device’, a ‘laziness conductor’, ‘rest opportunity’ or a ‘conversational tool’!
Use a Branding Guide to Guard the Gates on How Your Organisation’s Media is Used
The Branding Guide is the most likely of these four guides to have already been written. It will set out company colours and media and how to use them. But, it will also decide on whether to refer to your organisation in full, using abbreviations, and when. If you have products, they will also be addressed.
When business writers, reviewers, journalists, and indeed influencers do some research before writing a piece about your organisation, they’ll look you up on your own website, on social media, on wikipedia perhaps, and other locations you’re represented online. Present a consistent picture to them.
Invoke the Tone of Voice Guide to Craft a Siren Call
Compare the vibe you get from listening to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (lighthearted, self-effacing, entertaining), with Slim Shady (intense, dark, melodic) with Tony Robbins (informative, confident, definitive) – my impressions only. Their vibe is different. That’s tone of voice.
Think whether, as an organisation, how you want to present to the world. Flippant or authoritative; curious, quirky or questioning; entertaining and light; or informative and serious; or something else?Me
Tone of Voice documents should be relatively short; a few pages is fine. They should set out clearly the intended tone of voice, with lots of examples, of how business documentation should be written, especially where its client-facing. This means that when clients read the website, open a guide, or come across your social channels online – regardless of who has written the content and taking into account the varying styles of multiple contributors – they get the same vibe.
Regardless, it will always help to have a final editor review and modify any piece of content before it is published, to make sure it does not go off piste regarding tone of voice. (We once had a contributor randomly rewrite a straightforward technical document in his version of what can only be described as Pirate English. While it was a creative approach, it was a little too creative, and may have worked better on a website for a pirate-themed children’s playground. It did not work in a professional context of a technical document, designed for a professional context and written for experienced developers.)
A consistent approach to business writing both internally and externally, results in the following desirable outcomes:
- Staff, particularly new hires, know where everything is and how to find out when they don’t know
- Customers know what you do, where to go next and what to expect
If you’d like to read more on the nitty-gritty, read Foolish Language, Foolish Thoughts.
Do you want to work on better business documentation? If you need a prod in the right direction, someone to coach your staff, or someone to manage the entire process of getting your documentation up to scratch, get in touch.
Photo by Jonathan Singer on Unsplash