Chapter 1 Business Writing Trait 1: Ideas

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Business Writing Trait 1: Ideas

Just before the turn of the millennium, a pair of Ph.D. students had an idea. Sergey Brin and Larry Page wanted to create a search engine that would make information accessible to everyone, everywhere. Their idea gave birth to Google—and freed up ideas for the whole world.

That’s the power of ideas. They are the soul of business: Google, YouTube, and Apple all began with an idea and a garage. Ideas are also the soul of communication. The whole point of writing or speaking is to transfer ideas from one person to another. Strong ideas result in meaningful communication.

This chapter provides an overview of ideas, points out specific problems with ideas, and gives concrete solutions.

In this chapter

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Ideas: An Overview

Ideas are the soul of any message, written or spoken. To successfully communicate your ideas, you need first to understand the communication situation.

The Communication Situation

The communication situation involves five elements: a sender, a message, a medium that bears the message, a receiver, and the context in which the message is sent. Consider the diagram below.

1. Sender:

Who is speaking or writing?

David Sheffield, Plant Manager

2. Message:

What is being said and why?

A new alarm code and procedure must be implemented.

3. Medium:

How is the message sent?

Company-wide email and announcement at a staff meeting

4. Receiver:

Who is listening or reading?

All employees

5. Context:

How does the message fit in? Where and when will it be received?

Recent false alarms have caused trouble for staff, police, and the alarm company. Employees will receive the message this morning via email and this afternoon at a staff meeting.

Understanding the situation will help you choose the best medium of communication. While some messages are best delivered face-to-face, others may require a phone call or an email. The medium should be appropriate for the rest of the communication situation.

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Main Point (the Big Idea)

Effective messages have a main point—the subject and purpose of the message expressed in a single sentence. A simple formula can help you state your main point.

Subject

a new alarm code and procedure

+

Purpose

I want everyone to use them.

=

Main Point

Starting tonight, everyone must use the new code and procedure for setting the alarm.

Supporting Details (Ideas That Answer)

Effective messages answer the receiver’s basic questions about the main point. These answers are supporting details. Make sure your message answers these basic questions: who? what? where? when? why? and how?

Who? The last person in the building should do the following when leaving:

  1. Where? Do an "all call" to make sure no one else remains in the building.

  2. Check that the copiers are turned off.

  3. When? Shut off all coffee makers.

  4. Set the answering machine light to the "Night" setting.

  5. What?/How?Punch the new code (3613) into the alarm system and press "On."

  6. Exit the building, make sure the door is closed and locked.

Why?Following the procedure will help us avoid future false alarms.

Answering Objections (Opposing Ideas)

If receivers are resistant to the message, they may have objections to your main point. Just as you answered the receivers’ questions, you should answer any objection they may have. First, acknowledge the objection, and then give a reason that addresses the issues raised.

Acknowledgment Some may feel that only evening-shift workers need to know how to set the alarm, but many of the false alarms have been caused by day-shift workers. The first person to arrive at the office should unlock the front door, punch in the new code (3613), and press "Off."Answer

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Ideas: Problems and Solutions

In business, a great idea is worth its weight in gold, but first an idea has to be communicated. When there are problems with ideas, try these solutions:

Problem:

Solution:

People don’t know what to do with the message.

Listen for

  • “Why did you send that?”

  • “What did you want?”

  • “What do you want me to do?”

  • “How should I respond?”

Communicate with purpose in mind.

Ask yourself what you want to accomplish and what you want the reader to do. The answer is your purpose. If you know your purpose, you can clearly state it for readers and listeners. Skim the list of options below and select the one that best describes your purpose.

I want to . . .

I want the reader to . . .

ask for information.

provide information.

ask for permission.

grant permission.

ask for help.

provide help.

provide information.

understand the information.

invite the person.

accept the invitation.

give encouragement.

be encouraged.

give instructions.

follow the instructions.

solicit ideas.

suggest ideas.

present options.

choose an option.

propose a solution.

approve the solution.

sell a product or service.

buy the product or service.

convince the reader.

be convinced.

say, “yes.”

hear, “yes.”

say, “no.”

hear, “no.”

complain.

make the situation right.

apologize.

forgive.

thank.

appreciate.

As you formulate your main point, clearly state your purpose. Stating it flat out—”I want to _______________“—is much better than not stating it at all.

The main point is unclear.

Listen for

  • ”What does this all mean?”

  • “What’s the point?”

Check your main point for subject and purpose.

Check that your main point (1) names your subject (what you are writing about) and (2) states your purpose (why you are writing). Use the formula below to write your main point.

Subject

a new alarm code and procedure

+

Purpose

I want everyone to use them.

=

Main Point

Stating tonight, everyone must use the new code and procedure for setting the alarm.

A detail is unclear.

Listen for

  • “What does that mean?”

  • “Give an example.”

Provide a definition or an example.

Define any terms that may be unclear:

The alarm code is the four-digit number you press into the keypad to activate or deactivate the alarm.

Provide an example of what you mean to further clarify your message.

For example, the old alarm code was 1993, the year the company was incorporated.

The main point needs more support.

Listen for

  • “Can you prove it?”

  • “Why is this an issue?”

Use facts, statistics, and graphs.

Use facts to provide support for your main point.

Each time that the alarm goes off, whether due to a security breach or a false alarm, the plant manager and the police have to meet on site.

Use statistics to quantify your support.

Each false alarm costs the company $100.

Use a graph to make statistics visible.

Cost of False Alarms

Cost of False Alarms Graph

People think the message isn’t relevant.

Listen for

  • ”Why should I care?”

  • ”Does this even matter?”

Give an anecdote or a prediction.

Use an anecdote (a short story with a point) to connect your main point to real life.

Anecdote: Last week, the plant manager and his family were awakened at 3:00 a.m. by an automated phone call indicating that the alarm was going off. The machine called again every two minutes for the next twenty minutes until he was able to shut off the alarm. It was a false alarm caused by employee error.

Use a prediction to indicate possible outcomes.

Prediction: Those who do not learn the new alarm code and procedure will have a conversation with the plant manager.

People are resistant.

Listen for

  • ”You’re forgetting . . .”

  • ”What about . . . ?”

  • ”Yeah, but . . .”

Address needs/answer objections.

List what the receiver needs. Then address those needs in your message.

Employees need . . .

— A secure workplace.

— Confidence when setting the alarm.

— To stop hearing us complain about false alarms.

Needs: To keep our workplace secure and to make sure you are confident in setting the alarm, please follow the procedure listed below.

List the objections the receiver is likely to have. Acknowledge those objections and answer them.

Employees might object that . . .

— Only second-shift workers need to know how to set the alarm.

Acknowledge and Answer: Some may feel that only evening-shift workers need to know how to set the alarm, but many of the false alarms have been caused by day-shift workers. The first person to arrive at the office should unlock the front door, punch in the new code (3613), and press "Off."

The options are not clear.

Listen for

  • ”What’s the difference?”

  • ”I can’t decide which to choose.”

Compare and contrast options clearly.

Compare and contrast the similarities and differences between options, helping the receiver choose between them.

Similarities and Differences: If you accidentally set off the alarm, turn it off immediately and call the plant manager’s office. If he is not available, call his cell phone. If you are unable to reach him, wait on site until he arrives. Each option is acceptable, but the latter two options will be less enjoyable.

The message lacks authority.

Listen for

  • ”Why is this from you?”

  • “Who says?”

Refer to an authority.

Provide a reference or quotation from a higher authority to add authority to a message.

Authoritative Reference: President Jackson said, “Anyone who causes a false alarm in the future will need to discuss it with me.”

The message isn’t engaging.

Listen for

  • ”I didn’t read it.”

  • ”Sorry, I drifted off for a second.”

Use sensory details.

Use sensory details—sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes—when you want to engage the audience (this strategy is not suitable for more matter-of-fact communications). Create a sensory chart on a piece of scrap paper and use some of the senses in the message.

Sight

carnations, blue, red, card signed by all

Sound

playing “Wake Up, Sweet Susy”

Smell

sweet, fresh

Taste

chocolate-caramel truffles

Touch

smooth ribbon

Details Employed: Thanks to all who sent me the beautiful bouquet of blue and red carnations, the card that said, “Get some sleep!” and the chocolate-caramel truffles. I will get more sleep with the new alarm-code procedure!

—David Sheffield, Plant Manager

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Checklist Ideas

Your goal is to provide a main point that names your subject and purpose and then to support the main point effectively.

  1. Is my subject important and relevant?

  2. Does my message have a solid purpose?

  3. Is my main point clear?

  4. Have I qualified my main point, if necessary?

  5. Does my support answer the reader’s main questions (5 W’s and H)?

  6. Have I used a variety of details to support my main point?

    • Definitions to clarify meanings

    • Examples to demonstrate ideas

    • Facts, statistics, and graphs to create credibility

    • Anecdotes to connect to life

    • Predictions to imagine outcomes

    • Needs of the audience to persuade them

    • Answers to objections to convince the audience

    • Comparisons to show similarities

    • Contrasts to show differences

    • Quotations to appeal to authority

    • Sensations to engage my audience

“Lack of money is no obstacle. Lack of an idea is an obstacle.”

—Ken Hakuta

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