How to Reach Different Levels of Readers


—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

How to Reach Different Levels of Readers

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

— Jack Welch

Depending on your role in your organization, you may find yourself writing to managers above you, colleagues on your level, and team members you supervise—perhaps all in the same day.

To write effectively across a business hierarchy requires skill and dexterity. You must understand your reader’s position and adjust your content, tone, and style accordingly.

Use these tips to reach readers “up,” “across,” or “down” the workplace ladder.

How can I write “up” to management?

People near the top of the business ladder are heavy with responsibilities and light on time, so make sure the subject and purpose of your message are worth attention. The last thing you want is to present unclear or unimportant information to supervisors. When writing “up,” follow these tips:

  • Boost your formality. Use a more formal voice than you would with other colleagues. This doesn’t mean you should sound robotic. Error on the side of a professional and objective tone rather than a casual or emotional one.
  • Be deferential but not fawning. Use respectful language instead of plying your reader with praise.
  • Be accurate, both with the information you share and your grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
  • Get to your point quickly. Don’t waste time with off-topic pleasantries. For most situations, state the main point up front with the SEA pattern: present the Situation, offer a succinct Explanation, and request an Action.
  • Express confidence, not cockiness. When you need to request something from management, don't waffle but also don't be pushy.
    • Waffling: If you are not too busy, it would be great to hear from you on the loan sometime near the end of the week.
    • Short and demanding: Give me your approval on the loan ASAP.
    • Clear and polite: Please reply with your loan decision by end of business on Thursday, September 23.

How can I write “across” to colleagues?

When writing to colleagues in a similar position as yourself, opt for a clear, conversational voice that expresses shared understanding.

  • Convey respect and camaraderie. Use respectful language and greetings. Make use of team-building pronouns: Use “we” to convey togetherness and “you” to speak to the needs of the reader.
  • Be empathetic. Since you are in a similar working situation, you are well positioned to understand how the reader feels and how the person will react to your news. 
  • Adjust your formality for the situation. For routine business, use a friendly, conversational tone. If the situation is serious, increase your formality. 
  • Do not overstate your authority. The reader may balk at blunt demands and empty expressions of authority, just as you would if the roles were reversed. This same advice applies to the next type of reader.

How can I write “down” to staff?

When writing to someone in a lower position of authority, avoid condescension. Instead, show guidance and understanding.

  • Be direct, yet welcoming. New employees and entry-level workers often need direction. Be generous with your information, and express yourself in a welcoming manner.
  • Connect with the reader. Let the person know you once held a similar position. Show that you are on the same team.
  • Offer context. Give more background information and context than you would for upper-level employees, who likely have a firmer understanding of the topic or situation.
  • Choose pronouns with care. Avoid using "you" or "your" when discussing problems because these pronouns can sound accusatory. Instead, use "we," "us," and "our" to show that you are on the reader's side.
  • State negatives in positive terms. Build on what is good. Focus on solutions rather than problems, on strategies rather than issues.
  • Model good communication. Your readers will naturally emulate your style and delivery since you are in a higher position. Maintain a culture of clear and respectful communication.

Get More Support

Refer to the Write for Business Guide, Courses, and eTips for more help with shaping your message for your reader.