In my business, I see a lot of business school application essays. One problem that nearly all candidates struggle with is how to communicate clearly, particularly adhering to word counts. If the admissions committee gives a 500 word limit for writing about your accomplishments, many applicants write essays 1,000 words or longer. For them it seems an impossible task to share their many accomplishments in a single page, but doing so just takes a special skill: The ability to be clear and concise.
People in the post-MBA world also struggle with how to communicate clearly. How many emails do you receive in a day that go on for paragraphs and leave you thinking, what’s the point? Long, rambling emails have become such a scourge that a new product, Shortmail.com, limits users’ messages to 500 characters; for my Twitter-minded readers, that’s roughly three and a half Tweets. If you attempt to send a Shortmail user an email over 500 characters, they won’t receive it until you edit it down.
This might seem like an extreme measure, but almost everyone could benefit from focusing on sending more concise emails, memos and business letters. Here are a few tips to help you with how to communicate clearly.
Lead with your main point: If you were forced to boil down your email to one or two sentences, what would they say? Always start by writing your main point. Then elaborate as necessary.
Cut the jargon: You and your office mates might talk to each other about the current state of your bandwidth, but in writing it’s much more clear and concise to say “My schedule is full.”
Use short, direct sentences: You’ll likely remember this rule from grammar school: Put the subject at the beginning of your sentence. So instead of, “A new meeting date was set by the steering committee,” write, “The steering committee set a new meeting date.” Also, watch out for sentences that go on for three or more lines. Shorter sentences are much easier to read.
Read it aloud: When you’re getting ready to send an important communication, you’ll catch mistakes and other problems more easily if you read it aloud. If something trips you up or doesn’t make sense as you’re reading, rewrite until it’s clear.
Use spell check: Seems simple, but you’d be surprised how many people skip this crucial step.
Don’t overuse spell check: Meaning, don’t assume spell check is going to catch all of your mistakes. Depending on the program you’re using, you may not be alerted if you wrote “there” when you really meant “their.” And spell check certainly won’t help you if you addressed your client as “Kate,” though she actually spells her name “Cate.”
By the way, I just followed my own advice and caught three typos and re-wrote two long and potentially confusing sentences. Maybe next time I’ll figure out a way to say it all in 500 characters.